Why swim in a busy indoor pool when you can do it for free outdoors? Gayle heads to Clunie Loch in Perthshire – without a wetsuit – for an invigorating, energetic and somewhat chilly spot of wild swimming…
Recently, while out walking in the wilderness, I’ve become obsessed with dipping my toes into waterways, whether rivers, lochs or the sea.
The toe test allows me to conclude whether it’s warm enough to get in and swim.
This year, I’ve experienced swims in Loch Tummel, Loch Lee, the plunge pool at the bottom of the Falls of Unich in Glen Esk, the sea at Stonehaven, and most recently, Clunie Loch.
At no point have I sported a wetsuit to do this – it’s much more invigorating and immersive in just a cossie.
While I’ve taken most dips alone, I decided to join Clunie Loch Wild Swimming Group for a session.
Arriving on the banks of the loch, four miles from Blairgowrie, the sky is dark, it’s raining heavily and thunder is forecast.
I’m very glad, and slightly amazed, to see that two folk have turned up to join me – Kelly McIntyre from nearby Marlee, and Mel Chadd from Bridge of Earn. Like myself, they are both sporting just swimsuits.
“We call ourselves ‘skin swimmers’” says Kelly, 44, a photographer and videographer, revealing she’s been coming with her family for regular “dooks” in Clunie Loch since she was a wee girl.
Mel, 42, a travel blogger and photographer, has only recently got into wild swimming and admits she’s become completely obsessed, going for “at least two” dips a week.
After a quick chat on the beach, I avail myself of my fluffy dressing gown and watch as the girls wade out into the loch.
Encouraged by the absence of screams, but covered in goosebumps, I step in, too, and find it’s actually not that bad.
“It was much warmer a few weeks ago – the heavy rain has cooled it down,” says Kelly. “But once you’re in, you’ll be fine!”
True enough, once I’ve narrowly avoided stubbing my toes on a group of giant rocks and slowly submerged my entire body, it feels wonderful.
The three of us swim out into the middle of the loch but agree we’re not going to attempt anything too adventurous.
For us, it’s about enjoying this peaceful, almost meditative experience of being immersed in nature.
However, there are other group members who take things more seriously, training for long-distance events and races.
Kelly joined the group in May because she wanted to meet like-minded people for “company and chats”.
“Usually, I swim alone or with my family in Marlee Loch,” she tells me.
“When I enter the water to swim, I leave my worries and stresses behind. I’m in the moment, mindful, and enjoy the peace and nature.”
The group has encouraged her to swim further – there’s safety in numbers – and to enrol in lessons so she can master the front crawl.
Kelly, who plans to buy a wetsuit and safety float so she can continue swimming through winter, has lost nearly a stone since she took up wild swimming.
Mel got involved after a friend regaled her with her tales of swimming through winter and loving it.
“I was curious to see what all the fuss was about,” she says.
“I love being in the water and seeing Scotland from a different perspective, letting it literally get under my skin.”
Mel also takes part in open water swimming sessions at Willowgate Activity Centre in Perth.
“It’s open to everyone, from people like me who enjoy a gentle swim to those training for long distance events. It’s a great way to have a first experience in a safe environment.”
When it comes to Clunie, Mel says she’ll be “mostly hugging the shoreline” until she feels more confident.
The benefits? She’s made new friends – “like-minded people who don’t bat an eye at me going in the water in my swimsuit” – and feels part of nature, watching ospreys fishing and families of ducklings swim by “without any bother, like I’m supposed to be there.”
She also says she feels her body becoming more toned and loves the feeling of exhilaration.
“On days I can’t swim in cold water, I find myself turning the water cold at the end of my shower just to get a quick fix!” she laughs.
Rhona Dunbar, 50, is among a small group of Clunie Loch swimmers who are rather more serious about the sport.
“During the warm weather, I was doing 2K swims in my cossie three or four times a week,” she says.
“Recently, I’ve been putting a neoprene vest on top. When it gets colder, I’ll try my ‘shortie wetsuit’, an old wetsuit I cut up.”
Rhona swims right through the winter – in a wetsuit and admits it takes some acclimatisation and is not recommended for people just starting out.
“It’s good fun and great camaraderie.” she says. “The views are amazing – the sun glinting on the surface of the water and ospreys diving.”
Rhona has swum with other groups in Fife and on holiday elsewhere. “Other swimmers are generally very welcoming and friendly. People of all different backgrounds are united by their love of it.”
Check out Clunie Loch Wild Swimming Group’s page on Facebook. Meet-ups are very informal. You simply request to join the group’s Facebook page and then either turn up at a suggested swim or suggest a time and date yourself. As well as organising regular swims, the group, along with Piotr Gudan of Outdoor Explore and Clunie Village Hall Committee, arranges litter picks. Some of the swimmers carry bin bags with them to collect rubbish.