I’ve only swum in Loch an Eilein once. Three summers ago, as August tipped into September, my friend Ben and I pulled up in a campervan and passed a freezing night on its banks. We were woken at dawn by a clattering of jackdaws taking to the air from the ruined castle that sits on a small island close to the shore.
Mist rose from the surface of the loch, the temperature barely above freezing as I struggled into my swimming shorts. The promise of a swim before the crowds arrived outweighed any concerns about the cold. I swam with my head out, my hair dry, watching the castle loom high above me, rolling on my back to get a better view of the high peaks of the Cairngorms on the far shore.
Ben swam around me, grasping a camera in waterproof housing, occasionally diving beneath me and emerging, gasping for air, his long hair slick across his face. He was making a film about our trip across Scotland, based on my previous journeys exploring the UK’s best wild swims, retracing, in part, Roger Deakin’s nature classic, Waterlog.
As lockdown progresses, I have fantasised about this swim and its warm afterglow. The lukewarm coffee drunk on the banks after we had hastily dried and dressed. The slow walk through the pines of the surrounding Rothiemurchus Forest, the flowering heather glinting with cobwebs in the rising sun. The red squirrel that engaged me in a staring contest as Ben went back to the van to pack up.
Ben lives in Vancouver now. His pictures of camping trips in British Columbia have sustained me as my world has shrunk to the confines of my basement flat. But as summer arrives, I hope he will return. I see us on the small beach at the north end of the loch, readying ourselves to get into the cool water, clothes and towels in an unsightly heap. Ben picks out birds that I cannot identify – a redstart on a nearby branch. There is the distant drilling of a woodpecker as we wade in, the late summer sun rising to greet us.
We have lived through something immense, unfathomable since we first came here. The cold, fresh water holds no fear, only the promise of deep relaxation and new beginnings.
Joe Minihane is author of Floating: A Return to Waterlog (Duckworth) and available in paperback at The Guardian Bookshop
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