POINT-TO-POINT LOCH SWIM, 2017
WILD LADY OF LOCH BROOM
CALUM, JACK, their girlfriends, Beth and Serena, and good friend Luke, escaped the late night bustle of London on the Caledonian Sleeper train. They hurtled north and drank through dusk in the lounge cabin, their surroundings rattling as they crowded the table at intervals with small bottles and upturned cards.
The following morning to be greeted by a big, friendly Scot carrying a tray of coffee. Excited for their first glimpse of the Scottish hills, they whipped open the windows and sat propped against their pillows, sipping they coffee and enjoying the sweeping views as they slowly woke up. Soon the boys saw the familiar swathes of heather and the rugged tors rising over stands of Scots pines. It was the world their grandma was from. The wild, sprawling Highlands they’d visited since they were little.
Nothing beats the Highlands when it comes to escaping the city. There's something about the vast space, unique brawny wildlife and spiny hills that releases you from anxiety. All the while scree-striped hills and leaden lochs swept by the little train windows.
One by one the beautiful vistas came and went with increasing effect. Sometimes the train would slow and the boys would peer into the gardens of isolated bungalows. Then the train would hurtle off again, plunging into deep forests, where seas of bracken poured between the scattered pines.
By the time they reached Ullapool - after taking a taxi from the station at Inverness - they were ready to get out, stretch their legs and inhale the fresh air.
They headed down onto the pebbled beaches, found crabs under the rocks and skimmed stones over the kelp forests. Then they wandered to the harbour and Luke tested his new rod as they watched two seals prowling in the oily water around the fishing boats.
In the evening they met up with a local wild swimmer, Norman, and went for a swim in the loch. They 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 Jack was immediately surprised by the size of the splayed lion's mane jellyfish - much bigger than any of the ones they'd seen in Norway. Then there were scattered blooms that pulsated a few feet beneath the surface, warbling menacingly with thick wads of tentacles.
But apart from those gelatinous stingers the water was lovely, with far-reaching visibility - not to mention the abundance of fish, crabs, kelp and coral. The only thing they were missing was a seal!
Norman told them how the seals would come 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 (they weren't known to give anything worse than an inquisitive nudge).
Later, as the sun packed up its rays behind the hills, the group ate fish and chips and chatted about the swim and how nice it was to be away from the city. Then they 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.
The next day, Friday, August 25th, the boys prepared for their swim down the full 12.8km length of Loch Broom, from Ullapool to Clachan church. The church is where their Grandma Wild is buried, alongside their Great Grandma. Jack 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 the happy clan arrived, including big brother Robbie, his girlfriend Valeriya, old school mate Sandy, his girlfriend Millie, their stone-fetching black Labrador Bonnie, Mum (the Wild Swimming Mother), James Silson (the 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 the boys.
Once everyone was there they all celebrated and ate fish and chips together and watched the sunset from the harbour before hitting the hay for an early night.
When it came to Saturday morning the boys were bleary-eyed and groggy but ready for the swim. They woke at 5 and took the kayaks down to a jetty close to Ullapool harbour. Millie then donned the wild cat costume they'd been given by sponsors Wildcat Action and the boys 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 they saw shoals of fish darting through the clear, greenish water. They dodged and swerved down a narrow channel that was later renamed Jellyfish Alley and slowly crawled a seemingly endless, but mercifully sunlit, final mile, alongside the familiar bracken-swathed hills that overlook Grandma Wild's old white bungalow. The brackish 13-degree water was fairly punishing and, as the hours slid by, the boys became very thankful for the neoprene covering most of their bodies, including Jack’s webbed gloves, which Beth's Mum had posted to the hotel at the last minute (thanks Sue!). And yet by the end of the swim Jack’s extremities still seemed to have been disconnected from his body and his muscles had turned to water.
Nevertheless they all made it!
Looking back, it was one of the greatest experiences the boys had in the water! They were even joined at different times by several shy seals and porpoises (unfortunately they kept their distance). And all the while, with every stroke, they'd drawn closer to the free matriarch who'd first inspired these mad adventures together as the Wild Swimming Brothers.
Finally, they boys were met on the boggy marshland below Clachan by a host of lochsiders, all of whom had known and loved Grandma. They kindly revived the swimmers with coffee and sausage and bacon sandwiches. Then everyone 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 they'd done her proud.
The boys did this swim in memory of their Grandma Wild. But they also wanted to raise awareness about the plight of the Scottish Wildcat, which was why they 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 below.
Find out more about the Scottish wildcat: Visit the Scottish Wildcat Action website.