Risks, Reservoirs and Rewards

Shortlisted in the Bradt New Travel Writer of the Year Competition 2024.

The following piece is one of four shortlisted articles in our 2024 New Travel Writer of the Year Competition. You can find a list of the thirteen longlisted entries here.

Risks, Reservoirs and Rewards

No one in their right minds would go swimming at the end of November in Scotland, my mother laughs at me over the phone, especially not on their birthday. Are you sure it’s safe to go on your own?

It is, indeed, the day of my twenty-second. I can extol the benefits of cold water swimming to her and insist I’ll be safe all I like. She won’t hear it. I’m on the 101 out of Edinburgh towards the Pentlands, the city’s pet mountain range. They’re bigger than Arthur’s Seat, the rock that dominates the centre of town, but smaller than their cousins up in the Highlands. I’m lucky to have a proper piece of nature so close by.

Outside, the sky is no one colour; it shifts like the surface of rippling water as country scenes drift by. I had hoped that I’d get one last free bus ride as a birthday treat – bus travel is free for under-21s in Scotland – but no such luck. I’ve paid my £2.90 like everyone else. There’s a man in front of me scribbling in a journal, a traveller by the looks of his backpack. I’ve got a notebook in my pocket, too. This is the start of what I hope to make a yearly tradition – a bracing swim, a slice of the mountains, a moment to write.

The bus putters to a halt outside the pub, a completely inauspicious spot for those not in the know. Alighting alongside me is the man with the journal. Just us two. He seems more prepared than me; waterproof, camel-pack, carabiner. My swimsuit is shoved haphazardly inside the pocket of my trusty all-weather leather jacket along with my other worldly goods. We cross the road together, in silence, until I turn to him and  – somewhat nervously – ask if he’s also going up into the hills. He’s very friendly, and younger than I thought.

We make small talk – he’s just been laid off, he’s seizing the moment to travel while he can. Carpe diem. That’s Horace, I tell him. It’s my birthday, I tell him too. We’re both getting the 3:30pm bus back into town, we discover. See you later! He goes up the hill to conquer its peaks and gain the view, I down to the water.

My feet carry me over the ridges and through the stiles. It always amazes me how far one can get just by walking. I know this path; I’ve been here before, on one of those golden, drunken Scottish summer evenings where the sun never really sets, just crawls along the horizon. But I’ve never been back, not alone, not to swim. I jump the wall between the path and the water’s edge with only a moment’s hesitation – there’s signage on the way up implying you’re not really supposed to swim in the reservoir, but I think that only applies to those who don’t know what they’re doing. There are footholds in the wall for a reason.

Fishing boats bob at the near end of the reservoir. Further along, Scots pines fringe the shoreline, the banks getting steeper as the pool deepens, lapping gently at the water’s edge. For the first hour (I have precious little time here), I crawl up into a tree, settle in between two branches and write about my twenty-first year, about the wind, the water, the shifting sky.

The mountains soar above the loch, cradling it on either side, and the unique purples and maroons of the heather glow in a rare spot of November sun. It’s green, grey, golden, the surface of the reservoir clean and silvery as a mirror. I wriggle into my swimsuit – there’s no one around. I toe the water’s edge, my mother’s nervous words breaking the surface of my thoughts. But the lochen is so inviting. It feels soft against my skin, cleansing, healing.

I draw a breath and plunge squealing into the reservoir. It is exhilaratingly and deliciously cold. The silt drops away under my feet until I am over deep, open water, and I am afraid but I am hollering, shrieking, ecstatic as a Bacchant. The sky has never looked so beautiful as it does now from the reservoir.

When it comes time to return – my damp swimsuit scrunched in my hand, teeth chattering, toes starting to lose feeling – to my surprise I find I am rewarded for my efforts. My new friend is waiting at the bus stop with a cheeky smile and a cardboard take-away box.

What’ve you got there?

He opens it, grin widening, to reveal a slice of cake.

For you. Happy birthday.

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