Swimming the Scottish wilderness

Rannoch Moor is 82% water - it'd be rude not to swim across it

Photo: Ian Watson

Three friends tackle – possibly for the first time – a two-day swim-hike across one of Scotland’s last wildernesses.

I think it was whilst reading a book about classic Scottish canoeing and kayaking routes that I had the idea of a two-day swim across Rannoch Moor. The 50m2 of marshy moorland in Perth and Kinross is 82% water: lochs, lochans and streams – but mostly bog. I plotted a route from the A82 to Rannoch Station via Loch Ba and Loch Laidon. When I texted my friend Thomas to ask him if he fancied it, he replied almost immediately “obviously” – as I knew he would. It seemed like a perfect route to us both for a number of reasons. 

Firstly, Rannoch Moor is a fantastic piece of seldom-visited wilderness which the average hill-walker likely only experiences from the edges. Swimming across it would literally immerse us in it. Secondly, swimming across the moor seemed challenging but achievable. Fourteen kilometres isn’t a huge distance, but we had never swam that sort of distance in one go in open water. Never mind in potentially hostile conditions, unsupported, and whilst towing our camping kit. Thirdly, it seemed likely that nobody had ever attempted to swim the route before (according to Google). An old book on Scottish lochs has an account of a couple ice-skating to Rannoch Station and back during one particularly cold winter, but I couldn’t find anything about anyone swimming it.

So, with the idea agreed in principle, another old school friend, Tom, was recruited to expand the party to three, a date was set, and the planning and training began. It was my friend Thomas who first alerted me to the existence of the RuckRaft, which is essentially a mini raft which you tow behind you in the water via a cord attached to your waist. Your rucksack, protected from the elements in a giant drybag, is strapped to the top of the raft. It allows you to tow your camping kit and opens up the possibility of unsupported, multi-day swimming expeditions. As I’m prone to do, I immediately dismissed it as a daft idea – but it made our Rannoch Moor plan possible. 

Approximately nine months later on a Friday evening at the end of June, the three of us met in Tyndrum for a quick dinner at the excellent chip shop before leaving one car at Bridge of Orchy (or Bridge of Itchy as my phone constantly auto-corrected it), and driving the other car up the road to our accommodation for the first night; a micropod at Glencoe mountain resort. The weather was grim but the forecast was for it to improve slightly through Saturday, from wind and torrential rain to wind and a mixture of heavy showers and sunshine. It wasn’t the weather I had in mind when I planned the trip, but the wind was forecast to be largely behind us, and as Thomas observed, you can’t get any wetter than completely wet. 

Spot the swimmer. Photo: Ian Watson.

It wasn’t the weather I had in mind when I planned the trip, but, as Thomas observed, you can’t get any wetter than completely wet.

We unloaded our kit and drove back to Loch Ba to recce it from the ground, agree a starting point, and discuss possible routes through the islands at the west end. This done, we headed back to our lodgings where we cranked up the heater and enjoyed a few cans of beer before bed. I prayed for the weather to improve as forecast. 

If anything, the weather the following morning was even less encouraging. The wind had picked up and, as we consummed our coffee and sausage buttie in the cafe, the rain was literally bouncing off the tarmac in the car park outside. Enthusiasm was low, but sufficient, in light of all the planning and travel, to at least set off. So we packed up and got changed into our wetsuits in the shower blocks; a task which would have been particularly grim in an exposed layby in the pouring rain and a gale. 

Thomas was keen to have a defined starting point for the route and we had settled the previous evening on Loch Ba bridge which we found was already occupied by two well-oiled fisherman who were using it to shelter from the wind and rain. They very much enjoyed our final preparations:

“What is it youse are doing?”

“Just going for a wee swim.”

I provided our new angler pals further amusement by slipping unceremoniously off a rock and capsizing my RuckRaft as I entered the water. After righting it, we set off with their final warning, that Loch Ba was too shallow to swim, still ringing in our ears, adding to any existing doubts we had as to the wisdom of the endeavour. 

They were proven right for the first part of Loch Ba. We were initially carried along by the flow in shallow water until the river emptied out into the loch, me adopting a feet first on my back position with the raft towing me, combined with periods of walking and dragging the RuckRaft behind when it was too shallow for a middle-aged man to float. Eventually the water got deep enough to combine a crocodile style of hauling ourselves along the bottom of the loch with our arms, interspersed with short periods of proper swimming. I was a little concerned that this might set the tone for the rest of the swim in Loch Ba. However, once we had navigated the channel between the two large unnamed islands at the west end of the loch the water got deep enough to swim properly. 

Loch Ba is irregularly shaped, dotted with islands and headlands, and has a couple of narrow exit channels which might have been easy to miss from water-level. Our plan for navigating it had been to strap a print-off of the appropriate section of the OS map to a RuckRaft. As back-up, we planned to plot the route and download it to one of our watches. In the event, we forgot to print off the map so relied entirely on the watch to guide us. This worked out better as the water and air temperatures weren’t really conducive to hanging about long enough to locate ourselves on a physical map. 

In effect, our approach was to island hop the smaller islands which lead in a roughly diagonal line across the main body of Loch Ba to Eilean Molach. From there we could see the first exit where the loch is pinched to a channel about 100 metres at the narrowest. The smaller second body of the loch was navigated in a similar fashion; again there are a series of small islands leading diagonally to a second exit which leads to the final even smaller body of water before the loch becomes the Abhainn Ba (the river which drains from Loch Ba into Loch Laidon). 

By the time we reached the Abhainn Ba, which we knew beforehand we would not be able to swim, Thomas and I were sufficiently cold that we made the decision to put our waterproofs straight on over our wetsuits and start walking the kilometre and a half to the confluence of the Abhainn Ba and Loch Laidon in the hope that the hike would warm us up. Tom, in a 5mm surfing wetsuit with an integrated hood, was in much better shape. By the time we’d finished the short hike, the weather was brighter and Thomas and I had warmed up enough to allow us to stop for a late lunch while we considered the final swim of the day.

The target was a little claw-shaped bay on the west shore of Loch Laidon where the main body of the loch is joined by an arm from the west. I knew from satellite photos that there were a couple of beaches there which would make good campsites and give us some choice depending on the prevailing weather conditions. There had been some discussion during lunch about pressing on further than planned to make day two a bit easier. However, crossing the confluence of the western arm of the loch exposed us directly to a cross-wind and some healthy fetch, so by the time we reached the bay we were all happy to call it a day.

We set up camp on the beach which faces east so that we were largely sheltered from the wind. Having forced down our expedition meals we got a cracking fire going fuelled by a bag of logs we had bought in Tyndrum and supplemented with a handy supply of bogwood we found close to the camp, and began firing into our equally ample supply of Ardbeg whisky. The wind kept the midges away and it stayed mostly dry, although we had a tarp setup so we were able to shelter from the short outbreaks of rain. We hit the sack just before the sun came up and slept like logs.

The target was a claw-shaped bay on the west shore of Loch Laidon where the main body of the loch is joined by an arm from the west. I knew from satellite photos that there were a couple of beaches there which would make good campsites…

A rest stop by the shore. Photo: Ian Watson.

It was quite a late start on Sunday. It had clearly rained a little over night but was dry and blustery when we got up. We got some coffee and breakfast down and prepared to set off on the final swim up Loch Laidon. Tom had understandably decided that Saturday’s swim was quite enough swimming for one weekend and that he was going to walk to Rannoch Station along the track which leads from the Kings House Hotel along the western shore of Loch Laidon. As it had started raining again, Thomas and I packed up and got changed into our swimming gear in fairly cramped conditions under the tarp while Tom watched on. He was happy enough to take down the tarp and clear up the campfire after we had set off.

Although we weren’t in any particular hurry since our train wasn’t due at Rannoch Station until 6:30pm, the promise of a fish-finger sandwich at the Rannoch Station tea-room, which closes at 4:30pm, encouraged a no-nonsense approach to the swimming.  Navigation was straightforward since all we really needed to do was keep within touching distance of the western shore and swim until we ran out of loch. We tended to stop at intervals to agree on an island or headland to sight on, regroup when we reached it, and then agree on the next target. Once the buildings of Rannoch Station beyond the beach at the end of the loch came into view, probably a couple of kilometres from the end, we sighted on those and swam the remainder of the distance without stopping. The swim was mostly drama free except for a spectacular bout of cramp on my part about three quarters of the way in, and some pretty bouncy conditions towards the end due to the wind channelling up the loch behind us. 

It was a great feeling staggering onto the empty beach at the end of Loch Laidon having not seen another human-being since leaving Loch Ba bridge the previous morning. The day’s swim was just over seven kilometres according to our GPS data and we had completed it in a respectable three hours. We did a bit of fist-bumping on the beach before getting changed into dry clothes and walking the final kilometre and a half to Rannoch Station. 

We met Tom half-way to the station where he delivered the devastating news that the tea-room had inexplicably closed for two weeks so there would be no fish-finger sandwiches. Fortunately the tea-room was operating a tuck-shop with an honesty box so we were able to get a sugary drink to wash down the remainder of the food we’d carried with us. The train arrived on time and deposited us back at Bridge of Orchy, and all that was left to do was travel home and start planning the next expedition (Assynt has been discussed).

Ian Watson