Diary of a wandering swimmer – Highland Adventure Part 1
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.
I’ve cracked. Given in. Our camper van has a name and is even gendered! Meet Clova (named after Glen Clova at the very south of the Cairngorms, which has a story for me and my no.1 fan). She’s an old girl (Clova, that is, not my no.1 fan) so we never assume our journey will finish where we’ve planned but this time she didn’t let us down. I excitedly packed just about every bit of swimming kit I have, to the detriment of clothes for the week. Let’s face it, when you are living in a camper for a week, who cares what you look like, that’s not the point. But not only did I pack all the swimming gear (and it’s amazing what you can acquire over the years) I also packed every other bit of outdoor kit you can imagine, just short of my penknife. I was definitely a wee bit giddy to be setting off. It’s a good job I was the driver, a decision secured due to a recent no.1 fan accident making driving a big vehicle with no power steering very difficult. It meant I was focussed rather than bouncing around in my seat like a kid.
After a long journey including single track roads with passing places, all part of the adventure, we parked up and exhaled, taking in the view we were to enjoy for a few days. Obviously my first job was to recce the beach we were overlooking to risk-assess the swimming opportunities. I’m a newly qualified open water swimming coach so fully realise the importance of risk assessment in open water, especially unknown ones. I can’t tell you how disappointed I was that the beach was strewn with the dreaded jellies, not just the much-less stingy clear and blue ones but the nasty reddish brown lion’s manes. And they were big: this was still jellyfish season indicating the relative ‘warmth’ of the water enhanced by the Gulf Stream. But not much will stop us swimmers, right? And this area is littered with lochs and lochans. No stopping me.
It’s no secret that I’m in Scotland. This trip was in September too, so two reasons to accept that the weather can be changeable and factor in to expectations and approach. I don’t care. I actually like the weather up here, not being one for too much sun, although I always have a Scottish tan – which is probably wind burn but I’ve been told I have a healthy look…hmmm.
Anyhow so here I am, with lion’s manes the size of dinner plates on the beach and therefore almost certainly in the water too, so what do I do? Well, swim, of course. It’s like I’m driven. I have to get into water, come what may. If I don’t, I’ll burst.
It was windy (of course, this is Scotland), and a bit drizzly too (same reason. Still, my no.1 fan was ‘holding the towel’. That’s love. Now, because by this stage I was desperate, I decided upon a loch that didn’t have the best entry point. Sharp, slippery rocks are the most difficult things to navigate in bare feet. After deciding it would be easier to get as close to the water as possible in my boots and much scrambling and swearing (not due to the temperature of the water which I hardly noticed), I was in. Assuming that you are indeed a swimmer you will really understand how this felt so I don’t need to describe THAT feeling. I could breathe again and marvel at the dark water, so very dark that even after all these years and different places I had to remind myself that the water only reflects the colour of what is underneath. But it was clear as a clear day, when you can see the whole sky around you, but dark. When I am actually in the water I often don’t think about the temperature of the water, it isn’t what I focus on but it is important. Even though lockdown hasn’t been kind to my figure, I am still relatively slim with a fast metabolism and I am convinced I suffer from after-drop more than most. It’s very frustrating and I do everything I should: eat beforehand (I am a protein believer), have many layers organised and ready, warm water to wash my feet before donning socks etc. but I get it pretty bad. So in a remote unknown spot, swimming alone, I don’t stay in too long, just enough to reset my brain.
And we moved on, as you do in a camper van
I am standing looking at what I think must be the most beautiful place in the world. It’s emotional. The last time I was here was about 45 years ago. My memories are powerful and while our minds work in funny ways in the way we store those recollections, the sand and colour of the water is what is most prominent for me. It’s almost a pilgrimage to my young life to before things changed. This water is in my heart, my no.1 sister fan is spiritually by my side. As children we picked through the rock pools here for hours. We were in our happy childhood place. It was serene, calm and happy.
I knew that the jellies would also affect my swimming here. This was disappointing but there was no way I wasn’t getting in that water. Wetsuited, to offer some protection, I marvelled at the pure clarity of the water above golden sand. This is my best swimming place ever. I could stay in here for hours, become a fish… I only got one sting, of course to my face and thankfully not the devil jelly, but it was worth it. I have not had enough of this place and I will be back soon to play like a seal, enveloping myself in the memories and grief for loss of the past but with joy of being at one with the waves, just for a while.
I had to tear myself away. This wasn’t just about me and swimming, it was about us and getting away from some of the necessities of life just for a short time. We moved on again, as you do in a camper van.
For the first stop we used the hook up for Clova at the Port A Bhaigh campsite near Achiltibuie in the Assynt-Coigach region, north of Ullapool. The route takes you past Stac Pollaidh, one of the better-known Munros, and so offers you an opportunity to do some Munro-bagging on the way. Check on relevant sites such as Walkhighlands for information on the climb as it has a technical summit requiring roping up. If you are not used to driving on single track roads be aware of the passing places that are only for passing. It is polite to let locals, who are used to the roads, to overtake, especially if you get a build up behind you. Parking places are separately marked. From the A9 you take the A835. This is not a quick journey, especially in a camper van, so be prepared for this and try not to end up driving these roads for the first time when it is dark.
The loch is called Camas an Fheidh, a small one that can offer a good swim except the entry and exit is tricky. There are many lochs to try around here, all as stunning as the rest.
Our second spot was Achmelvich Bay, which is a bit further north. From the A9, take the A835 then the B869. It is a short drive from the village of Lochinver, which is well worth a visit for both the famous Highland Stoneware and a really good pie (www.piesbypost.co.uk).
This is undoubtedly the most beautiful beach in the world but it is not what it was in the 70s as now has a permanent static caravan park and gets a lot of visitors.
The swimming here is perfect, no rips that I could see, sheltered by the cove and it’s easy to swim round to the next smaller cove. The water is as clear as you will get anywhere in the world.
If you have any suggestions of places I could swim email me on email@example.com or find me on Instagram @kategillwood4
Read more about my swims
Storms, floods and a shallow lagoon
A year in open water from lochs, orca trails and sea pools to the stacks of St Kilda
A swim spot that can’t be named
Getting a confidence boost on my home beach
Discovering neuks and crannies
Imported sand, piscinas naturales and a pool to myself
Swimming in the shadow of a famous castle
‘Sunny Dunny’ home of the red cliffs and long lost lidos
Where the land is low and the water bulls are loud
Lakes, mountains, poets and a bit of running
Sweeping views, menacing swans and a rich history
Clear water, abandoned submarines and pink footed geese
Famous for oysters & surrounded by mountains