Kilt factor high

People ask why I have to gone Glasgow for a holiday, which I haven’t. I’m a bit taken aback by this so mutter something about how friendly and nice it is. It’s true. Men in lane ways, barking down mobile phones, aggravated, sucking on a cigarette and glancing sideways. They all have crew cuts and pink cheeks. Good stuff in the shops and music in the streets; a mix of hipster, poverty, and the genteel; old fashioned courtesy, energy.

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Scotland clashes with Serbia this weekend and Glasgow is filled with kilted football devotees. Men, women and kids all kilt-kitted, topped off with sports shirts. A party atmosphere prevails. By evening, everyone has retired to the bar. It was a nil-all draw. Glaswegians take it on the chin and get on with the business of laughing and drinking.

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Buildings are weighty in Glasgow. Pink sandstone, neo-classical, framing Glasgow’s merchant precinct. At its edge, toward the eastern end of the city, they are replaced by ramshackle shops and houses around the Barras market. The interstices of the streetscape are filled with poverty, mental illness and pregnant teenagers.

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A few people wander around Glasgow University on Saturday afternoon. A small group of Asian students and some Americans. The sound of traffic is muted in the distance. Green lawns, elms and oaks. Iron-framed leadlight, turrets piercing the sky, elegant cloisters and quadrangles.

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Next morning, most of the football fans are in jeans but still cheerful and tucking in to the all you can eat breakfast.

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At St Mungos Cathedral, the Sunday morning congregation lingers over tea in paper cups. Approaching the nave, my passage is blocked, politely but firmly by a middle-aged woman who gently informs me that the cathedral is closed to tourists during services. I hope that as a lapsed Presbyterian, an exception might be made. The woman gives me a look as if to say she’s heard it all before. It’s Health and Safety, she says. We chat for a bit but she has the vacant smile of the religious. She gives me a photocopied information sheet, with our love she says.

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After a quick spin around the Museum of Religious Life and the oldest house in Scotland, it’s off to Buchanan Street then to Jura by bus. The journey begins in the usual way, waiting in queues with backpack growing heavier by the minute, but there is an affable, congenial air among the travellers.

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A few hours later the bus arrives at Lochgilphead, then there is a taxi to Tayvallich and the ferry to Jura. The ferry is actually a speedboat and I share it with three obnoxious English public school types and their Sloanish woman companion. They load on boxes of French champagne and reminisce, loudly, about ‘last year’. Their forced, self-conscious humour suggests they are a little nervous about the crossing. This is played out later on.

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Through a two metre swell, rain pelts down on the boat. As it crashes between crest and trough, Jura emerges. Embroidered with white cottages along the sea front, the distillery and pub, the grey Paps and low, dark clouds. The weather doesn’t look so good.

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The hotel is warm and comfortable though and the smell of malt from the distillery drifts in through the open window in my room.

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Later, I can only remember, with clarity, the size of the jellyfish in the Corryvreckan.  At the time, I thought they were all different sizes but that was only because they were floating along in layers of currents, in their jellyfish world, at different depths.  The Corryvreckan is 70 metres deep, reputedly, and the water is crystal clear; the smallest jellyfish were really the ones at greatest depth.

We waited in line to jump into the water, as the boat lurched from side to side.  Jean first, nonchalantly stepping overboard and calmly breast stroking away but making absolutely no progress and under threat of being washed up on the rocks, oblivious to the shouts from the boat to swim faster.  The rest of us jumped in one by one, slower swimmers first.  Even now I can’t believe that I swam the 1.4 kilometres to the other side, especially since I know now how tough it is swimming in choppy water and not knowing that the weakness in my legs was anxiety.  Julia swam with me and Iain returned and swam circles to stay with us.  We had 40 minutes to get to the other side before the tide changed and the whirlpool returned to life.

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A day later, after the next, longer swim between Scarba and Luing was cancelled at the half way mark owing to bad weather, we revisited the Corryvreckan.  Turned toward the stinging, salty spray and clutching the side of the boat, the group stared in disbelief at enormous, white-capped waves swept up out of the swirling steel-grey water, released like some unchained, roaring creature from the depths beneath.  Each day, within only an hour or so of the tide changing, the remarkable transformation dramatically plays out within a unique confluence of current, tide and the topography of the submerged coasts of Scarba and Jura.  The boat skimmed and shied over the waves at its periphery, advancing then retreating as Duncan manoeuvred away from the thrashing beast to the safety of the rocky Scarba coastline, where the rough sea from the day before seemed suddenly ordinary.

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From pool to sea

At the local pub there is a photograph of swimmers at the Fitzroy Pool which sits above the fireplace in the public bar,  dated 1926.  In it there are five men, in the swimming costumes of the day, or naked, grinning for the camera.

Photo re-sized

Fitzroy pool was made famous by Helen Garner in her first novel “Monkey Grip”, later a film.  Set in Carlton, it is a seminal work about communal domesticity, addiction to drugs and destructive relationships and places which defined Carlton in the 1970s.  Fitzroy pool is one of those places.  The words “Aqua Profonda” and above, “Danger Deep Water”, on the wall at the west end of the pool, were painted in the 1950s as a warning to Italian children, continually being fished out of the deep end and close to drowning.  The sign is registered by Heritage Victoria as having historical significance as a rare example of the early acceptance of migrants into the dominant culture of the time.  Hooray for Mr James Murphy, the pool manager at the time, whose care and concern for young post-war migrant swimmers, lives on.

The deep end, Fitzroy Pool

Fitzroy pool is open, spacious and has the air of a real pool.  On the other hand, the old Brunswick Baths where I swam before they closed for renovations, could not be more different. Ten metres away, trains roared past; bombing was ignored; the double lap lane was a study in perpetual motion.  No-one cared about the deep end at Brunswick.  And it was very deep.  A relic of more reckless days when a diving board was in place.  Somehow it all worked.  Kids competed to touch the bottom, suspended motionless and puff-cheeked above the dirt-encrusted tiles.  Surfacing triumphantly.  But when the Brunswick Baths re-opened in 2013, the deep end was gone forever.

Plying up and down the Fitzroy pool, I became more and more curious about open water swimming.  Not just going to the beach but swimming distances in the sea.  I had read Roger Deakin‘s ‘Waterlog’, to this day my favourite book and was entranced by the idea of just swimming.

The Scottish Hebrides seemed like as good a place to start as any.

Jura

Jura

What was I thinking?

I had no experience of open water swimming whatsoever, much less 1.4 km across the 70 metre deep Corryvreckan whirlpool.  The weather was cold and rainy, we camped in flimsy tents which eventually blew over in gale force wind.  Then the porridge oats ran out.  Who would have thought it, in Scotland?  By now, I had come to fully appreciate a carb-loaded breakfast as I shivered into my cold, clammy wetsuit each morning.  Thankfully, most of the swims were eventually called off and substituted with boat trips and walks around the Isle of Scarba.  I will always remember, with deep gratitude, the central heating and thick tartan carpet at the B & B in Oban where I eventually thawed out and dislodged ticks infested with Lyme’s disease from under my skin.

The Corryvreckan whirlpool, not a good time for a swim...

The Corryvreckan whirlpool, not a good time for a swim…

Looking over the Grey Dogs, Scarba

The Grey Dogs, Scarba

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In spite of it all, I was hooked on sea swimming and when I returned home, I found a bunch of people to swim with in Port Phillip Bay, at Williamstown.  Over the months I began to feel more confident and lost the anxiety which plagued my early swims, leaving my legs weak and my lungs breathless.  As the seasons progressed, we swam under warm, sunny skies; through piercingly cold winter water; in rough, choppy waves and in two metre swells on Grand Final Day.  We swam on Labour Day, on Christmas Eve, over reefs and across the sea floor in water that was sometimes satin-sapphire blue, sometimes milky green, sometimes thick and soupy, sometimes littered with dead birds and debris spewed from storm water drains after spring storms.  We swam with jellyfish, stingrays and puffer fish.  But most of all, we swim for sheer pleasure.

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