wild lady of loch broom
swimming the 12.8km length of Loch Broom in memory of grandma Wild
Wednesday, August 23rd
It was Calum, Serena (Calum's girlfriend), Beth (my girlfriend), Luke (our lead support) and myself at the start of our adventure. We escaped the late night bustle of London on the Caledonian Sleeper train, hurtling north in the comfortable confines of our cabins. We bumbled and wobbled down the corridors for a while, like hyper kids suddenly launched into a new environment. Then we eventually collapsed into comfy seats and spent the night drinking in the lounge cabin, our surroundings rattling gently as we crowded our table at intervals with small bottles and upturned cards.
Thursday, August 24th
After a deep sleep in our adjoining rooms we woke early the next morning and were soon greeted by a big, friendly Scot carrying a tray of coffee. Excited for our first glimpse of the Scottish hills, we whipped open the windows and sat propped against our pillows, sipping our coffee and enjoying the sweeping views as we slowly woke up. It was the first time Beth had been this far up into Scotland and I couldn't wait to show her the world our grandma was from and the wild, sprawling Highlands we'd visited since we were little.
Over the years I've learnt that nothing quite beats the Highlands when it comes to disconnecting and escaping the city. There's something about the vast open space, unique brawny wildlife and rugged hills that releases you from claustrophobic anxiety. The first glimpses we stole of the leaden lochs and heather-patched hills were framed by the little train windows. One by one the beautiful vistas came and went with increasing effect. Sometimes the train would slow, allowing us to peer into the gardens of isolated white houses. Then it would hurtle off again, plunging into dense forests, where seas of bracken poured between the tall trunks of scattered Scots pines.
So, by the time we reached Ullapool - having taken a taxi from the station at Inverness - we were ready to get out, stretch our legs and inhale the fresh, salty air. We headed straight down onto the pebbled beaches, found crabs under the rocks and skimmed stones over the kelp forests. Then we wandered to the harbour and Luke tested his new rod as we watched two seals prowling in the oily water around the fishing boats. In the evening we met up with a local wild swimmer, Norman, and went for a swim in the loch. We found a stretch of water away from the boats and ditched the wetsuits to acclimatise and discover just how cold it really was. In the icy, clear water I was immediately surprised by the size of the splayed lion's mane jellyfish - much bigger than any of the ones I'd seen in Norway. Also, there were scattered blooms that pulsated a few feet beneath the surface, warbling menacingly with thick wads of tentacles. And yet apart from those gelatinous stingers the water was lovely and I was stunned by the visibility - not to mention the abundance of fish, crabs, kelp and coral. The only thing we were missing was a seal! Norman told us how they came to inspect him when he was swimming. Apparently they were protecting their pups at this time of year, which made them a little more hostile, although they weren't known to give you anything worse than an inquisitive nudge.
Later, as the sun packed up its rays behind the hills, we ate fish and chips and chatted about the swim and how nice it was to be away from the city. Then we finished the night drinking cider and listening to live music in a harbour pub, hushed by a smooth, acoustic blend of Cat Stevens and Tracy Chapman.
Friday, August 25th
We spent the following day preparing a few things for our swim all the way down the 12.8km length of Loch Broom, from Ullapool to Clachan church, where both our grandma and great grandma are buried. Mostly we just had to work through the logistics and make sure we had all the supplies we needed, namely a bloated bag of energy-giving flapjack and brownies. I also had a lovely chat with Fiona Stalker on BBC Radio Scotland (35-mins in) and told her stories of grandma's life on the lochside and how she became known as the Wild Lady of Loch Broom. That afternoon the rest of our happy clan arrived, including big brother Robbie, his girlfriend Valeriya, my old school and rugby mate Sandy, his girlfriend Millie, their stone-fetching black Labrador Bonnie, our mum (the Wild Swimming Mother), James Silson (our trusty Human Swiss Army Knife), Aunty Fiona, Uncle Mike, cousin Katie and another hardy local wild swimmer, Colin, who'd be crossing the loch with us. We celebrated as much as we could, ate together and watched the sunset at the beach before hitting the hay for an early night.
Saturday, August 26th
When it came to Saturday morning we were bleary-eyed and groggy but ready for our swim. We woke at 5 and took the kayaks down to a jetty close to Ullapool harbour. Millie then donned the wild cat costume we'd been given by our sponsors Wildcat Action and we took a few photos with Colin and Norman before heading out (on what would be an almost 5 hour swim in 13 degree water) through a crowd of anchored boats. Along the way we saw shoals of fish darting through the clear, greenish water, dodged and swerved down a narrow channel we've now renamed jellyfish alley and slowly crawled a seemingly endless, but mercifully sunlit, final mile, alongside the familiar bracken-swathed hills that overlook grandma's old white bungalow. The brackish 13-degree water was fairly punishing and, as the hours slid by, I became very thankful for the neoprene covering most of my body, including the webbed gloves Beth's mum had posted to our hotel at the last minute (thanks Sue!). Nevertheless, by the end of the swim my extremities seemed to have been disconnected from my body and my muscles were jelly.
However, we all made it!
Looking back, it was one of the greatest experiences we've had in the water! We were even joined at different times by several shy seals and porpoises (unfortunately they kept their distance). And all the while, with every stroke, we'd drawn closer to the free matriarch who'd inspired this mad adventure together as the Wild Swimming Brothers.
Finally, we were met on the boggy marshland below Clachan by a host of lochsiders, all of whom had known and loved grandma. They kindly revived us with coffee and sausage and bacon sandwiches, before we went up in a group to Clachan church and laid Katie's wreath, made of seaweed, heather and wildflowers, on grandma's grave, warmed by the knowledge that we'd done her proud.
We did this swim in memory of our Grandma Wild, but we also wanted to raise awareness about the plight of the Scottish Wildcat, which was why we partnered with Scottish Wildcat Action.
The history of this striped beauty describes a true survivor. Roughly 9000 years ago, at the end of the last Ice Age, furry European wildcats crossed the ice and arrived on the rugged, drifting landmass that later became Britain. In the many years that followed, interbreeding with domestic cats, habitat destruction and persecution have all but wiped these wildcats out. Now their last refuge is in the forested Scottish hills, where they are known locally as the Tiger of the Highlands. Organisations like Scottish Wildcat Action are responding to the desperate need to promote and secure their protection. If you'd like to find out more about how you could support their current conservation plan, and save this wonderful creature, you can visit the Wildcat Action website here.
Words | Jack Hudson