Scottish Swimmer

Swimming In The Wake of John Buchan

Achnacloich House in Argyll, Scotland. A Scottish Baronial mansion built in the late 19th century.
Achnacloich House, Argyll

So we spent a cracking week in Achnacloich on the banks of Loch Etive in Argyll. Almost halfway between Taynuilt and Connel Ferry, Achnacloich is a marvellous Victorian pile. Ornate, rich in history and a killer to keep warm, this grand Baronial mansion was our home for a week in Easter, and a rare and wonderful big family holiday it was too. The grounds themselves are an attraction for those folks who like to visit beautiful gardens on their Saturdays (there’s a range of colourful rhododendrons, Douglas firs, water gardens, and a bamboo maze among other floral delights). We also had seven days of unbroken dryness, sunshine even, which would make even the shabbiest cabin seem a luxury retreat. In Argyll, it’s practically unheard of.

The writer John Buchan came to Achnacloich, holidaying with his pal Tommy Nelson (of Nelson publishing), whose family still owns the property. Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps is dedicated to his pal and business partner, who died at the Battle of Arras in 1917 three years after its publication.

It was at times like being inside a living museum, or the set of a period drama, with old photographs and oils on the walls, and game diaries mixed in among the bookshelves. (Who knew you could shoot so many rabbits in one summer!) The mounted deer trophies weren’t really a surprise; the giant and sad bison skulls were though. Our various families had an absolute blast; we barely saw our kids.

Family vacation aside, I wanted to get some swimming in. Down a steep tree-lined path from the house is the old boathouse and jetty. On the other side of a wee channel of water – about 100 meters or so – you’ll find the low-lying Abbot’s Isle, home to the ruin of a medieval dun that was possibly a monk’s cell or a hermit’s doss. Nowadays it was temporary residence for the dozens of Greylag geese who stop by on their holidays. 

Ahead of our arrival, I’d had the notion of swimming round the isle; maybe some 800 metres or so. But the cold water temp scotched any notion of that! A few minutes and a couple of hundred meters was my limit. And that wasn’t even considering the tidal flow, which was fierce (5-6kts) in the main body of the loch, and hearty even where we were swimming. It meant the Abbot’s Isle circuit was a swim I was going to have to do either in warmer water or when I was better acclimatised. Besides the entry points were a bit rubbish …

Abbot's Isle, Loch Etive, and the boathouse at Achnacloich, Argyll, Scotland.
Abbot’s Isle, and the boathouse at Achnacloich

Dissing the weed-covered and deathly slidey jetty, my wife Caroline and I had the choice of two bays, both rocky, which meant the three swims we had all began and ended with a bit of hotstepping. Initially grumbling about the mass of seaweed at the edge, I was grateful for it on exit as it served as a cushion, albeit a slippery one, over the rocks and sharp gravel. My exit on the last day was not my finest moment when, alone and unobserved, I slumped out the water like a seal to avoid walking on jaggy stones (it actually reminded me of the crux move on Spartan’s Slab on Etive Slabs just a couple of kilometres up the lochside).

It’d been a while, too, since I’ve swum over the black, black murk of seaweed, though on the sunniest of these three dips, the sun’s long rays stretched into the water, tipping the edges of the kelp below me, picking up particles in the water. It looked like dust motes do when you open the curtains a touch and the sun strikes through.

Each swim, I did an icy medley of front crawl, breaststroke and backcrawl along the shore, unable to get my face in for any length of time; an ongoing issue I blame on baldness and cowardice. Ducking down under, controlled breathing, and then relaxing all help; but I’m becoming increasingly frustrated by my inability to just get my face in and swim away, especially in water about or below 8c. Plenty of others can do it.

Abbot's Isle, Achnacloich, Loch Etive, Argyll, Scotland
Abbot’s Isle, Loch Etive.

Even though a loop of the isle wan’t even on the cards, I fancied a turn up the channel between the shore and Abbot’s Isle. I made very little progress: the tidal flow, even in this sheltered bay of Loch Etive, made it a challenge to make any decent distance north. Treading meant a drift back to where I’d started from. Swimming with the tide, I felt I was flying. 

The next couple of swims were a bit easier, both on the flow and in regards the temperature. Perhaps those days of sun made a bit of difference, or maybe it was acclimatisation. Day two and my cousin Jenny enjoyed the cold waters with us too. 

I did wonder what the great British novelist John Buchan would have made of us splashing about, as he and his hosts rowed over to Abbot’s Isle. Perhaps even they too donned swim caps and cossies and circumnavigated the wee isle, though more likely they’d fishing rods out and shotguns targeting the pheasants and grouse.

The final day, on my own, I felt both very exposed, and free. With no one about, getting out and drying off was delightfully liberating in the warm sun. Although the sea was calm, this felt like one of my most pure “wild” swims.

Irene Jamieson, 1928-2019

The next day all the family lined the shore at the same spot. This time, we were all present to scatter the ashes of my grandma. An avid reader and great mind, she died in Suffolk but wanted her remains brought home to Scotland. The beautiful spot we’d picked couldn’t have suited her better.

This big family holiday was the perfect occasion to say farewell; this stunning wee bay with its long views down Loch Etive and rich history was the perfect location. But not just for the scenery and the people who’d gone before her, but for the fact it was a spot where her grandchildren and great-grand children had splashed about and chucked stones, where we’d mooched about, explored, rowed hither and thither, sat, gabbed, gazed and even swum on the days before.

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