The Broadcast / In Conversation | Calum Maclean

In Conversation | Calum Maclean

As part of our second collaboration with VivoBarefoot, we reached out to our community of water-goers. Calum Maclean is a Scottish film-maker and photographer with a passion for the outdoors and exploring remote locations for wild swimming.

We touched base with The Outdoor Swimming Society Ambassador to get his perspective on crossing the boundary between land and water and to find out what keeps him coming back for more.


4 min read

Images by JOHNY COOK

Where did you first foster a connection to the oceans, lakes, rivers and cold water swimming?

As a child, family holidays often involved islands, camping and walking so being outdoors and jumping in the nearest water feels like it's always been in me. It was as I got older, particularly in the last 10 years that I've realised the power cold water has to lift my mood, and the endless supply of places there are to explore. I grew up in Scotland, but it was a trip back to Tasmania, where I was born that really lit the spark in me. As the town slowly awoke in the first light one morning, I crept out and swam alone across the River Derwent in Hobart. My mind was full of trepidation and anticipation as I wasn't sure I could even manage it - it was the right mixture of fear and excitement.

The swim was only around 1 kilometre, but the thrill and the buzz as I ran barefoot back over the Tasman Bridge are still in my mind. I got a few odd looks from cycling commuters, and looking back it was not the wisest choice of swim for various reasons but I think I can track my current 'obsession' back to that day!

Is there an addictive nature to what you do? What keeps you going back for more? What does it do for you personally/intrinsically?

Outdoor swimming is highly addictive. For me, it's the combination of the buzz you get from the water and the exploration of interesting locations. I tend to get bored of swimming at the same places - we have a huge coastline full of interesting sights and an endless supply of freshwater to discover. The satisfaction of finding a new spot, having it 'to myself' for just that period of time, and the resulting inner calm after, all combine for a great time. I find the process helps me think creatively, about new projects, new work, about life.

I'd say that outdoor swimmers as a group are great at encouraging others to try, and waxing lyrical about the healing power of water - ask a swimmer, why they love it, they'll not stop!

I think I'll be swimming outdoors forever, and anecdotally, I've seen many become stronger swimmers as they get older, certainly their ability to withstand the cold seems to improve. I dare say I may settle down and find a good regular location to swim but that won't be for some time.

How do you go about exploring new and foreign places to swim outdoors? What learnings do you have thus far?

There are some great resources online, from various organisations like the Outdoor Swimming Society, and I'm a bit of a map geek as well - I'll spend hours looking at them! I'll often try and find local knowledge if I can - this is where the nuggets of information lie. Where to get in, what history a place has, hidden spots, get chatting to local swimmers and outdoors folk for the best details.

For coastal swims, kayakers often have in-depth information as they'll be out exploring regularly and know about local tides and waters. But knowing my own ability is key - how do I feel in wild water, how long can I swim for, what is safe for me - before deciding where to go.

Due to Scotland's brilliant Outdoor Access Code we have the right to walk & swim anywhere (within reason) as long as we are responsible in doing so. Because of this I've spent the vast majority of my time swimming here, but over the next few years I want to experience more, venture further and visit more countries.

To quote… ‘I’ve yet to find water cold enough to stop me swimming.” How close have you come and where is the coldest place you’ve swam?

As long as I'm feeling healthy, I think I'd go swimming anywhere - but sometimes it's not for very long! The coldest may have been Loch Mhisteam in the hills of the Isle of Harris, last winter. The wind was around 40mph making even walking arduous. I never measured the water but I estimate it would have been 2-3 C, and the loch contained a big iceberg! On coming out of the water, my lips were a shade of purple I'd not been planning for - it was a learning experience! This was in a wetsuit, and thanks to my safety support I warmed up without too much problem - getting clothes back on was the biggest issue with cold hands and feet. That was for my BBC ALBA series Dhan Uisge ('Into the Water') and the safety support was important to keep me right. When it's particularly cold, sometimes I have to be told when to get out, as my brain isn't quite at its sharpest!

As I love swimming in the mountains, there has been a few occasions where I've maybe walked a couple of hours in winter - with the plan for a swim - but decided against it when arriving. A combination of not feeling quite right, a long walk out and the difficulty of warming up if the weather is against me sometimes scupper me. I trust my gut feeling - there's always another day to swim.

As a photographer and filmmaker by trade, you are able to influence those around you through film and storytelling. Do you feel a level of responsibility in reconnecting others to the great outdoors?

I think that more and more people are getting outdoors and experiencing all the benefits that brings - physical, mental, emotional. But I feel we can also appreciate the outdoors and nature around us, at a deeper level than we currently do.

I want to encourage more people to get outdoors, and not just to the most obvious places, but to venture further, and find out more: Why are some places empty? What can place names tell us about the land? Is how the land looks now how it should look in future? What nature can we see - should we see more? I think that an intrinsic part of us all is to be awed by the power of the ocean, or mountains - and we should aim to experience this regularly in our lives.

For me, our countryside and wild areas are hugely important, and need to be protected - but also need to be accessed, to allow people that appreciation, and the benefits it brings us. At the same time, I think this can be done by bringing people along using a light-hearted or humorous aspect which I often use in some films - there are enough preachers in the world.

You work part-time in outdoor education/adventure instruction with children. How important is it for our youth to harness an understanding and respect for the outdoors and oceans at their age?

Things we learn and appreciate at a young age stick with us for life - I know that's the case with me certainly. The lessons learned outdoors are life lessons: working with what's around us, perseverance, having a positive mindset when things get tough - all things we learn outdoors, in nature. As humans we've done so much to alter the outdoors and oceans that we have to start looking at whether how we use them is the best way, and thinking about these issue from youth is key if we want to affect change.

As well as learning, I think the sea can be the most fun place in the world! Being in the water works on so many levels for us humans. I think the world is full of adventures, just waiting to be had, and if we can get an idea of this early on, our minds can open to incredible future opportunities. If we're lucky enough to be able to get out, and encourage others to do so, why wouldn't we?

How can more people responsibly find this special connection to the wild places around them?

I think it's a matter of not causing damage, leaving places as we find them (within reason) and slowly pushing ourselves to experience wilder places. I know that I find myself tied to my phone all too often, and it's making myself go into wild places that can help me actually put it down! If I've been away camping for several days and return home, I find myself scrolling Twitter thinking - what have I really missed?!

Social media can be great but it can also be a bit of a curse - when a particular place becomes a thing "to see" or "to do", and not all locations can cope with this. I've sadly seen places in Scotland suffer from a sudden increase in numbers, often with people all trying to get the same shot, which can then become a cliché. I wonder myself if I contribute to this, as a photographer and someone promoting the outdoors, and for this reason I like to encourage folk to wander further from the same, obvious locations.

I think everyone experiences and enjoys wild places differently and what I get from it will not be exactly what someone else may get, but we can all appreciate them.

Do put a lot of effort into scouting out your locations before going swimming there or do you just dive straight in?

I usually try and find out a little about a location before going, mainly how to access it and a look at a photo to know what to expect, but half the fun is in the exploring! I like places that haven't got too much information available on them - I feel like a pioneer, even if the reality isn't quite so bold. Having heard of a few accidents people have had, I never literally dive right in to water without checking what's under the surface, but metaphorically, that's certainly happened a few times!

The amount of plastic and harmful waste in our oceans and waterways is deeply concerning. Do you ever worry about pollution levels in the water?

The places I love to swim are generally away from population centres and most forms of pollution so I rarely worry about it. Having said that, I myself see the effects of rubbish - both inland and coastal. Far too often nice spots can be ruined by laziness of throwing bottles, cans into water, or just leaving an entire campsite of junk. This really annoys me and can ruin the experience if I'm having to clear up someone else's junk - never mind the effect on local plant and animal life.

I usually avoid swimming near agriculture or aquaculture as I've not always had good experiences of water quality by them either.

Just a final thought; what’s your best experience of interacting with aquatic wildlife on a swim?

Late one summer several years ago I swam from the Isle of Skye to Pabbay, in the last light of the evening. It was flat calm with barely a sound around me, yet as I moved through the water I occasionally heard splashes and snorts. Stopping half way over I looked around to see a big group of around 30 seals, all hovering off my wake. They'd bob up and down and seemed to be having a good look but didn't dare come right up to me. They followed me for most of the swim over, just keeping an eye. I had a good laugh thinking they might find me interesting - a very slow swimming, odd-headed seal.



Share on Facebook Share on Twitter