Swimming High in the Cairngorms

The Cairngorms National Park is a wild swimmer’s paradise. Famous for having some of the cleanest rivers in Europe, as well as many stunning lochs and lochans, I am certainly spoilt for choice when it comes to swimming opportunities on my doorstep.

Embracing the snow and ice of a Cairngorms winter, I swim all year round, enjoying luscious long swims in the summer and short bracing dips in the colder months. I find that I have learned to love the cold. I crave the cold. I even seek the cold.

When the low-levels lochs start to warm up, crowds inevitably begin to flock to popular loch-side hot-spots to enjoy water-sports and stunning mountain views. At this time, I feel a magnetic pull, drawing me higher up into the mountains, in search of escape, adventure and cold, quiet water to swim in.

Birthday on Braeriach

Descending from the summit of Braeriach, my stomach churns with excitement as I peer down to catch my first glimpse of Loch Coire an Lochain. A few more steps and there it is, a dark, glistening body of water emerging from the steep-sided coire in front of me. I stop for a minute and drink in the spectacular view, watching the patterns of light and wind dance across the surface of the water below.

Nestled in Braeriach’s Northern Coires, Loch Coire an Lochain is a hidden jewel among mountain lochs. Remote, rarely visited and surrounded by large snow patches (even in the middle of summer), it is one of the highest named stretches of water in the British Isles at around 1000m above sea level.

Reaching the water’s edge I change into my swim kit (costume, hat, goggles, neoprene socks and gloves) and stand at the waters edge giddy with anticipation. As soon as I step into the water I feel the needle-sharp chill of the snowmelt water on my skin. I focus on my breath, moving slowly and carefully forwards into the loch until I am fully submerged.

At first, the cold feels all-consuming, but after a couple of minutes, the feeling turns into a pleasant numbness across my entire body. I take another deep breath and look around. Underwater visibility is exceptional, the water is crystal clear. The deeper areas appear a stunning sapphire blue colour.

I spend a while exploring the magical underwater world, diving deep down into the blue and marvelling at the perfect clarity of the water. I float on my back, look up at the blue sky and watch the clouds drift by.

I get out of the water and turn back to face the magnificent coire. The wind hits me and my whole body tingles with the cold. I feel totally alive. A perfect birthday swim!

Cloud Swimming

Arriving at Loch Etchachan the clouds are rolling in thick and fast, obscuring the views in every direction. Within minutes I find myself engulfed in a world of white mist and blurred shapes. The surrounding mountains melt away and I can only see a small portion of the loch directly in front of me.

The water is completely still, not a single ripple disturbing the glass-like surface. It is an incredible, eery feeling swimming out into the middle of the cloud. The only ripples are the ones I create from my body’s movement through the water. There is nothing to see around me, just cloud and the misty shore I have just swum from. With nothing else to focus on, I am exceptionally aware of my own breathing and the biting cold. I am completely surrounded. I almost lose sight of the shore, even though I know it is only a few meters away. I do not stay in for long.

Camping overnight beside the loch means that I get to have another swim in the morning. Thankfully the clouds retreat and reveal the dramatic setting of Loch Etchachan in all its glory. At 0.79km long and 927m above sea level, it is the highest water body of its size in the UK.

I enjoy a bracing early morning swim in the sunshine. The contrast to the previous evenings swim could not be greater. It is like swimming in a completely different body of water. Bright light illuminates the loch and the colours seem more vivid now the mist has cleared.

The cold water revives me, I am grinning from ear to ear and I manage to hold onto my cold water buzz all the way to the top of Ben Macdui!

Underwater Sunbeams

Loch A’an is huge: three miles long and thirty metres deep. In the winter the surface of the loch freezes over completely. In the summer the shallow waters around the edge glow turquoise, while the glacial depths in the middle of the loch shine a deeper, darker blue.

Although more accessible than Loch Coire an Lochain (Braeriach) and Loch Etchachan , Loch A’an is still not particularly easy to get to. The quickest way to reach the Loch A’an basin is to ascend to over 1100 metres and then follow an eroded boulder path beside one of the streams that plummet down to the loch.

On this occasion, however, we approach from the Glen Avon end and arrive at the beach at the North East end of the loch. The is day is hot, humid and remarkably still. Arriving at the beach is like arriving in paradise. There is a light breeze (enough to keep the midges at bay), the sand is warm and soft and the water sparkles in the sunshine. A thin veil of mist hangs in the valley before me. I haven’t passed a single person since I left the main track at Glenmore and it feels like I am a million miles away from the busy world I left just a few hours before.

Stripping off I soon find myself wading into the water, letting the cool, fresh water wash over my skin. This time the cold feels gentle and pleasantly refreshing. I potter around in the shallows and watch glistening underwater sunbeams dance and create mesmerising patterns in front of my eyes. I don’t ever want to get out.

Sadly this time I only have time for a quick swim as I am mid-way through a longer walk, and as much as I would like to set up camp on the beach and stay there forever, I know I still have a long way to go. Thankfully this walk takes me along the edge of the loch so I know there will be more chances to swim in the stunning waters at the far end of the loch.

3 thoughts on “Swimming High in the Cairngorms

  1. Sitting by the fireside, I admire your intrepid swimming, Alice, and wistfully think of swimming in the Gareloch (the sea loch off the Clyde) in February when I was a child. That was before the nuclear submarines arrived at Faslane. How are you able to take those shots of yourself – a loyal fellow swimmer? – great star jumps underwater!


  2. Sitting by the fireside, I admire your intrepid swimming, Alice, and wistfully think of swimming in the Gareloch (the sea loch off the Clyde) in February when I was a child. That was before the nuclear submarines arrived at Faslane. How are you able to take those shots of yourself – a loyal fellow swimmer? – great star jumps underwater!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s