Many years ago I was offered a mooring for a house-boat, but my boyfriend at the time suggested that living on the water possibly wasn’t the best idea for someone who fell down frequently on solid ground. While I still can’t argue with his logic, it hasn’t stopped me being a little cross with myself that I didn’t give it a go anyway – because I really wanted to. Similarly, for the last ten years or so I’ve been muttering about swimming in the loch, but every time I mention it I am reminded by my partner of all the reasons why it is not a good idea – it would be fair to mention here that he has worked on sea-lochs around Lochaber for the best part of 30 years, so does know a wee bit about them. Tonight, as I walk down the rough brae from our house, across the single-track road and down to the stony shore, the warnings of red jelly fish, slimy brown seaweed and frigid water temperatures are ringing in my ears, but I have finally decided that enough is enough. The only way to find out if I can do it is to, well, do it.
The weather has been hot for the last few days and the evening air is a white haze across the water, turning the greens of the surrounding hills into an indistinct blue. I’m hoping that the recent heatwave will have turned the top few inches of the loch a touch warmer than all the dire warnings have indicated. The ground at the shore here was recently landscaped by a digger into a makeshift slip of broken granitic gneiss and basalt,* but the stones closer to the tide, glistening russet, gold, cinnamon, honey, copper, olive, pewter, have been rolled smooth by time and water. More important to me though, at this precise moment, is that the usually-prolific bladder wrack hasn’t quite recovered from the groundworks here: it is as clear a stretch into the water as I am going to get.
I stand with my toes, still in trainers, tipping at the edge of the yellow-toned shore water. The wind sends the surface undulating towards me. When I was wee my mum used to run the bathwater too hot, so I used to get into the bath in increments, first acclimatising my feet, then gradually letting my ankles, my shins, my thighs get used to the hot water; I inch forward now and let the waves travel up to my bare ankles. It is cold, but as, this guy puts it, it’s somewhere between ‘no bad’ and ‘aye, it’s awright’. I have a brief moment where I think, ‘you’re nuts, this is going to be painful, just go for walk’, but then irritation kicks in: I want to know if I’m capable of this. I step further into the loch, sliding a little on the stones. I’m up to my knees. I imagine going home now – it wouldn’t be too shameful for a first attempt, would it? But after a few minutes I take another step forward, the water now up to the tops of my thighs; my lungs seem to be trying to get away from the water as my breath suddenly starts to come in sharp and shallow. I can still see the bottom clearly though; here and there are wisps of kelp still anchored on rocks by my feet. I remember swimming in the sea off Ardneil Bay as a kid: I was fine as long as I could put my feet down on the sand, but the minute I got into deeper water I had this same involuntary drawing in of breath, as if my body was trying to draw itself out of the water. I was afraid of the unknown, of other sea-dwellers (whatever they may be), of what lurked in the water between my feet and the seabed. I still am.
However, I am also now becoming aware of a separation that exists between me and the natural world: barring the odd walk I have largely admired the breathtaking display of the Scottish Highlands through a pane of glass (touched on in this much earlier blog post). So I bend down and put my arms into the water up to my shoulders, feet still firmly on the ground. I breathe slowly and deeply to remind my body that it is okay where it is, that I am still only a few feet from the dry rocks at the shore. Taking one more slow deep breath I lean further forward and push my whole body into the water. A tiny splash of salt water on my lips is exhilarating – I am doing it! I am swimming in this loch! I swim in a tiny circle, maybe five or six breast strokes, then quickly scramble my feet back down onto the rocks that are just a couple of feet below me. I stand up and beam into the sunlight; the sun gleams off the seawater that streams off my black leggings. The water doesn’t feel as cold now, and I push myself back into the water, again doing a little circle. I can describe little else as I am mainly focussing on catching my breath and calming it down. I still don’t want anything to touch me, but as I swim in my tiny orbit close to the shore I start to relax enough to see the water, the liquid denim blue of the waves woven with white reflections, and golden seaweed breaking the surface at either side of my safe zone. My eye won’t go beyond that to the hills, or even to the trees which I imagine are waving me on from the shore, but maybe next time.
* Thank you Lochaber Geopark.