It's great outdoors: Activities and adventures around Scotland's west coast and islands
- Ailsa Sheldon
- 6 July 2021
We dip our neoprene-covered toe into the world of wild swimming, trail running and triathlons, and explore the new dimensions that outdoor activities have taken on and around Scotland's west coast and islands.
Hill walkers in the Highlands and Islands have got company. While there's nothing new about jumping on a bike or swimming in a loch, running up a hill or getting muddy, new combinations of outdoor adventure are offering locals, visitors and urbanweary Scots a chance to experience the rugged landscape in dynamic new ways.
Glencoe-based Girls on Hills was founded in 2018 by Keri Wallace and Nancy Kennedy with an aim of empowering women to run in the mountains. Keri explains that while women's participation in trail races has increased, 'it is nowhere near 50:50'. Girls on Hills is helping women to gain the skills and confidence to enjoy hill running with a motto of 'You can run free'. They've seen a huge demand for their courses, on which you can learn how to safely cross a river and 'run like a child', bounding over heather and scree without twisting an ankle, plus mountain safety and navigation training. In memorable scenery, with great camaraderie and white-tailed eagles circling overhead, trail running couldn't be further from a sweaty treadmill in an urban gym and that's why people love it.
This popularity is reflected in the increasing number of competitive running events, joining the traditional hill-races that have long been popular in the area. There are half-marathons on islands like Coll, Mull and Skye, marathons in Glencoe, Arisaig and on Harris, and technical sky-running challenges around the peaks of Lochaber. 'Ultra races' see athletes willing to attempt extreme distances – from 74 miles at the Skye Trail Ultra to the 400km-long Cape Wrath Ultra, billed as the UK's answer to the Marathon des Sables. Rural races have a different atmosphere to large city marathons – Marathon Hebrides finishes with a ceilidh on the machair at Seilebost. The unpredictable weather, variable terrain and integrated scenery are all part of the package.
Mountain bikers come to Fort William for the UCI Downhill World Cup and 10 Under the Ben, while long-distance riders enjoy the challenge of The Caledonia Way or The Hebridean Way. Cycling races are diversifying too: in Wester Ross, Bealach Mor challenges cyclists to pedal 144km with 2100 metres of sweaty ascent including up and over the notorious Bealach na Bà to Applecross.
Outdoor swimming has claimed many new devotees in recent years, who find a bracing dip in the turquoise waters of Luskentyre or chasing waterfalls on Skye a very different experience to a chlorinated pool. Vicky Allan and Anna Deacon's book Taking the Plunge is packed with stories of people discovering the joys of swimming outside in Scotland, often year-round. As Allan explains, 'One of the reasons the Highlands is so amazing for swimming is the range of different spots and the absolute drama of the locations.' She believes a reason for the rise in popularity is that, 'people are now looking to find things that are properly an experience – and don't involve getting in an aeroplane. Wild swimming is really transporting. You get in the water and you feel like you are in another place. It gives you a different perspective.'
For many people, running, cycling and swimming in the Highlands and Islands is less about getting the fastest time and more about finding an adventure. Allan calls wild swimming, 'a form of microadventure. You can do something that feels really dramatic and heroic and you don't have to be some pumpedup athlete to do it.' Triathlons and adventure style multi-sports events also offer this feeling of an adventurous journey. The Craggy Island Triathlon starts with a swim across the Sound of Kerrera before the race continues on the island. ITERA challenges teams to run, bike and kayak 600km in teams. Whether careering down a hill in the lashing rain or breaking the ice on a loch, adventure sports are a way to connect with and explore Scotland and, as Allan says, 'it's a laugh too. It feels childish, silly and ridiculous and I think in these times we need that as well.'