Kate Gillwood was born in Galashiels, Scotland, raised from three years old in Yorkshire, found herself in London for 30 years and eventually escaped back to Scotland. She was raised to swim in rivers (the Wharfe at Appletreewick, for example), open air pools (Otley) and the sea, so open water swimming is not new. She started taking part in organised events about 10 years ago, putting on a wetsuit for the first time for the Great Scottish Swim in 2011. Now living just a few minutes from Portobello beach, one of her favourite things is to start the day with a sneaky swim in her local waters. She also likes to explore new swimming spots and share what she finds. Now that lockdowns have eased, she’s exploring again with her campervan, Clova.
It feels like ages since I have shared a swim. It’s not that I haven’t been swimming. On the contrary, I have been in the water a lot, just not in the same way. I’ve been coaching rather than swimming.
I find myself standing in front of a group of swimmers at the edge of a reservoir in the middle of the moorland. We are fortunate today that the wind, which often blows across the surface of the dark and brooding water causing chop, is still. It all feels a bit Wuthering Heights to me, although we’re some way from Bronte country. I like it. I like that it feels remote and wild, even though it’s a reservoir, and theres’ a car park, and no solitary Hawthorn tree in sight. But it does have that sense to it and there is a farmhouse. My Dad’s family comes from Bronte land so I’ve been there. In fact, my great grandfather was christened by Patrick Bronte (the Americans love that). Neighbours were sparse.
Anyway, this has become one of my favourite times of the week. I rush away from ‘the desk’, jump into my campervan Clova (she has become my mobile changing room) and drive up towards Edinburgh’s playground. As I near the turn off, I passed through some trees and emerged onto the moor top. In spring you can smell the coconut scent of the gorse bushes. Heather stretches across the tops.
I have grown to love it here. It feels like a complete place. Remote but accessible, wild but slightly tamed, safe. It is perfect for introducing people to the joys of swimming outside but also allows for longer distance swims.
Stocked with fat brown trout, fishing is one of the activities here, but I have not yet experienced conflict with the anglers that I have heard about in other local reservoirs. There is a friendlier feel to it. It is also exciting to read that we are treated to the presence of plecopteran, more commonly known as stoneflies. I’m not normally excited by any kind of flies but you will be pleased to know that these ones are intolerant of water pollution, as are we swimmers. A hopeful piece of information, I think.
A grassy pathway made by many steps of swimmers leads you to the water’s edge where it gives way to slightly muddy and rocky ground that has to be carefully navigated, which my swimmers do perfectly. Unfortunately, we disturbed the Heron’s peace who spread its vast wings and took off, with its long stick-like legs hanging below. It will be back, it lives here. Swallows, or is it swifts, I’m not sure, dart above us singing their song and occasionally swooping down over the water to claim a prize.
Once the swimmers have finished honing their skills, I take the opportunity to enjoy the peaceful surroundings and the freshness of the water. This is a place of new experiences for me and for building my confidence in sharing the joy of fresh water swimming.
Harperrig Reservoir sits north of the Pentlands Hills in West Lothian and has a small car park but no facilities. As well as the water, which is perfect for swimming, walks (or runs) take you up into the low hills nearby. It is owned farmland, but Scotland’s rights of access mean we all get to enjoy it. We do this respectfully and it works. To get there, look for the turn-off from the A70 onto the single-track road down to the car park. When you come to the sharp bend, turn off at the sign for the Cairns Farm Estate, drive down the hill over the cattle grid and the car park is to your left.
I highly recommend a swim here, at any time of the year.
If you have any suggestions of places I could swim email me on firstname.lastname@example.org or find me on Instagram @swimfreedomscotland
Please also take a look at my website: www.swimfreedom.co.uk
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