Edinburgh Blue Balls

“Being part of this group has reignited my faith in manhood”

Every week a group of around 50 men walk into the cold waters of the North Sea. Their fundamental aim is to support each other through whatever health or life challenges they might be experiencing. In the lead up to Porty Pride, Kate Gillwood spoke to five members of the Edinburgh Blue Balls, and what being part of this community means to them

“For the first time in months I felt I could experience the now. For a long time I had been stressing about the past and the future and so for that one moment I was just in the now, which was magical.” Karl

Every week a group of around 50 men walk into the sea together. Their fundamental aim is to support each other through whatever health or life challenges they might be experiencing.

Since 2021 the Edinburgh Blue Balls, a men’s mental health and cold water swimming group in Portobello, have been meeting twice a week for a refreshing dip in the cold waters of the North Sea. The 200-strong group take part in Porty Pride every year by hosting one of their swims for all swimmers, LGBT or not.

The emotion from the men explaining what it means to them is powerful. Marc Millar, the founder, had experienced his own mental health challenges and wanted to create a safe space for men to be together and share difficulties if they wanted, or needed some support. He decided that cold water swimming was the best way to do that.

Many of the men do not know each other when they first join but, as Marc explains: “People form lasting friendships and I can see them gradually build their confidence to talk to each other about challenges in life they’ve been experiencing, sometimes for years.”

Marc Edinburgh Blue Balls

Niall explains that the most important thing in the group is community. “Everyone enters the water at the same time, which helps forge friendships.” As new men join the group they are guided in water safety, such as how to regulate breathing. This helps to ‘break the ice’. He goes on: “There is a lot of poor mental health in the queer community, and the straight guys are a wonderful part of the support. But it’s brilliant because everyone just has a laugh and sexuality tends to not matter that much, nobody really cares.”

Niall Edinburgh Blue Balls

But some of the men have experienced challenges around their sexual orientation and Graham explained his struggle growing up knowing he was gay but not being able to accept himself. He lived with depression and anxiety for years, leading to an alcohol addiction. “I fought against being gay for so long, so the cold water therapy is a huge thing for me. It has been literally life changing,” Graham says. “I am gay but it is a mixed group and all of that is stripped away when we meet, it doesn’t matter who you are. I often think about how different my life would be if I didn’t come along to that first dip.” He has now been sober for two years, and has been hooked on cold water swimming ever since joining the Blue Balls.

Graham Edinburgh Blue Balls

Others in the group have also struggled for a long time. Paul explains, “Since my teenage years I have experienced poor mental health. A friend suggested I join the Blue Balls as it might be good for me. I was going through a rough time so I came along and really loved it… it’s totally changed my life”. Even though Paul describes himself as a fair weather swimmer, the experience of being part of the group has helped him feel more confident and outgoing.

Paul Edinburgh Blue Balls

Some have had to come to terms with grief. Karl describes how he felt about joining an open water swimming group: “I thought swimming in the sea in Scotland sounded ridiculous but at the time my head was all over the place. I thought as awful as whatever is in the sea, it can’t be as bad as what’s going on in my head.” The first time he took part in a dip was a cold December morning, with snow on the beach. He goes on to talk about having a lack of confidence in big groups, and his body issues. “It was terrifying,” he says, “but I remember thinking – this is just the best thing ever.”

Karl - Edinburgh Blue Balls

He goes on to describe how being part of a group for men has changed his relationship with being a man. “I had men and women friends but not so many straight male friends. I’ve always been nervous about big straight male groups and always thought if I mix in those groups I’m going to have to pretend to be someone I’m not. But there’s something about this group that has reignited my faith in manhood.” He goes on to say, “Being with a group of men that are straight and gay and everything in between has been really nice. Growing up as a gay man was really hard. So being part of something where no one judges and you can properly be your authentic self is just brilliant.”

So when the Blue Balls wave their Pride flags as they walk into the sea on 30 June, they do it as one group together, helping each other through whatever challenges they might be going through.

Find out more about the Edinburgh Blue Balls; edinburghblueballs.co.uk (@edinburghblueballs) and Porty Pride; portypride.com (@portypride). The Blue Balls’ swim for Porty Pride takes place 30 June at 9.30am on Portabello beach.

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