Ella Foote travels to the Isle of Mull for a summer swim adventure with Wild Hebridean Swimming
While the rest of Europe literally baked and most of the UK experienced a damp and cool summer, I managed to find warm sunshine, white sandy beaches and cool turquoise water in the Inner Hebrides, off the west coast of Scotland. On returning home with sun-glowing skin I was often met with surprise when I explained to people I had been to the Isle of Mull.
Scotland is a swimming paradise and a playground for adventurers, but often a gamble with the weather. Thanks to the Gulf Stream, the weather in the Inner Hebrides is mild and in summer delivers more sunshine than you might expect.
I travelled to the Isle of Mull with Wild Hebridean Swimming, a new business offering swim retreats across the Inner Hebridean islands including Mull and Iona.
Emma MacDonald is an established swim coach and teacher who moved to the Isle of Mull with her husband John and two sons last year. John grew up in Mull and had always wanted to return and now together the two of them are merging their skills to run a swimming adventure company. While John takes care of the business side of things, Emma shares her skills and experience as a swimmer, coach and teacher to guide guests across the wild, beautiful landscapes of the Hebrides. Outdoor swimming enthusiasts can choose from three- or five-night trips and the option of dips, swim trekking or swim development.
I joined a five-night swim trekking week in late July. Prices included airport transfers, ferry connections from Oban and onwards travel to our accommodation, Achaban House in Fionnphort. This amazing perk enabled me to get to know Emma on our route west as well as fellow swimmers joining the trip.
If you have travelled from Glasgow to west Scotland, you will know how beautiful it is. Ten minutes out of the city and you are immersed in the green and blues of the Trossachs National Park. The journey to Mull was as much of an adventure as the week ahead – anything that includes a ferry crossing is already winning for me.
When we arrived in Mull, we continued for another hour by car. Mull is the fourth largest island in Scotland and second largest of the Inner Hebrides, and it often surprises people how long it takes to travel around the island.
A home from home
We stayed at family-owned Achaban House, a mile from Fionnphort and opposite Loch Pottie, which I was lucky enough to see from my room. The self-catering accommodation was ideal for groups like ours and Emma arranged for a local cook to cater for us throughout the week. We had Linda, who provided excellent hot homemade meals from local produce and cared for us like a proper Seanmhair, Scottish Gaelic for grandmother.
Each morning we woke to the smells of hot coffee, warm toast and bacon. It felt like a proper holiday being cooked and cared for, being able to switch-off from domestic duties and getting decent fuel for our adventures.
Joining organised swim trips like this can be disconcerting. What will the other people be like? Will I be able to keep up on the walks and swims? It takes a lot of trust to allow someone else to plan and set an agenda, but equally it takes great skill to design a holiday like this that enables all people, swimmers and abilities to enjoy themselves.
Going with the flow
One of the things I loved most about the week was the fluid approach to our plans. Emma would outline a plan with small adjustments and options that enabled us as a group, as well as individuals, to make it work well for us all. The other swimmers were faster than me and wore wetsuits, so they could withstand the cold longer than I could sometimes. But I never felt left-out, worried or left behind. In fact, I enjoyed being able to have time and space to myself in the most incredible locations.
On our first night we headed to Fidden Beach, a short distance from our accommodation. The sea was warmer than I anticipated, and we swam together as a pod through incredible seaweed forests and around rocks, spotting wildlife as we swam. It was windy and there was significant chop but with others close by I felt safe. The clarity of the water made the underwater world captivating, so much so I often forgot to breathe. I could feel all the thermal changes as we swum out into deeper water, past freshwater springs and the warmth of shallower water. Seaweed brushed my skin, as did the odd moon jellyfish. I couldn’t stop smiling, all this on the first swim.
White sands, clear waters
Each day there are two swims at two different locations with the potential to swim two kilometres each time, or further if time and conditions allow. We travelled together in a community electric minivan each day or on foot. Emma’s handpicked locations enabled us to swim in breathtaking places such as Kilvickeon Beach, swimming around Garbh Eilean island with white sand, clear water and not another person in sight. Every location had its own charm and interest. One morning we woke early for a sunrise swim at Uisken Bay and the highland grazing sheep were all asleep on the sand. They soon stirred and moved on as we changed for our morning dip.
Looking at an itinerary before travelling is a great way to plan and understand what to expect, but the best trips still manage to surprise and delight. I was looking forward to a day on Iona, famed for its stunning beaches, geology, landscape and wildlife. It didn’t disappoint and the colours of the water
were mesmerising. But the stand-out day was when we travelled to Staffa, an island famous for Fingal’s Cave and Lunga, one of the Treshnish Isles. While there are boat trips from Fionnphort, near to where we were staying, we travelled to Ulva Ferry where we joined Turus Mara tours.
Turus Mara (Gaelic for journey by sea) are a family run business established in 1973, with half a century’s experience of visiting Staffa and the Treshnish Isles. One of Emma’s objectives for the business is to always use local people, services and businesses with her retreats. It was important for her to support the local economy where possible, but as a guest it makes the experience even richer.
Being able to speak to and spend time with people who have lived in the Inner Hebrides their whole lives felt even more immersive. Stories, local knowledge and personal experiences were shared by these people throughout the week and truly made the trip special. Iain Morrison, who founded Turus Mara, was our Captain and thanks to Emma’s relationship (and favourable conditions) once we arrived at Staffa we were able to jump off the boat and swim into Fingal’s Cave.
Fingal’s Cave is a sea cave on Staffa. It is formed from hexagonal basalt columns and solidified lava flow, like the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland. It is an incredible sight; the historic geology is something to see with your own eyes. Tourists can enter the cave on foot from a stone jetty, but for us swimming into the cave was exhilarating. Had it not been for a large lion’s mane jellyfish I spotted before jumping in, I would have ventured further into the cave with my fellow wetsuit swimmers. But I happily stared up in awe of it all, enjoying the sounds and acoustics the cave is famed for. It was truly special and swimming back to the boat jetty, funnelled through a deep rock channel, was an iconic swim.
Next we set off to Lunga, an island famed for its seabird population and puffins. Like most swimmers, I love nature, but nothing prepared me for how special this experience would be. Given the choice beforehand, I might have not opted for birds over more swimming, but when the first puffin popped out of a burrow close to my feet I became captivated. The birds were in abundance and so used to tourists. Knowing we were not a threat to them, they would happily swoop in and sit with us. We walked to Harp Rock where the birds nested and fed their young. I sat on the cliff edge, sun warming my face with puffins at my feet. It was magical.
After days packed with action, calmer evenings enabled rest between our trips. The accommodation was ideal, with paths on the doorstep, Loch Pottie to dip into, as well as a wood-fired hot tub. We enjoyed one evening of gentle yoga and meditation and another each having a massage – all included in the price.
Of course, the rest of the group were a joy to be with: like-minded, with a love of the outdoors and swimming, they were good humoured and interesting swimmers! Sharing tales of other swim trips and adventures over hot meals and weathered glowing skin just added to the charm of a special week on Mull.
For more information and to book your own swimming adventure in the Hebrides, visit wildhebrideanswimming.com
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