Calum Vs The Monster

A 12km walk in, a 310m deep loch, and a serious case of deep water fear...

Calum sets off the second time

It’s often said that there are only seven narrative plots in all of storytelling. Any story will fit into one of: Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Rebirth, Comedy, Tragedy, and Overcoming the Monster. The following story fits within that final plot type. This story takes place at Loch Mòrar, in the west highlands of Scotland. At 310m, it’s the deepest freshwater in the whole of Britain. Loch Mòrar is also said to be home to a monster, or a creature: Mòrag. However, this tale has nothing to do with Mòrag. 

Sunset was just over an hour away, and the grey clouds that hung over the distant hills darkened the already-gloomy winter sky. It was the beginning of February and although it was a mild winter, the water was not inviting. I looked across the water towards the distant boathouse which was my intended destination. Two kilometres of cold, dark, messy water separated me from my goal. A steadily westerly wind blew up regular waves. I stood knee-deep in the loch, fully covered in neoprene from head to toe, and talked to myself.

“Do I just go for it then? Yeah, come on. It’s not far. I’ve done harder.”

It didn’t feel right. I’d walked twelve kilometres along the shore of the loch to reach this spot. One kilometre from me, in the middle of the loch lay the deepest water in the whole of the country. The deepest fresh water but also the deepest water of any kind, until the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean, beyond St Kilda. I was going to film my crossing and make a video about the journey. This had been planned for weeks but suddenly I was faced with a scenario I’ve rarely experienced when it comes to a swim: backing out at the last minute. Was this fear? I usually feel so comfortable being in water, even in wild, turbulent rivers or waves that throw you around like a washing machine. My mind was racing, and the negatives of this swim were racking up:

  • It was cold. The water was still at winter temperatures. 
  • It was dark: The low winter sun combined with the time of day, and weather. 
  • I’d be slow: I’d forgotten my long leash so would have to tow my bag above my legs
  • It’d be a hard recovery. My plan was to camp on the far side but it’d be miserable and cold.
  • I was alone. Could I really put my name to any film I made? It’s not something I’d recommend to others: so why do it? What was I going to prove?
  • Hang on, shouldn’t I be able to do this easily? I’m that guy that just does these things. Am I not?
A misty Loch Mòrar

I talked myself out of it, sat down and glared at the water. 

“No! I’m going to do it, enough of this shite!”

I waded into the water and set off. As I exited the small bay, I was in open water and right into the force of the wind. It pulled my bag sideways, meaning I’d be dragging what felt like an anchor. 

“Ah, if it’s harder, it’s all good training!” – My motto for any unexpected physical effort. But it didn’t feel right. 100m in and I turned around, swimming back to the start point. I was angry at myself, angry at the loch, angry at the world. I screamed out in frustration. I’d talked myself out of the swim: I’d lost the head game. Was it fear? I walked 12km back out in the rain and the dark.

So how would I deal with it? I thought of advice I’d give to others, and tried to break it down. Identifying why I had backed out was first. It was a combination of all the factors listed above. The fear of the difficulty, and the anxiety had built up to a point where I couldn’t complete the swim.

Thinking it through, my decision had been common sense. Taking on the swim had been borderline ridiculous. So how could I get past this? I got back into regular swims of similar time and distance, but crucially, in an environment I knew well. I thought back to other swims I’d done in longer, colder and more taxing conditions. I talked about my decision, so that the experience wasn’t sitting in my head and eating away at me. I considered the deep water. So what if it’s deep? If I can’t see the bottom after 5m or so, why does it matter how deep the rest of it is? Placing it into context relaxed me and reconciled me with my decision. But there was still something to be done.

So what if it’s deep? If I can’t see the bottom after 5m or so, why does it matter how deep the rest of it is? Placing it into context relaxed me and reconciled me with my decision. But there was still something to be done.

Swimming across the deepest point

Several months later I returned to the loch. This time I had walked in from the south of Loch Mòrar, directly opposite from where I had failed previously. This time I did it. In fact, I have since returned and completed the swim twice, the second time with friends. I approached the challenge with an actively positive mindset. Nothing was going to get me down. I had the same kit, but no gloves and socks. It was the same loch, but I had no fear or worry. 

As I passed over the deepest section of water, I paused. I soaked it in. Surrounded by hills that fall into the loch, I was held up by the hundreds of metres of darkness. This time I felt comfortable. I felt alive. This was where I was meant to be. 

  • Calum’s debut book 1001 Outdoor Swimming Tips will be published on 7th July from Vertebrate Publishing. It is available to pre-order here.
Calum Maclean  ()