Hitting the reset button in the Highlands

In an attempt to escape the digital world, Calum Maclean goes for his first swim-bivvy adventure in Glen Affric

Calum Maclean

Glen Affric sits in the heart of the Scottish Highlands. Thickly wooded, with hills stretching off into the distance, the River Affric flows through the centre, into Loch Affric and Loch Beinn a’ Mheadhain. Birds sing in the pine trees, heather paints the hills purple, red deer roam the land. Wildlife abounds here.

Calum Maclean

In the middle of summer I wanted to escape the internet. Increasingly attached to my phone and computer, I’d had enough of screens and artificial light. In order to reset I decided on a swim, combined with an overnight camp. I’d carry bivvy gear and camp wherever I ended up. A swim and a sleep. I’d wanted to try this for a while, to make this a new past-time, and this was to be a first test. I’d finish the day with a swim and start the new one with a swim. What better way to wake up?

My plan was a relatively short swim to explore the “nearly-islands” in the middle of Loch Beinn a’ Mheadhain. Though beautiful and far from cities, even this corner of Scotland is not untouched by man. The loch is dammed at its eastern end, a legacy of the large-scale hydro-electric schemes in the Highlands. My swim was in the middle of the loch, out of sight of the dam. When the loch was flooded, several islands were created by the rise in water. Some other pieces of land also look like islands, but can be accessed on foot from the more remote south side of the loch. My preferred method of transport, however, is by water!

Calum Maclean

Though I love the idea of travelling light, it is something I have yet to fully master. Sleeping bag, mat, bivvy, food, towel, dry clothes, contact lens solution, shoes, camera, tripod; it all added up. I eschewed the stove, figuring the day to be warm enough. I could leave the tent and sleep under the night sky. Stuffed haphazardly into 3 large dry bags, I’d pull them behind me, attached on a long leash. Should they cause drag in the water, I’d refer myself to my motto for when adventures never go to plan: “It’s all good training…”

Calum Maclean

I set off into the warm water. The sun had been on the loch all day and still hung above the sloping hills. Light played through the water, casting lines on the rocks below me. From the empty forest carpark I crossed a stretch of water, rounding a corner of the winding banks. Two fishermen cast rods from a small boat in the distance. Other than that, I had the loch to myself. The bank quickly dropped away to deep water; a dark, peaty colour. My arms pulled me through the fresh water, I glided over the calm surface. The sunshine caught my eye each second breath. Despite my bags, the going was easy.

The sunshine caught my eye each second breath.

Calum Maclean

After a relatively short swim I made land on a beach of fine sand. The water level was particularly low with many submerged tree stumps on display, long dead roots stretched out like giant wooden spiders. The land around is particularly boggy and midge-infested: the beach would be my bed. To my great surprise and delight there sat in the middle of the beach a wooden chair. Had it been left by a fisherman, or come from the depths of the loch?

Gnarled branches of all shapes littered the beach, and I quickly fashioned a clothes rail to dry my gear. I put my mediocre foraging abilities to good use, collecting handfuls of blaeberries (bilberries) as my post-swim snack. Since I had no stove for a warm drink, a quick hike visiting nature’s larder soon got me warmed up again.

 

On clear nights in the peak of summer, the skies above northern Scotland barely get dark. There was barely a breeze. This also meant a risk of the dreaded midge, the tiny flying insects who descend in swarms of hundreds (or is it millions?!) and feast upon your blood. Luckily they never appeared, and ensconced in my sleeping bag I slowly drifted to sleep. A car in the distance faded away, giving way to the sounds of nature. Occasional fish splashed in the water, birds called to one another, leaves rustled in the faint wind. Sleeping by water is a magical experience. Out of sight it lapped gently on the shore, tickling the dry bank. Nature’s lullaby soon coaxed me into the night.

Sleeping by water is a magical experience. Out of sight it lapped gently on the shore, tickling the dry bank. Nature’s lullaby soon coaxed me into the night.

Calum Maclean
Calum Maclean
Calum Maclean

The lack of darkness forced an early rise. Light poked through the cloud in the early hours. I rose and paddled in the water, watching as the blue hills turned a dark red. Bubbles rose under my feet, trapped air in the sand tickling my bare legs. I sat on a tree stump, not altogether refreshed but that would come – I had to swim back!

There wasn’t a ripple as I stole out across the water. From my own private bay I was soon back into deep water, making for the stony shore opposite. A swim at first light: endorphins for breakfast. Back at the car it was an hour drive back into Inverness. I arrived before 9 o’ clock and into the morning traffic. People ready for the day’s work. I couldn’t help but feel a sense of smugness and satisfaction after my swim. I’d already had a swim. It was like I knew a secret that the rest of the world wasn’t privy to.

Essential equipment:

  • Warm dry clothes
  • Midgie net
  • Bivvy bag
  • Warm sleeping bag
  • Eye mask (I forgot!)
Calum Maclean

Summer is ideal for a swim-bivvy. The warmer water means recovery is less of an issue, the long nights and early mornings meaning even short midweek trips can be done if water is nearby. An evening swim and a morning swim. I’m hooked. I’m sure this swim-bivvy was just to be the start.

View Calum’ swim on Wild Swim map

This story was a winner in the Summer 2017 Orca x OSS competition to commission 6 stories of swim adventures around the world.

Words : Calum Maclean
Images : Calum Maclean