From Sea to Summit

OSS Ambassador, Calum Maclean, planned a sea to summit swim for the Solstice. But the best laid plans...

Calum Maclean

The pedal whacked my leg again, and I hurled the bike down onto the dusty track. “You f****** ****!” A bee zipped by and a bird sang gently in the distance. I swore again. “Why am I doing this?” I often speak to myself out loud. It can help when getting into cold water. 

My plan had been very simple: a journey from sea to summit, sunrise to sunset on the longest day of the year, bookended by a swim at each end. A celebration of the beginning of summer. From the west coast of Scotland, up to the top of Ben Alder, and the highest-named body of water in the country: Lochan a’ Gharbh Choire. I’d bag a sea swim, a river, a loch, maybe a waterfall too! What an adventure! Simple, right? Well, my plan hadn’t started before it had already changed.

Calum Maclean

Solstice sunrise came and went as I slumbered in my tent. Poking my head out the flap at 0400, I saw the early glow of sun in the distance. I should have been camping by the sea, ready to salute the day with the satisfaction of an early dip in the sea, and a boast to everyone that I’d been up and at it since sunrise. I rolled over, put on my eye mask, and slipped back to sleep. I was still a 30km cycle from the coast.

Setting off from home mid-afternoon the day beforehand, my 110km cycle to the coast had been cut to 80km, after some bravado that my laden touring bike would be as quick on the direct trails, as it would on road. It wasn’t. Chased into bed by a horde of midgies, I’d resigned myself to renaming the trip: ’see I can summit’…

Calum Maclean

Getting my act together about 0500, I dragged myself onto the bike, and into what was already a bright blue-sky day. I sped through Glen Coe, heading for the village of Kinlochleven. Sitting at the head of a long inlet, this would provide the shortest route for me, to go from coast to mountain. I’d planned this. As I pedalled along a small backroad, my head was turned by an incredible sight. The huge mountains of Glen Coe, reflected perfectly in a small lochan, right by the road. Ringed by trees, without a breath of wind on the surface, nature had provided the most polished mirror. I had to swim. Taking a quick dook before the midgies discovered me was a truly magic moment. Bird sang to me as I cut in the dark water. It was warmer than the air, and with not another soul about, my day was back on track. My mojo had been replenished.

“See now, if I’d passed here for sunset I’d never have caught this moment. Clever, yep.”

Calum Maclean


Reaching Kinlochleven, my swim satisfaction topped up, I decided to ignore the sea altogether and try to catch up on lost time. That never happened. The next 8-9 hours was a combination of: pushing my bike, swearing, sweating, snoozing, fixing my bike, swearing and sweating. Sometimes all at once. Bad route choice and bad bike choice. I occasionally rode the bike. But, what a landscape in which to do it. Surrounded by mountains all day, the only person to hear my gripes were the birds. That journey was for the birds. I flung myself into the Abhainn (River) Rath. That cheered me up. 2 swims.

Finally ditching my bike for the ascent of Ben Alder, I knew time was against me. I’d planned to broadcast live into the OSS Global Pool Party, from the top of the hill, which has 4G coverage. A heathery, pathless ascent on tired legs took hours and the OSS Party had long wrapped before I could make it.

Never mind that now, my focus was on the swim! Sunset was fast approaching, and the end in sight. Lochan a’ Gharbh Choire, at around 1111m above sea level, the highest named body of water in the UK, I believed. Was it even deep enough to swim? Finding the lochan, I stormed straight in with my shoes on. Bag it and sleep. Enthusiam had waned by now. Knee-deep in the middle, I lay down and managed a few strokes. Woo. Hoo. A beautiful small pool on the wide flat summit of the hill, the lochan was still half-covered in a thick layer of snow & ice. I grabbed a photo and went straight for my tent. Leaving my shoes outside (they froze as solid as a rock during the night) I set about warming up my feet, now like 2 blocks of ice.
“Was this wise? Have I enjoyed it? What had I spent all day doing? Oh well, I’ve seen out my plan. At least, half of it.”

The next day I got home, knackered, but satisfied. I shared photos of my ‘successful’ mission with friends.
“Highest Swim in Scotland? Yeah, I’ve completed it, mate.”
But wait, suggestions soon came that I hadn’t visited: ‘The Highest Named Body of Water in the UK’ – this was maybe the 3rd, or even 4th highest. There were at least 2 higher in the Cairngorms mountain range.

Calum Maclean

I’d not bagged a sea swim, or a sunrise swim, or even the highest-named-body-of-water. Targets such as ‘highest, first, longest’ can often seem arbitrary, a way of humans trying to ascribe some value or ranking to a feat. That has it’s place but here on this occasion, I’d just had an adventure, and I felt alive.

“Well, luckily my journey hadn’t involved too much effort… Complaints? No, I enjoyed every second of it.”

Now, solstice sunset swim next year in the Cairngorms, anyone?


For more Scottish swimming inspiration check out Wild Guide Scotland, which includes over 900 secret adventures, hidden places and wild escapes. Discover secret beaches, crystal coves and tiny islands, dramatic sea stacks, caves and cliffs, and waterfalls, lochs and river swimming.

You can purchase a copy of Wild Guide Scotland from the publisher by following this link.

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Calum Maclean