Surviving Scottish Lochs

Updated: Feb 27

Swimming in Scotland is cold
A close-up view of a Scottish Loch

In my previous blog about the charming village of Tayvallich, I started discussing what you could do here on a day or weekend out with your young ones and I mentioned wild swimming. Now, swimming out into the lochs around this area is something you should approach cautiously because, as previously mentioned, it can be extremely cold.

This was something I found out when, during a moment of near terminal insanity, I agreed to a swimming competition laid on during the Tayvallich Regatta. Earlier in the day I had also had a go at boat racing - after all, I reasoned, how hard could it be?

Sitting hunched in my little rowing boat I looked along the short line of starters, several of whom were teenagers, and decided that the competition was NOT a problem.

The klaxon sounded and the boats surged forward - all except for mine.

And this was because not only would it not go in a straight line, but it also kept going round in small circles. So whilst nearly everyone else disappeared towards the finishing line as if propelled by 20 horsepower engines, I was left to continue my futile attempt to get more than five feet. Eventually some kind soul took pity and towed me back to shore. So, when told later that there would be a short swimming competition, I seized the chance to regain some dignity. It was just water, after all - how hard could it be?

When I arrived at the rocky outcrop that abuts loch Sween I gazed confidently at the small pontoon that had been placed there as our starting point. It was pretty close, I judged, in fact embarrassingly close to the outcrop - This was going to be easy...

We were split into groups, men, women and children. The children went first, ferried out to the pontoon on a small boat, then splashing noisily back to shore. I was only mildly concerned to note that they all emerged from the water a uniform shade of blue.

The ladies were next, my wife among them, and I was slightly more concerned to see that the pontoon was re-positioned a good deal further out. Still, it didn't seem that bad and I was quietly confident that when my turn came I would emerge, if not an outright winner, at least amongst the leaders.

The fact that my wife was barely able to talk when she emerged shivering some minutes later heightened my worry slightly, but I shrugged it off with a light laugh.

Then it was the MEN'S turn and as we clambered into the little boat I turned to see that the pontoon had now been moved further away - a lot further away. In fact, to my untrained eye, it seemed that it was now a speck in the far distance amid water that had turned quite choppy. After what seemed a good forty minute boat-ride out, I clambered onto the pontoon with difficulty and looked around at the other gents who appeared to be limbering up. On the far, far distant horizon was the outcrop and our waiting audience, now absurdly small and dwarfed by distance.

I briefly wondered if I could somehow feign a serious illness and ask to be airlifted out but it was too late; a whistle sounded and everyone leapt into the turgid water. I hung back a few seconds, then realising how quickly everyone else was surging forward threw my metaphorical hat into the ring, jumped confidently into the loch and almost immediately began to drown.

I thought I had experienced cold water before, but I was wrong. The first sensation to hit me was similar to being sand-blasted by frozen needles in an igloo. This had the unfortunate effect of making me gasp and whilst this is not normally likely to cause one problems, one should never try to take a deep breath when submerged in salt water as I did now. Coughing and retching I broke the surface to see a blur of foam from my competitors as they thundered their way to the finish line. I was seized by one desire - to get the heck out of this freezing water as quickly as possible - so I started crawling after them.

My muscles seemed to be slowing down extremely quickly, though. They felt heavy and leaden and every time I took a breath a small wave would try to force its way into my lungs. About halfway, I noted with that several of my group were not only already ashore, but actually nicely towelling themselves down.

This was enough to spur me on because by now had quite forgotten what warmth felt like and I really, really wanted to remember.

After what seemed a long period of alternately swallowing water and splashing madly but getting nowhere, I banged a leg on a rock and realised that a) I was so numb that I couldn't feel pain and b) I had made it to shore...kind of...

Because the climb up out of the water appeared ridiculously steep and added to it were innumerable boulders, each one covered in huge and slippery seaweed. By now, my arms were as good as useless and I felt weaker than a drugged kitten. Fortunately the same guy who had dragged me back after my failed attempt at boat racing was on hand again and pulled me up the incline, probably wondering by now if I was worth the effort.

I have never been more pathetically grateful to see a towel.