From swimming under ice in the Cairngorms to crossing the Firth of Forth in winter, Calum MacLean isn’t one to resist a dare. The film-maker and TV presenter chats to Gayle Ritchie ahead of a talk in Perth on December 10…
At 997m above sea level, Loch Coire an Lochain in the Cairngorms is Scotland’s highest loch.
It can hold ice for seven months of the year, so while impressive to look at, it wouldn’t be the obvious choice for a swim…for most us.
Enter Calum MacLean – a film-maker and TV presenter from Inverness, mad about outdoor swimming across Scotland.
Calum, 30, used a pickaxe to break the ice so he could take a dip – in just his trunks and a swimming cap – and reveals while it was “hoora cold”, the experience left him buzzing for hours.
“It was brutally cold but since the water was so blue and clear, it wasn’t intimidating like dark water.” he muses.
“I’d gone there with the idea of making a film and taking photos so once I got past chest depth, I was fully focussed and kind of forgot the cold.”
As well as swimming in some of Scotland’s coldest lochs, often walking miles through remote wilderness to reach them, Calum has devised a completely non-scientific water temperature guide – The Scottish Water Temperature Chart – for anyone attempting a dip themselves.
The brave soul – who has featured on various BBC Alba shows and whose films for the BBC’s The Social have racked up millions of views – will be speaking to audiences in Perth on December 10 as part of the prestigious Royal Scottish Geographical Society (RSGS) Inspiring People talks series.
“I was never a competitive swimmer, but I always loved being around water,” says Calum.
“Lots of family holidays involved being outdoors so I’d often throw myself into whatever water was about.”
Calum got into the more adventurous side of wild swimming 10 years ago when he was in Tasmania. On a whim, he swam around a kilometre across the River Derwent early one morning. He didn’t tell anyone, which he admits “wasn’t the wisest”, but he found the buzz completely exhilarating.
His first swim in ice was in Skye, five years ago.
Calum swims for many reasons, but mostly it’s about location – interesting, beautiful places, and places he’s never been to.
“I get bored swimming at the same places, and enjoy getting to places well away from roads, cars, noise.
“I think it’s natural to challenge ourselves if we enjoy something, so it’s about seeing how I am in colder waters, seeing if I can swim further, seeing what great locations I’ve yet to go and plunge into.
“Often a challenge will come to me just looking at a map or location, saying to myself, ‘I think I could swim that’, then working out how to do it.
“The thrill of completing a swim, even a short dip, is a great buzz. It’s that buzz that keeps me going back.”
Before Calum ventured into icy Loch Coire an Lochain in April 2017, he spent months acclimatising, so he was confident he’d be able to do it.
“Since I rarely measure temperature, I don’t know how cold it was but I suspect around two to 3C – hoora cold!” he laughs.
“I was only in for five minutes but I was buzzing my txxx off afterwards!”
In January, he crossed the Firth of Forth for his BBC ALBA series Dhan Uisge when it was snowing.
“With having to stop to film pieces to camera, the swim took about 50 minutes,” he says.
“Conditions were a bit choppy and the water was murky, and as I stopped to talk, I swallowed one huge mouthful – pretty minging!”
Calum’s unique formula for charting water temperature in Scotland is hilarious. His guide starts with “roasting” and shifts through “no bad” to “Baltic” or “hoora cold”, which he also refers to with some choice swear words.
His best outdoor swimming experience ever was last summer in Loch A’An in the Cairngorms.
“It’s a beautiful loch, hemmed in by mountains, and the quickest way there is up and over a mountain.
“I’d run in one morning, in bright, brilliant sunshine and when I got the loch, plunged straight in.
“The water was very cold but incredibly clear and clean – I could see really far underwater.
“The combination of endorphins from the run and swim, being surrounded by mountains, cold water and bright sun warming me up was perfect.”
In terms Courier Country hot (or cold) spots, Calum has swum in the Tay many times and hopes to make the journey down the river from Kenmore to Dundee, although he reckons he’d recce it using a paddleboard or canoe.
He’s also a fan of the Falls of Acharn near Kenmore.
“I swam there when there were icicles hanging off the trees so I’d probably go in summer next time! The pools there are stunning, and there are sliding and jumping opportunities if that’s your thing.”
Other favourites include Clunie Loch and Loch Faskally.
He’s swum at Broughty Ferry a few times where his grandfather was a volunteer lifeguard on the beach.
Calum’s dream is to do more swimhiking – swimming while carrying all his gear and camping.
“This lets you do longer multi-day journeys, in the same way as packrafting, but swimming instead,” he explains.
“I did a trip across Scotland, from Poolewe to Dingwall, and want to try more. I also fancy going back to Tasmania and taking swimhiking journeys across the remote parts.”
He’s also toying with the idea of taking on an ice kilometre (swimming 1km in water that’s 5C or colder).
Swimming aside, Calum, who works part-time in outdoor education with young people, posted a Youtube video of him completing a 60-second midge challenge where he resisted itching as the beasties swarmed his face.
“Midges wind me up and make me angry so it got me thinking – could I handle a minute without reacting?”.
“I was at Admore Point in Skye, taking photos, and decided to go for it. I hoped others would take up the challenge, and a few have, but it never became a craze. I wonder why?”
Calum MacLean’s talk, Wild Swimming in Scotland, takes place at North Inch Community Campus in Perth on December 10 at 7.30pm. rsgs.org