Alice, tell us about yourself.
Growing up, I was a competitive swimmer and did a lot of pool swimming and then got into open water. At first I was absolutely terrified of deep water! I still do sometimes get the heebie-jeebies in the really deep lochs and things, but I’m pretty good now [last year, Alice completed a solo swim of the length of Loch Awe, the longest freshwater loch in Scotland, in just under 16 hours]. I did a solo Channel swim in 2012, and then decided to train as a swimming teacher, and then became one of the first qualified open water swim coaches in the UK, in 2012. Fast forward a few years, I moved up to the Highlands and I started exploring my local area through swimming. Initially I didn’t have anyone swim with, so I set up a group, and I now have people to swim with me every single day.
One thing that you’ve done that really brings people together is the Scottish Winter Swimming Championships, which you host. It started off 2019 and it’s grown ever since. What is that like to run, and what’s the future of the event?
I was kind of in the right place at the right time to start it. For me it’s always been about creating a really relaxed, fun atmosphere. As we only have six people swimming at once, we have a lifeguard for every swimmer, we have an ambulance, we have everything there. Because we have the safety in place, it means that you can create that more relaxed atmosphere and because of that, I think people really enjoys the event and wants to come back. In 2020 the whole thing sold out in half an hour!
IWSA (International Winter Swimming Association) rules state: no neoprene, etc. and it’s just the standards swimming costume, hat, goggles. I don’t want to exclude people who just want to give it a go, so I created this really category: “anything goes”. I was not expecting the kind of spectacle that was created and then the almost competitive fancy dress team costumes going on, which actually has been a highlight of the competition for the last few years!
In 2023, we had an unfortunate incident. The event was on and everyone was having a fantastic time. Then we had a sewage spill at the venue, which was absolutely horrific. I won’t go into too many details, but essentially, as soon as my safety team said, ‘we can’t put people in the water’, that was that. There was no way I was putting people back in that water without microbiological testing of the water. That wasn’t going to happen within the timeframe we had for the next day. We have not had a very great response from the venue and as such we will not be going back to Taymouth Marina in the future, which is really gutting because it is a fantastic venue. For now I’m looking for another venue.
The Scottish Winter Swimming Championships will come back. However, it may not come back in 2024, it may not be until 2025 because my main priority is to make a fantastic event that everyone will enjoy, is safe and is in the correct place that has the right infrastructure.
You’ve just written a new guide book: Swimming Wild in Scotland. Can you tell me about the process of making this book? Was there a lot of travel?
It was really important to me that if I was going to write a guidebook that I will have visited and swum in every single location. For each location that ended up in the book, I probably went to between five and ten locations and then chose one of them. So I literally swam or dipped or went along and turned my nose up at thousands of locations and then had to narrow it down. In the end I included over 100 locations.
I had to have some criteria. For me, it was really important that all the swimming spots could cope with people going to them. So it had adequate parking, had decent infrastructure, if it was a walk: it was a decent path to get there. It needs to be reasonably accessible, I think the longest walk is a couple of kilometres each way. The majority of them are shorter walks and they either needed to be accessible by car or public transport. Was it squelchy underfoot? Did it drop off quickly? All those kinds of things. It was quite a thorough process.
I traveled all over: Shetland, Orkney, the Outer Hebrides, but the mainland is really big as well. It was really important for me to have a guidebook that had really detailed maps in it, because if you don’t know where the best place to get in is, then you know you’re going to miss out or you’re going get yourself into difficulty or something.
How did you balance up choosing places that people are going to be wowed by, against making sure it’s a place is not going to get overrun?
I tried to balance it between sort of having a reasonable geographical spread over Scotland and not just putting all my favourite Highland swimming spots in there. In the technical information for each one I put which local groups are in there, which is quite important to me.
I really wrestled with whether to include some of the more honeypot spots. I’ll use the example of the Fairy Pools in Skye. I came to the conclusion that if I didn’t include them, that people would still want to go there and I’m very honest about it. I basically spend the whole first paragraph trying to put people off going there, telling people how busy it is, what all the degradation that’s happened around the area. However, they are putting in a bit more infrastructure there. One thing that really got me was some of the articles and things out there at the moment, they suggest these places to swim, but they don’t put anything about the fact that if you go down to that arch (a well-known arch you can swim under at the Fairy Pools), you’ve got to scramble down a near-vertical cliff to get there.
I really wrestled with whether to include some of the more honeypot spots. I’ll use the example of the Fairy Pools in Skye. I came to the conclusion that if I didn’t include them, that people would still want to go there and I’m very honest about it.
What would you say to someone who’s never visited Scotland? What makes Scotland a good place to come for a swim?
We’ve got such variety in Scotland. A huge variety of freshwater lochs, rivers, waterfalls, as well as sea lochs and beaches, amazing sandy beaches. In the book, I have listed my top fives: top five: river swim sports, waterfall swim spots, freshwater lochs, and then more obscure things like ‘top five places with things to swim around’, like islands, castles, the shipwreck in Orkney; top five with easy access, top five with longer walks.
In general, we also have nice clean water compared to other places in the UK. And obviously there are some environmental issues that I’m still fighting in terms of people dumping sewage. We also have some incredible swimming groups around Scotland who are so welcoming. Not to say that they aren’t in the rest of the UK, but I just think groups are a really good way to get into it!
From my first peek of the turquoise water through the dunes, I fell in love with Berneray’s West Beach. Berneray has a rich history for such a small island, and its natural habitats support varied and abundant wildlife. Look out for otter tracks in the sand and Arctic terns nesting in the dunes. The beach has some of the clearest sea water I have ever had the pleasure to swim in; when I visited I had to pinch myself and remind myself that I was in Scotland, not the Caribbean! The entry is sandy and gently sloping, and you can get in anywhere along the beach. I have only ever pottered about here, marvelling at the clarity of the water. The west-facing section of the beach is over three kilometres long, meaning that longer swims parallel to the beach are also possible.
With its fairy-tale castle, spectacular mountain scenery and ancient Caledonian pine forest, Loch an Eilein really is the quintessential Highland swimming location. The castle on the island was probably built in the fourteenth century and added to in later centuries. The best entry point is a short (500m) walk from the car park, opposite the castle. The entry is somewhat rocky, with large stones underfoot. Protective footwear is essential. Once you have negotiated the stones, it shelves off fairly rapidly around ten metres from the shore. However tempting it is, please do not climb through the doorway and look around the castle island. The landowners are keen to prevent further deterioration of the castle ruins and keep the island as a sanctuary for nesting birds.
Easdale is the smallest permanently inhabited island of the Inner Hebrides. For almost three centuries, it was at the centre of the Scottish slate industry; at its peak the island had seven quarries and a community of more than 500 miners. There are five enclosed quarry ‘pools’ and a couple that are still open to the sea. I have swum in all of them, only three have suitable entries. The two pools towards the north-west of the island are the easiest to access, and the pool near the south-west point has the best views. All these have sloping slate shingle beaches. The smallest, L-shaped pool is the most popular for swimming. It is the shallowest and has the most gradually sloping entry. You can stick close to the edge and avoid the deeper sections. Both the other pools get deep very quickly, so be prepared if you don’t like deep water.
The beach at St Ninian’s Isle has always been high on my list of swimming locations to visit. Being a geography geek (it was my undergraduate degree subject), I’ve always been fascinated by coastal processes and formations. You’ll find the largest tombolo in the UK here; it was formed by waves from the Atlantic being refracted and diffracted around the island and meeting on the leeward side. Arriving here for the first time, mist hung low over the water and waves crashed on the northern shore. Despite this, the ribbon of sand connecting St Ninian’s Isle to the mainland still took my breath away, and the sea on the southern side of the beach was perfectly sheltered and ideal for swimming. On other days, depending on the wind direction, the northern side is better for swimming. On one occasion, I double dipped, playing in the waves on one side and then doing a longer swim in the perfectly calm water on the other side.
Glen Etive holds a special place in my heart. It is one of the first places I visited (and dipped) in the Highlands before I moved here, and I’m sure its wild beauty influenced my decision to relocate here permanently. The name Etive is believed to mean ‘Little Fierce One’ or ‘Little Ugly One’, referring to the Gaelic goddess associated with Loch Etive. While the scenery is far from ugly, the river flow can be extremely fierce, especially during the spring snowmelt. In the summer, after a dry spell, the water in the river calms to a gentle flow. There are multiple waterfalls and deep pools to enjoy. While there are many places to dip in the river (I think I’ve swum in about 14 different locations in total), I have selected a few of the best ones to share in the book, in terms of parking, size, access and views.