By Laura Kirkhouse
There’s a bug that has been sweeping the nation for some time, propelled by the pandemic, and the rising notoriety of individuals like Wim Hof, which may have been responsible for an upsurge in women across the country taking to the seas and lochs of Scotland to swim.
There’s a freedom to be found in the cold water, a notion that was suppressed during lockdown with rules that wouldn’t let you outwith a 5 mile radius nor out of the house for more than an hour a day. But slowly, as we emerged from our forced hibernation, the lochs and seas could once again become our playground and a new reverence for dwelling in the outdoors could be recognised.
I spoke with a range of women who are avid wild swimmers and are addicted to the thrill, connection and friendship to be found in Scotland’s chilly shores. I spoke with women in their 20s through to women in their 50s and despite any differences in their backgrounds and life paths, there was a unity and commonality to each of their individual stories and experiences of wild swimming.
There’s an accessibility to wild swimming that puts the invitation out to all of us to get into our swimmers and head to the shore.
Sisters – Kate and Zoe – come from a lineage of women who have spent time swimming in the seas and lochs. Zoe explains: “A favourite memory of mine is walking into the sea hand in hand with my sister, mother, aunt and grandmother. Three generations of wild swimmers, all with different bodies but very similar laughs”.
It’s a poignant image of women claiming their space in the outdoor world and of women unshackling from the misconceptions of what their bodies are capable of.
Fiona, another avid wild swimmer says: “There are some incredible women in my life who do it regularly and I find it inspirational to see them pay attention to their bodies and prioritise being outside.” It became abundantly clear that the experience of wild swimming did not just appeal to these women because of their own individual experience but of what could be shared between both friends and strangers when you get into the water.
Laughter was a theme I was reminded of over and over when I listened to these women tell their stories of their time wild swimming. Lesley, a midwife in Edinburgh – who also happens to be my sister – relayed a memory from a couple weeks ago in the sea: “I was out when it was choppy a couple of weeks ago and I don’t think I have laughed so much in years, we were getting wiped out and it was crazy but we were just having so much fun.”
Fiona spoke of the rituals and routines of wild swimming always inciting laughter: “Everyone has their own routine, in getting dressed, the order clothes go on, what gets dried first and someone usually inadvertently flashes a boob or their a*se…it’s always accompanied by laughter.”
It’s easy to overcomplicate getting outdoors and moving our bodies, it has become all too common to make it into a chore. But hearing these women’s stories and tales has reminded me that exercise can always be accompanied with laughter if you are doing it alongside the right people with the right mindset.
The idea of resilience also struck me as I found out more about why these women have made wild swimming a regular part of their life. Kate told me how she loves being joined by other less experienced swimmers, so that she can see how quickly they overcome their initial fear and instantly fall in love with swimming outdoors.
Fiona spoke of the ‘little voice in my head saying – are you sure you want to do this?’
There’s a nostalgia to swimming outdoors, a conjuring up of being carefree as a child. Fiona told me about the nostalgia she has experienced reconnecting with wild swimming now as an adult. She relayed memories of childhood holidays in Fife where she would spend hours in the water, unaware of the weather surrounding her, ‘It’s a joy to be reunited with that memory and feeling’. Lesley quite literally feels the years reverse as ‘it takes you back to being a kid again’.
Lesley shared about the mental versus physical battle that takes place as you initially enter the water: “When I go into the water my body is telling me don’t be crazy this is not sensible, but when I’m in I feel empowered that I’ve overcome the cold and I feel great joy.”
The conscious act to put something purposeful into your week that gets your body moving and invigorated has great mental benefits too. In fact, Lesley has started doing it with her colleagues at work as a way of setting the team up for the day, she said: “It is great to know that if you can do this and get in the water you can cope with the day ahead.”
Eve makes the point that getting out for a swim gives you a breather in your day and has allowed her to constantly chase new experiences: “It’s a space in your day. My swim plans ebb and flow with the tides. I definitely feel better for it. I’ve loved that I’ve planned swim adventures with friends, experienced the beauty of sunrises in the midst of winter. It’s just fun.”
It acted as an outlet during the pandemic for Fi who shared, ‘It’s made a massive difference to my mental wellbeing. It clears my mind in a way that few other things do! During the pandemic, when we weren’t allowed to travel very far, wild swimming was a gift. I was able to swim outdoors when swimming pools or leisure centres were closed. My body genuinely feels fitter and stronger!’.
There is a connection to be found in the cold Scottish waters, be that with the world around you and the beauty of this country or a reconnecting of body and mind. The women I spoke to said it best, so I’ll let their words inspire you.
‘I just feel connected. To my body, the elements, the world about me, my swim friends. You appreciate subtle differences and the seasonal changes. I love it. It’s a space in your day. I definitely feel better for it. I’ve loved that I’ve planned swim adventures with friends, experienced the beauty of sunrises in the midst of winter.’, Eve said.
Zoe shared the results of getting into the water: “I always come out feeling awake, clean, alive and full of joy. It makes me amaze at my body, the world around us and how connected the two are.” Her sister, Kate, finds it a spiritual experience where she can, “appreciate the vastness of the water and connect with God through creation. I’m inspired that we can all connect, be wild and enjoy adventure together – all shapes, sizes and ages.”
Fi put that idea of communing with the natural world eloquently: “I love being outside in nature, listening to the world. Wild swimming lets me do this in such a gentle, reflective way. It’s so joyful to feel held by water as I move.”
That’s something I am inspired and excited about when I think of women across Scotland taking up the mantle of wild swimming. It’s there for us all. All shapes, sizes and ages, we can all – in that one act of stepping into Scotland’s cold waters – be reminded that our minds and bodies are powerful vessels, they are resilient, they are fun and they are made for connection.
For more information about where to go wild swimming and the health and safety behind it all, look here.