OUR waters have made us who we are. All of us are connected to the sea. Rarely are we, here in Scotland, more than a couple of hours' drive from the coast, and in some of our major cities, right there on its shimmering, sometimes gale-ravaged, shores.
In Leith, where I live, a sprawl of docks sits between town and the Firth of Forth, and the river’s edge bears the indents of former dry docks. A stone’s throw away is Newhaven, where fishwives gutted and packed the silver darlings that were once part of a long-gone Scottish boom – just as they did in Shetland, Eyemouth, Fife, Aberdeen, Stornoway, Peterhead.
Wherever you are, be it on the Clyde, the Tay, the Don, the seashore, or the loch-country of the Highlands, it’s unlikely you are far from a reminder of our dependence on our waters – or far from a glimpse of their magic.
Scots have long been people of the water – fishermen, herring lasses, anglers, river ghillies, shipyard workers, canal men, traders, whalers, smugglers. We have travelled on the sea, and fed ourselves from it, in a relationship stretching way back to the shellfish remains found at archaeological sites such as Orkney’s Skara Brae.
But it’s not only our seas that we have this connection to. The fresh waters that run from our mountains to the ocean have helped form us almost as much as our salty seas. They are the home of that iconic king of fish, the wild salmon, whose stocks are now so low that its survival is considered a conservation issue. They are the rushing waters which people canyon and kayak down, the wide rivers in which they fish.
Throughout 2020 Visit Scotland is celebrating all things wet and wild in its Year Of Coasts And Waters, and bringing attention to some of our greatest natural treasures. As with all these years, this is about sending out a call to the rest of the world. As Marie Christie, Head of Development at VisitScotland puts it, this is about inviting them “to dive into the amazing experiences our coasts and waters provide. From water inspired myths and legends, historic harbours, roaring rivers, captivating canals and sweeping coastlines to the very best in seafood, whisky, wildlife and wellness".
But it’s also a celebration for those of us who live here, an excuse to do what many of us love, and mess about on the water. It says a great deal about us that in 2019, between January and August, there were two million overnight visits to coastal resorts and towns by Scots on “staycations”. We are drawn to the shores. We have, as the author Wallace J Nichols puts it, a "blue mind". We feel good next to water. Project Soothe, a study at Edinburgh University, has been finding that many of the images we find most relaxing and soothing are those involving water.
That being in or near water gives us this sense of wellbeing is at the heart of a book I have just published with photographer Anna Deacon, titled Taking The Plunge: The Healing Power Of Wild Swimming For Mind, Body And Soul. I have spent the last year getting to know Scotland’s waters better – by literally getting right in them and swimming in reservoirs, rivers, lochs, and bays all round the country, from breaking the ice at Loch Morlich to diving into Skye’s Lealt Falls, with the wild swimming communities that love them. What’s clear to me, is that water is one of the places where we play best.
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