May 10, 2023 9 min read
Scotland is a wild swimmer’s paradise, as long as you like cold water! There are over 25,000 freshwater lochs and lochans, along with more than 125,000 kilometres of rivers and streams, varying from deep, wide Lowland rivers to small Highland burns. There are also around 18,000 kilometres of coastline (including numerous sea lochs). With so much water, we are certainly spoilt for choice when it comes to swimming.
The Scottish Outdoor Access Code legally allows us the ‘right to roam’ – and swim – without restrictions, as long as we do so responsibly. So, with all this freedom, we can literally swim anywhere, right? Well, not exactly. Not all bodies of water are swimmable or safe. Swimming Wild in Scotland digs into the detail of what makes a fantastic wild swimming location, including maps and information to show you exactly where to get in the water, where to safely swim once you’re in, the best time to swim if tides and currents are a consideration, and highlighting any potential hazards.
With over 100 of the best river, loch and sea swimming spots across the Scottish mainland and islands, there are plenty of options to choose from whether you’re an experienced swimmer or just dipping your toes in the water for the first time.
Looking for somewhere to swim in a particular area? Here’s a sneak peek at some of Alice’s favourite swimming locations around Scotland. See Swimming Wild in Scotland for further inspiration.
South-west pool. Easedale, with views across to Mull. © Alice Goodridge
ARGYLL & THE ISLES
Easdale Slate Quarries
Easdale is the smallest permanently inhabited island of the Inner Hebrides. For almost three centuries, it was at the centre of the Scottish slate industry; at its peak the island had seven quarries and a community of more than 500 miners.
There are five enclosed quarry ‘pools’ and a couple that are still open to the sea. I have swum in all of them, only three have suitable entries. The two pools towards the north-west of the island are the easiest to access, and the pool near the south-west point has the best views. All these have sloping slate shingle beaches.
The smallest, L-shaped pool is the most popular for swimming. It is the shallowest and has the most gradually sloping entry. You can stick close to the edge and avoid the deeper sections. Both the other pools get deep very quickly, so be prepared if you don’t like deep water.
More Argyll & the Isles swim spots:
Taking a moment to soak it all in. © Alastair Goodridge
SKYE & LOCHABER
Glen Etive holds a special place in my heart. It is one of the first places I visited (and dipped) in the Highlands before I moved here, and I’m sure its wild beauty influenced my decision to relocate here permanently.
The name Etive is believed to mean ‘Little Fierce One’ or ‘Little Ugly One’, referring to the Gaelic goddess associated with Loch Etive. While the scenery is far from ugly, the river flow can be extremely fierce, especially during the spring snowmelt. In the summer, after a dry spell, the water in the river calms to a gentle flow. There are multiple waterfalls and deep pools to enjoy.
More Skye & Lochaber swim spots:
Bahamas or Berneray? Underwater fun, West Beach. © Alice Goodridge
West Beach, Berneray
From my first peek of the turquoise water through the dunes, I fell in love with Berneray’s West Beach. Berneray has a rich history for such a small island, and its natural habitats support varied and abundant wildlife. Look out for otter tracks in the sand and Arctic terns nesting in the dunes.
The beach has some of the clearest sea water I have ever had the pleasure to swim in; when I visited I had to pinch myself and remind myself that I was in Scotland, not the Caribbean!
The entry is sandy and gently sloping, and you can get in anywhere along the beach. I have only ever pottered about here, marvelling at the clarity of the water. The west-facing section of the beach is over three kilometres long, meaning that longer swims parallel to the beach are also possible.
More Outer Hebrides swim spots:
A perfect dip at Achmelvich. © Michael Balmain
The beaches at Achmelvich have spectacular white sand and mesmerisingly clear water in shades of aquamarine and bright blue. My last swim here was on a grey, windy day, but the water was still astonishingly turquoise and inviting for a play in the waves.
Along with the main beach, there is also a second beach to the north, known locally as Vestey’s Beach. When Achmelvich Beach gets busy, this beach is usually quieter. Vestey’s Beach faces west and can subsequently be a bit more exposed, but it is possible to swim between the two on very calm days.
You can get in anywhere along the sand on Achmelvich Beach. It is a gently sloping entry and great for paddling and playing in the waves. You can swim north around the rocky headland to Vestey’s Beach if it is exceptionally calm. This is around 500 metres (each way), and you must watch out for submerged rocks. In good conditions, there are likely to be other water users around, so tow floats are essential.
More North-West Mainland swim spots:
Southern side, St Ninian's Beach. © Alastair Goodridge
St Ninian’s Beach, Shetland
The beach at St Ninian’s Isle has always been high on my list of swimming locations to visit. Being a geography geek (it was my undergraduate degree subject), I’ve always been fascinated by coastal processes and formations.
You’ll find the largest tombolo in the UK here; it was formed by waves from the Atlantic being refracted and diffracted around the island and meeting on the leeward side.
Arriving here for the first time, mist hung low over the water and waves crashed on the northern shore. Despite this, the ribbon of sand connecting St Ninian’s Isle to the mainland still took my breath away, and the sea on the southern side of the beach was perfectly sheltered and ideal for swimming. On other days, depending on the wind direction, the northern side is better for swimming. On one occasion, I double dipped, playing in the waves on one side and then doing a longer swim in the perfectly calm water on the other side.
More Far North swim spots:
Winter dip, Loch an Eilein. © Becca Harvey
Loch an Eilein
With its fairytale castle, spectacular mountain scenery and ancient Caledonian pine forest, Loch an Eilein really is the quintessential Highland swimming location.The castle on the island was probably built in the fourteenth century and added to in later centuries.
The best entry point is a short (500m) walk from the car park, opposite the castle. The entry is somewhat rocky, with large stones underfoot. Protective footwear is essential. Once you have negotiated the stones, it shelves offfairly rapidly around ten metres from the shore.
However tempting it is, please do not climb through the doorway and look around the castle island. The landowners are keen to prevent further deterioration of the castle ruins and keep the island as a sanctuary for nesting birds.
More Central Highlands swim spots:
Cullykhan Bay. © Jane Sendall
People had told me about the beautiful beach of Cullykhan Bay for a while. The first time I arrived in the car park, it was pouring with rain, I couldn’t see the beach, and I didn’t know what all the fuss was about. As soon as I started walking down the path and got my first sight of the sea below, I fell in love with Cullykhan Bay.
Tucked into an inlet and sheltered by a rocky promontory to the north, it is a perfect combination of sandy beach, calm water, rocks and caves – perfect for paddling in the shallows, enjoying a longer swim or exploring the nooks and crannies around the edge. The headland above the beach also has a fascinating history and was once home to an Iron Age fort and a medieval castle. I’m already looking forward to my next visit!
I like swimming here at high tide, but it is possible to dip here at any time. At high water, it’s around 200 metres out from the beach to the mouth of the bay, so there is a large, sheltered areato swim in. If it is very calm, it is nice to potter around the edges and look into all the submerged rock pools and caves. The walk back up to the car should help to warm you up again!
More swim spots in The East:
Loch Lubnaig. © Anna Deacon
PERTHSHIRE, LOCH LOMOND & THE TROSSACHS
Loch Lubnaig is a deep, narrow loch that snakes through the valley between Benvane and Ben Ledi to the west and Ben Vorlich to the east. The name Lubnaig comes from the Gaelic for ‘elbow’ or ‘crooked’, referring to the loch’s bent shape. Being surrounded by high hills means that the loch is usually sheltered from the prevailing wind. Its proximity to the A84 means it has become a popular location for open water swimmers.
It is a perfect place to potter around and enjoy the views or to rack up the miles for some long-distance training. My longest swim here was an eight-hour training swim, doing lengths between the two car parks and being fed jelly babies and bananas every hour. The conditions were ‘mixed’ with moments of flat calm, followed by torrential rain and high winds. Honestly, the panini from The Cabin afterwards felt like the best I had ever tasted! Entering the loch, it is shallow for a few metres before shelving sharply, meaning that you are in deep water very quickly.
This is a good loch for experienced swimmers rather than beginners (unless you are with a qualified lifeguard or swimming coach). If you are just starting out or are uncertain about swimming in deep water, nearby Loch Venachar is probably a better bet.
More Perthshire, Loch Lomond & the Trossachs swim spots
St Mary's Loch. © Alice Goodridge
CENTRAL & SOUTHERN SCOTLAND
St Mary’s Loch & Loch of the Lowes
With its stunning landscape of rounded hills, deep valleys and views along the Yarrow Valley, St Mary’s Loch is the largest natural stretch of water in the Borders. Although easily accessible, the loch has a remote feel and is a beautiful place to swim.
Immediately upstream of St Mary’s Loch and connected via a narrow channel is the smaller Loch of the Lowes. With only 200 metres of land separating the two lochs, and a car park in the middle, it can be a good idea to choose whichever body of water is most protected from the wind on arrival.
All the entry points to the lochs are stony. Loch of the Lowes has a gently sloping incline for a few metres before dropping away into deeper water. The water is beautifully clean and refreshing, and the view from the water is wonderful.
More Central & Southern Scotland swim spots:
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