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Wild swimming retreat on stunning Isle of Mull and Iona knocked my neoprene socks off

Sunrise sea swims, furry friends and wild landscapes made for a magical weekend in the Inner Hebrides.

Rebecca, third from left, joins the group in jumping off the jetty despite ditching her wetsuit. Image: Stephen David Photography.
Rebecca, third from left, joins the group in jumping off the jetty despite ditching her wetsuit. Image: Stephen David Photography.

Legend has it that if you visit Iona once, the island will call you back three times.

The tiny, ancient island, balanced on the westernmost tip of the Inner Hebrides, certainly feels steeped in magic.

With its blackest-black rock that dates back two billion years, pure white beaches made almost solely of ground limpet shell, and endless skies that take on an eerie pink glow even in mid afternoon, it feels like a world removed from what we think of as Scotland.

So I shouldn’t be surprised to find myself visiting for the second time just months after I first made the trip, earlier this summer.

This sophomore jaunt is the climax of a three-night wild swimming retreat, hosted by Hebridean Wild Swimming coach Emma MacDonald on the neighbouring Isle of Mull.

Emma MacDonald, centre, with the group on Iona’s North End beach. Image: Stephen David Photography.

Emma hails originally from Australia but built up a swim coaching business in England before relocating to Mull with her husband John.

Now surrounded by some of Scotland’s most untouched beauty spots, she’s hosting three-night and five-night retreats for novice and experienced wild swimmers, respectively.

Undeniably novice sea swimmers, my partner Steve and I join eight others – a mix of couples and solo travellers – on the three-night retreat as summer tails into autumn.

No competition for serenity at Knockvologan

Hosted over a long weekend (Friday to Monday), it’s an action-packed stay – and the fun begins on the ferry from Oban to Mull.

As we wave goodbye to the mainland, we see the stunning Lismore Lighthouse, a brilliant white beacon against a rather bleak September sea.

And when the ferry’s huge mouth spits our car out the other side, it’s a scenic hour-long drive along Mull’s one circular (single-track) main road to Achaban House, near Fionnphort.

Achaban House, run by Matt and Rachel Oliver, hosted the Wild Hebridean Swimming retreat. Image: Rebecca Baird.

For someone like me who’s prone to getting lost, the road’s a dream – which is handy, as the wild hills, glassy lochs and free roaming Highland cows are the best kind of distraction.

Across the Friday afternoon, all ten swimmers arrive in dribs and drabs at the stunning retreat house, owned by Matt and Rachel Oliver, who are both intensely knowledgeable about the island.

After a short rest in our comfy bedroom, we’re enticed out by the smell of a scrumptious dinner cooked up by chef Anna Mockford, who caters our entire weekend using locally sourced meat and produce.

Introductions flow with the wine before an early night to get ready for the next morning’s swim at the serene bay of Knockvologan, which knocks my neoprene socks off.

Knockvologan provided the perfect spot to dive in for the first swim of the weekend. Image: Stephen David Photography.

Slotted into the hill at the bottom of a bumpy footpath, the bay is sheltered from the slightly stormy weather, with no waves and little wind, making it the perfect spot for the group to get our feet wet – so to speak.

Some of the more serious swimmers follow Emma out for some technical coaching; meanwhile dippers like us bob around happily in our depth for 30-40 minutes.

Kintra’s delicious Lazy Cow Cafe didn’t disappoint

After getting warmed up, showered and dried back at Achaban, it’s off for a walk to Kintra (meaning ‘country’) along the shore of Loch Pottie, the loch which sits just outside the house and stretches off to the east.

We make some bovine friends on our way to the aptly-named Lazy Cow Cafe and Farm Shop, where the group enjoys a leisurely – and filling – lunch, the highlight of which is a postcard-perfect stag appearing on the crest of a nearby hill.

One of the many roaming Highland cows on Mull, in front of The Lazy Cow Cafe and Farmshop, Kintra. Image: Rebecca Baird.

Then it’s a full-bellied waddle back to the house, before we head out for our late afternoon swim at Uisken (pronounced ‘Oosh-ken’, much to my delight).

This swim’s a bit choppier, with the wind whipping up some waves. Steve opts to stay dry this time, exploring the rockpools and cliffs around the beach as I bound into the water to get chucked about for 20 minutes or so.

Thanks to Emma’s expertise and the fact all safety equipment – such as tow floats and wetsuits – is being provided, I’m not as intimidated as I would be swimming alone, and I enjoy the wilder water.

Tow floats, wetsuits, goggles and other safety equipment was provided in the cost of the retreat. Image: Stephen David Photography

Back at Achaban, therapist Sandra Fox is on hand to provide a relaxing start the evening, delivering 30-minute massage treatments to anyone who wants to partake.

I do, and the sandalwood-scented back, neck and shoulders massage is the perfect antidote to the previous day’s long drive – and resulting stiff neck.

Then we have another belly-bursting dinner, which tides us over through Sunday morning’s ‘sunrise swim’ off the slipway at the beautiful Bendoran Boat Yard.

Wetsuit? No. Hot tub? Yes!

Flanked by fishing boats, we enjoy a soothing morning swim.

Never a wetsuit-wearer myself, I decide to don one for the sake of journalism, and find that though it undoubtedly takes the edge off the cold and lets me stay in longer, it dulls the skin-searing sensation I’m looking for when I go wild swimming.

No sooner have I ditched it, though, than the group decides to jump off the jetty into the freezing morning tide. Not wanting to miss out, I join them in my swimsuit, and feel refreshed to say the least.

Rebecca and Steve, left, with the rest of the Wild Hebridean Swimming retreat group before the sunrise swim at Bendoran. Image: Stephen David Photography.
A drone captured this stunning image of the swimmers at Bendoran once the sun had risen. Image: Stephen David Photography

Back at Achaban, some folk head right back out on paddleboards to explore the local lochs; others cosy up by the fire with books or cups of tea. We opt for a soak in the lush outdoor hot tub overlooking Loch Pottie, and I almost fall asleep as the sun streams in through the trees.

Then it’s finally on to the part of the trip I’m most excited about – a short, 10-minute ferry ride from Fionnphort to the island of Iona, where we’re met by tour guide and walking encyclopaedia of island life, David Allaway.

Special swim at Iona’s ‘meeting of the waves’

David takes us up the harbour, through the island’s stunningly-preserved 13th century nunnery, and along past Iona Abbey which was home to St Columba, who famously brought Christianity to Scotland.

It’s this abbey that draws thousands of pilgrims to the island each year, and though not religious myself, the power of the place feels palpable.

We were fascinated by David’s knowledge of the history and geology of Iona. Image: Stephen David Photography.

After a picnic lunch (packed and provided by Anna) in the gardens of the aptly-named St Columba Larder, David leads us through free-roaming sheep fields to the pristine North End beaches, where the pure white sand stretching off left and right would have you believing you were in some equatorial paradise.

Here we have our final swim, at the ‘meeting of the waves’ – a fascinating geological phenomenon where the sea seams and two waves crash into one another instead of breaking on the shore.

Scenes of joy as the Wild Hebridean Swimming group have their final swim in Iona’s famed ’emerald’ waters. Image: Stephen David Photography.

For the first time all weekend, the sun comes out in earnest, and we have a glorious splash about in the brilliant blue water as gannets dive in the distance. Warming up afterwards in our dry-robes and woolly hats, we’re all grinning like kids at Christmas.

Catching our breath in The Keel Row

Catching the second-to-last ferry back to Fionnphort, the chat is all yoga, as a session is being offered by local instructor Zoe Heald – which I’m later told is incredible.

Shattered and sure that nothing can top that last swim, we decide to doss about the bay at Fionnphort for an hour instead, watching the sunset and grabbing a cheeky pint of Thistly Cross in The Keel Row pub.

Rebecca and Steve at ‘the meeting of the waves’.

Inside, we flick through a book of ‘local wildlife sightings’, which records everything from stags and seals to baby otters and eagles, making me more determined than ever to come back.

I sleep like a stone, and when we wake up on Monday, it’s time to head home – but not before a visit to the fascinating Ardalanish Weavers, where we see the wool-weaving machinery in action.

Machinery at Ardalanish Isle of Mull Weavers. Image: Rebecca Baird.
Organic, hand-dyed wool experiments at Ardalanish Isle of Mull Weavers. Image: Rebecca Baird.

It’s a great insight into the livelihoods of the people who inhabit this otherworldly island, and testament to the hard work that goes into surviving here.

After all that, it really is time to go, so off we drive back along that single-track road, and before we know it, we’re passing the lighthouse and back on the mainland.

But I know I’ll be back. Legend says three times; I wonder what the third will have in store?

Wild Hebridean Swimming offers three-night and five-night retreats for a range of abilities from April to September. The retreats are priced from £895-1595. For more information, visit their website, or contact Emma directly:; 07770 483 063.

This retreat was funded by The Spirit of the Highlands and Islands project is supported by a grant from the Natural and Cultural Heritage Fund (NCHF), led by NatureScot and funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).