Highlanders’ 9-Hour Swim

MEET LOCAL HIGHLANDERS Norman Todd (from the harbour town of Ullapool) and Colin MacLeod (from Stornoway - a two-and-a-half-hour ferry ride away - on the Isle of Lewis). These two wild, affable characters joined us when we swam the length of Loch Broom. They led us comfortably the whole way down the loch for about 7-miles in total. In fact, Colin even found time to swim back between Calum, Robbie and myself, taking pictures and making sure we were all okay. By the time we were finished, he'd probably swum twice the distance than the rest of us, and yet he still emerged at the end of it looking basically unfazed, if a little rosy-cheeked. Looking back on how they swam in Loch Broom, I had no doubt at all that they would conquer their next aquatic challenge. And I didn't have to wait long to see if I'd be proven right... 

Last weekend, on Sunday 8th October, Colin and Norman completed a Herculean swim from Anchlochan, near Achiltibuie, to Ullapool. For a total of 9 hours they ploughed together through cold Highland seas, suffering water temperatures that dropped between 11 to 12 degrees (recorded by Colin's rubber duck thermometer: the mighty Duck Man). It was an awesome feat for a great cause, but that sweet note of celebration came as the result of some gruelling moments in the water.

Photo by Noel Hawkins

Photo by Noel Hawkins


After an uplifting send off from the people of Coigach, the pair swam through the shadows of rugged Scottish mountains, escorted by a fishing boat, leisure craft and a pod of local kayakers. By the sounds of it, the support they received made all the difference. Liquids and energy bars were always close at hand and at one point a naval craft, assigned to the UK's largest military sea exercise (Joint Warrior), even showed up in a show of solidarity. Nevertheless, the going was still very hard. Side-by-side, Colin and Norman fought through tough conditions, battling against a 0.6 knot tide and at one point even hitting a scum line that brought in waves of intense cold. As if that wasn't enough, towards the end of their swim, the sun began to set and Norman started suffering from early onset hypothermia.  

It was 8pm and almost pitch-black by the time they finally rounded the harbour at Ullapool. Colin's GPS recorded a swim distance of 14 miles - an astounding accomplishment, despite the unrelenting cold of those rough coastal waters. As Norman and Colin stumbled to their feet, a huge crowd greeted them on the pebble beach and the night was suddenly alive with chanting, cheering and the distinct sound of bagpipes playing. Norman emerged from the water in tears of mingled happiness and exhaustion, and soon reflected on what had been a very challenging experience.

That was the hardest thing I have done in my life
— Norman Todd
Photo by Noel Hawkins

Photo by Noel Hawkins


That evening, Norman headed home to de-thaw and raid the contents of his food cupboard and fridge. Meanwhile, Colin left Ullapool at 3am, hopped onto the freight ferry and headed back to his home in Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis, ready for work at 9am - that's some dedication!

“That was the hardest thing I have done in my life,” Norman wrote on Facebook that night, “After five hours in the water I got into some difficulty. I could not hold my heat any longer, I lost sensation in both hands and my legs were shivering uncontrollably… I thought I would have to pack it in at that point but having so many boats and friends around me, thinking about all the money we were raising and all the people who have supported us, I said a prayer to the big fella, I dug in deep then battered on.”

Norman and Colin organised this swim for several reasons. Firstly, they wanted to draw attention to their local communities, the beauty of pristine Scottish waters and the appeal of wild swimming in the surrounding area. They also completed their swim in support of the local Living Seas Project responsible for beach cleans and conservation in the waters of the north-west Highlands. The money they raised will be donated to the Dolphin Snorkellers' project, set-up by Noel Hawkins to teach kids how to snorkel in the sea, where they can encounter wild marine life and discover for themselves exactly why we need to protect them.

Photo by Noel Hawkins

Photo by Noel Hawkins


We were lucky enough to chat with Norman, Colin and Noel Hawkins (who runs the Dolphin Snorkellers) after they completed this brave undertaking:


So, huge congratulations are in order - you’ve just spent 9 hours swimming 14 miles from Achiltibuie to Ullapool. How do you both feel? And how did the food cupboard raiding and dethawing go?

NORMAN: We were in the waters for 9 hours altogether. The first half of the swim we were working against a strong tide and it was really hard work against a 0.6 knot tide. We hit a scum line and the temperature dropped quite quickly. The kayaker guided is out but by that time I was felt hypothermic. My legs were shivering badly and I started losing sensation in my hands. I thought about giving up at that point but I dug in deeply and pushed on. I felt like this for the rest of the swim but i just pushed on. After a couple of hours I just thought you feel as bad as you did 2 hours ago and you have coped. Nothing has changed so just crack on. When I got home I was in the shower for half an hour then I got into bed to get warmed up. Slowly the sensations came back to me and I started feeling better. We had a Chinese takeaway but even though I was hungry it was not easy to eat as my tongue was in a bit of a mess and all the salt water I had ingested made it difficult. The following morning I had chocolate and ice cream for breakfast. I was famished!


9 hours is a very long time to spend in any water (let alone the chilly waters of Scotland’s northern coasts) - how did you cope with the cold?

NORMAN: I wore a full Gul thermal rash suit but after 4 1/2 hours I was losing heat. I had a neporene balaclava, booties and gloves on too. This is great but for such long exposure in cold waters there is nothing better than a good layer of body fat which I just did not have. When I was getting hypothermic my legs were shivering badly so I kicked more to get the bigger muscles to generate heat. I actually lost 5 pounds during the swim. It is a mental thing too and I am so stubborn that I would not want to give in. It was also being surrounded by so many people who had given up so much of their time, the people waiting at the harbour and all those who had donated. I did not want to let them down.


Did you encounter many hazards along the way? Seals or jellyfish…?

NORMAN: There were a few seals in Achlochan beach where we left from. Normally the seals like to follow me about when I am out but they showed no interest. Maybe it was the crowd at the beach and the boats that kept them away. There were quite a few lion's man jellyfish but they were not too much of a problem. The biggest obstacle (apart from the cold) was the tide. We were trying to get into Lochbroom but the 0.6 nm tide was making the progress slow. It was quite hard mentally and it was physically draining. Once the tide had turned it then pushed us along the loch a bit.


You undertook this brave swim to raise money for the highland ‘Dolphin Snorkellers’ - could you tell us a little more about this project?

NOEL: Dolphin Snorkellers is a project that has grown around the Living Seas project in the north-west Highlands. Realising the amazing marine life and coastline they have in the Highlands, the Living Seas Project decided to try and get children in the area into the sea to learn about and hopefully become passionate about the seas, coast and wildlife on their doorstep - not only to enjoy it but to hopefully become concerned about it and want to help conserve and protect. Although fun, going into the sea involves an element of danger so having the proper kit not only ensures their safety but means they are warm and more likely to enjoy the experience and want to do it again and again. Pool training, introductory days on beaches and harbours has meant that so far almost 90 primary school pupils have been taken into the sea and become 'Dolphin Snorkellers'


Do you think you’ll be attempting any more endurance adventures in the near future?

NORMAN: I am not sure about what I will do next. I just don’t have the build for doing long distance swims so I am looking at doing an Ironman next year. I have a running and cycling background which I will pick up again. I want to do a lot more swimming around the Summer Isles and help to promote the area for its clean and accessible seas. I would like to encourage others in the area to do more open water swimming and maybe do some swim/camps and beach cleans of the islands. We live in such a unique and beautiful area which is brilliant for safe and clean waters to swim in.


Awesome swim guys! Looking forward to hearing about the next one, or joining you in the water again soon... If you'd like to find out more about Dolphin Snorkellers you can check out Noel's website here.