POINT-TO-POINT LOCH SWIM, 2017
WILD LADY OF LOCH BROOM (jack’s diary)
Calum, Beth, Serena, Luke and myself (Jack) all escaped the late night bustle of London on the Caledonian Sleeper train. We hurtled north and spent the early night in the lounge around a table crowded with small bottles and cards.
The following morning we woke to our first glimpse of Scotland. Scree-striped hills and leaden lochs swept by the little windows. We sat bleary-eyed, sipping coffee and watching the first familiar swathes of heather and the rugged tors rising over stands of Scots pines. Sometimes the train would slow and we’d peer into little bungalow gardens, before plunging into deep forest, where bracken seas poured between the scattered trees.
By the time we reached Ullapool - after taking a taxi from the station at Inverness - we were ready to get out, stretch their legs and inhale the fresh air. Then we headed down onto the pebbled beaches, found crabs under the rocks and skimmed stones over the kelp forests. We also wandered to the harbour and Luke tested his new rod while two seals prowled in the nearby oily water around the fishing boats.
In the evening we met up with a local wild swimmer, Norman, and went for an acclimatisation swim in the loch. We found a stretch of water away from the boats and ditched the wetsuits to find out just how cold it really was. I was immediately surprised by the size of the splayed lion's mane jellyfish - much bigger than any of the ones we’d seen in Norway. There were several blooms that pulsated a few feet beneath the surface, warbling menacingly with thick wads of tentacles. However, 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 we were missing was a seal…
Norman told us how the seals come to inspect him when he was swimming. Apparently they were protecting their pups at that 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, we ate fish and chips and chatted about the swim and how nice it was to be away from the city. Then we wound-up 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), we prepared for our swim down the full 12.8km length of Loch Broom, from Ullapool to Clachan church. The church is where our Grandma Wild is buried, alongside our Great Grandma. 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 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 joining for the loch swim.
Once everyone was there we all celebrated and ate together and watched the sunset from the harbour before hitting the hay for an early night.
When it came to Saturday morning we were all a little groggy and midge-bitten but ready for the 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 sponsor 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 13C water) through a crowd of anchored boats.
Along the way we saw shoals of fish darting through the clear, greenish water. We dodged and swerved down a narrow channel, later nicknamed Jellyfish Alley, and slowly crawled a seemingly endless, but mercifully sunlit, final mile, alongside the familiar bracken-patched hills that overlook Grandma Wild's old white bungalow. The brackish 13C water was punishing and, as the hours slid by, we became very thankful for the neoprene covering most of our bodies, including my webbed gloves, which Beth's Mum had posted to the hotel at the last minute.
Nevertheless we all made it!
Looking back, it was one of the greatest experiences we’ve had in the water. We were even joined at intervals by a few 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 first inspired these mad adventures 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 all incoming 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 we'd done her proud.
We finished this swim in memory of our Grandma Wild and we also wanted to raise awareness about the plight of the Scottish Wildcat and that 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 below.
Find out more about the Scottish wildcat: Visit Scottish Wildcat Action