In the sea, lochs and reservoirs; in freezing or (occasionally) balmy weather, West Lothian’s wild swimmers are in the water for an invigorating dip all year round.
Before we dive into this article, one thing needs to be clear; swimming in cold water, and especially in a body of water outdoors that you are not familiar with, is a dangerous activity for any age. If you’re inspired to give it a go, visit the West Lothian Dippers Facebook group (more information below) for advice and guidance.
“We love the compliment of being called ‘crazy’, of course. But we do it because it feels so good. There’s a childlike pleasure in wild swimming, and in the winter especially, the burning, pins and needles-feeling of freezing water on your skin is extremely invigorating.”
I’m speaking with Lesley and Victoria, the West Lothian residents who set up the Facebook group “West Lothian Dippers” in 2019, because they wanted to find others locally to try wild swimming with.
The group has seen a surge in popularity in the past year since lockdown and now has nearly 1000 hardy wild-swimming members.
One member, John Keogh, has committed to a Dip a Day Challenge in February, where, rain or shine (and definitely cold!) he will swim every day outdoors in shorts only, to raise money for Sarcoma UK. It’s John’s fundraiser that has prompted this article in Konect.
“Our favourite spots are Avon Lagoon near Linlithgow, Harperrig Reservoir on the edge of the Pentlands in Kirknewton, and in the sea near Hopetoun,” explains Lesley. They go further afield when covid travel restrictions are not in place, but these have been the best spots within West Lothian during the restrictions.
On a typical winter’s day swim, the water will be no more than 3 to 4 ºC.
“If you’re properly acclimatised, in a swimsuit you can stay in for 3 to 4 minutes in the winter. In a wetsuit, it’s feasible to stay in for up to 20 minutes.”
The sea is a little warmer than the lochs and reservoirs, and brings more than the odd encounter with a trout or seaweed (“I leap like a salmon if my foot accidentally touches seaweed, I hate it”).
In the sea at Blackness, the Dippers are often accompanied by an inquisitive seal they have affectionately named Cedrick. “I met Cedrick when we were swimming there one day,” says Lesley. “We were in the sea, swimming away from Blackness Castle, and he followed us at a distance of about 100 metres, disappearing and re-appearing every so often.”
The seals are curious and like to keep an eye on the swimmers, although they are very protective of their young so it’s best to avoid the area when there are pups.
The benefits to mental and physical health to being in the water are huge, and that is what keeps the West Lothian Dippers going back in. It’s invigorating, and a short dip makes you feel very alive in a way that an indoors heated pool can’t match.
The benefits to mental and physical health to being in the water are huge, and that is what keeps the West Lothian Dippers going back in
For new wild swimmers, you don’t just jump straight in. It’s important to acclimatise your body. “I took cold showers and cold baths to prepare for the winter water,” explains Victoria. It’s dangerous to go straight into cold water if you’re not used to it. Blood pressure shoots up and you can be at risk of a heart attack, regardless of your age. Your body temperature will continue to drop even after you get out of the water, so you need to be able to get somewhere warm quickly.
It’s important to know the water before you go in, and you need a plan for getting out and getting warm, especially in winter. Each body of water has different potential hazards, whether it’s an active reservoir, an inactive one, a loch or the sea. Active reservoirs, for example, have sluice gates that are opened remotely and regardless of how strong a swimmer you are, you’d never survive the pull of the water being let out if you’re near the dam when they open.
So joining a group such as West Lothian Dippers is highly recommended for keeping safe, so that people can share advice and information on local water spots, and, subject to social distancing, swim with others. No-one can make the decision for you if it’s safe for you to go in. You make that decision yourself. But the group is there to share information and support.
There is a strong a social element to the group which welcomes members of all ages to enjoy wild swimming. People of all ages and fitness levels, from families with children, people who are doing IronMan challenges, through to older people. Some like to bring their paddle boards or kayaks.
“We did a night swim recently, and those who didn’t want to go in the water sat by the fire and watched. We did BBQs last summer and will do again when social distancing allows.”
For more information, search “West Lothian Dippers” group on Facebook
John’s Dip A Day FebHooray Challenge for Sarcoma UK
The West Lothian Dippers are supporting one of their members who throughout February will be taking a wild dip a day, in shorts only, to raise money for Sarcoma UK in memory of his son-in-law.
“In warm memory of our late son-in-law, Shaun McKinley(34), I’m supporting Sarcoma UK, a national charity that funds vital research, offers support for anyone affected by Sarcoma Cancer, and campaigns for better treatments.
“Shaun died eight short months after being diagnosed. He had complained of a sore back for a few months and was eventually given a blood test by his GP. Three days later he was diagnosed with Stage 4 Sarcoma Cancer (terminal, no cure).
“Shock, heartbreak and despair barely describes how we felt as a family. My daughter would soon be a widow and two wee boys left without their daddy, the youngest who’d just turned 2 years old. Planning their future like any young couple, took on a whole new meaning. Rather than planning a holiday, they wondered if Shaun could return home for a few weeks. Rather than planning a possible house move they were organising a Hospice. Rather than planning Christmas Dinner they were planning Shaun’s funeral.
“And so, to my challenge: I will take a dip in the sea, every day in February 2021,wearing only my bathing trunks. Whilst it won’t bring Shaun back or eradicate the pain and the hurt, it will hopefully help prevent other families from going through a similar tragedy.
“Sarcoma is a type of cancer that develops in the bone and soft tissue. It is difficult to diagnose and one of the hardest to treat. Your donation will help researchers find answers, keep the Support Line open, and raise awareness to improve treatment and standards of care.
Together we can help change this. Thank you for your support; it is very much appreciated.”
Visit https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/dip-a-day-in-febhooray to donate to John’s challenge.
Sarcoma UK receives no Government funding and is fully funded from voluntary donations.
Please visit sarcoma.org.uk for more information.
West Lothian Dippers are supporting John in February by doing a Bobble Hat challenge - swimming daily during February in hats crocheted in the Sacroma UK colours to help raise awareness.
Published in Konect February 2021
Author: Helen-Jane Shearer