Everest summiter, Antarctic adventurer and guidebook author Mollie Hughes explains how she came to love Scotland’s watery landscapes.
It was in the dark depths of lockdown that the idea to write a guidebook to Scotland’s wild blue spaces first entered my mind. When access to the outdoors, to adventure, was taken away and I was restrained to my small flat in Edinburgh, I began to crave the open spaces of Scotland.
My book, Blue Scotland, was born out of this craving for open, wild, blue spaces, it is an inspirational guide to adventures into Scotland’s waters, our coastlines, lochs, rivers and canal systems. Blue Scotland is designed to help readers plan their own adventures – be it surfing, swimming, paddleboarding, kayaking or simply soaking up the blue-health benefits from the shore. It contains 65 tried and tested adventures across the country, from waterfalls in the Scottish Borders, to the rugged coastline of the north of Scotland, from the mountain lochs of the Highlands, and to the pristine beaches of the islands.
Growing up and climbing Mount Everest
I grew up almost as far from Scottish blue spaces as you can get on mainland Britain. Until I was 18, I lived on the south coast of Devon in the seaside tourist hub of Torbay. Swimming, surfing, and kayaking were part of life there. After university, adventure took me far from the ocean, far from my small town in south Devon and far from sea level altogether. After writing my dissertation on the psychology of Mount Everest climbers, I became inspired to attempt to climb the mountain myself. On the 19th May 2012, after a year of training and fundraising, and 8 weeks climbing the mountain, I finally reached the top of the world at the age of 21. It was an incredible experience to take on an expedition as huge as Mount Everest at a young age, and this expedition set the tone for my 20s.
I moved to Scotland soon after returning from Mount Everest and began using this incredible country as my new training ground for overseas expeditions. I took on further expeditions in the Himalayas, including returning to Mount Everest to climb it from the colder, windier, and more technical northern route in 2017 and after successfully returning to the summit (and back down again!) I became the first English woman and the youngest woman in the world to climb Everest from both the main northern and southern routes. Just before my 20s were up, I took on my biggest expedition to date, where I skied solo from the edge of the Antarctic continent to the Geographical South Pole, coving just over 700 miles in 58 lonely days. At the age of 29 in early 2020, I became the youngest woman to achieve this.
Before lockdown, Scotland was my playground, I would spend all my free time exploring this country. Driving out to the coast on the weekend to go surfing, heading up to the Highlands at every possible opportunity to climb hills and paddle board on glorious open lochs and, when time allowed, I would head to the islands to explore these stunning sanctuaries.
Lockdown made me realise that, yes, I needed Scotland’s wild spaces to train for my expeditions and to use recreationally, but more importantly, when I couldn’t access them, I realised that I needed them more for my mental wellbeing too.
The concept of blue health weaves its way through my book, it is the belief that blue spaces have a psychologically restorative effect on the mind. There is research that shows outdoor blue spaces, which include the coast, lochs, riverways and canals, can have a huge benefit to people’s health.
Creating Blue Scotland
In 2021 as soon as lockdown restrictions on movement within Scotland lifted, photographer Rachel Keenan and I began our journey to explore Scotland’s best blue spaces. Rachel capturing them through her camera, and I, with words.
Our journey began on a cold April morning, not on a stunning highland loch or a pristine white sand island, but in Glasgow city centre, on the murky waters of the River Clyde. The cold Glaswegian air hovered around 0°c and the usually arduous task of pumping up the paddleboards was welcomed to warm-up our bodies. To the right of the Riverside Museum, where the River Kelvin meets the Clyde, there is a short slipway into the water. We launched from here and turned immediately left onto the Clyde and paddled upriver towards some of Glasgow’s most iconic modern-day landmarks. We were immediately greeted by the presence of the Tall Shop Glenlee, we glided past the iconic paddle steamer Waverley, the modern Armadillo and the historic Finnieston Crane before turning our boards around and retracing our paddle strokes back to the museum. We were joined by a curious harbour seal, who bobbed about in front of the OVO Hydro watching our every movement. I wanted to include this watery sightseeing tour of Glasgow, to show how important city centre blue spaces are.
It wasn’t long before the pull of glorious white sandy beaches and turquoise water took us to the islands of Scotland. We travelled to many of the Inner Hebrides, we went paddle boarding on the Isle of Mull, surfing on the Isle of Tiree and wild swimming in the clear waters of Iona. We travelled onto the Outer Hebrides, where we followed this archipelago’s spectacular coastline from the Isle of Vatersay in the south to the port of Ness on the Isle of Lewis’ northern tip, swimming, surfing, kayaking and paddle boarding as we went.
Throughout Blue Scotland, there are many beginner-friendly, easy access locations for water sports. But there are also a few bucket list adventures. The most awe-inspiring of these was St Kilda; a rocky volcanic mass that erupted out of the North Atlantic some 50 to 60 million years ago. Located 40 miles west of the Outer Hebrides this small group of isolated islands are internationally recognised for their extensive sea bird populations and famed for their near incomprehensible human history. I have never visited islands quite like St Kilda, stepping onto her shore is a humbling experience and having the opportunity to swim in her waters a real privilege.
Our journey continued and we explored locations on Scotland’s scarred West Coast, its wild and remote north coast and its more populated but characterful east coast. Away from the ocean, Scotland has plenty more blue spaces to offer. Scotland is home to thousands of freshwater lochs, with 350 of these being of notable size, they extend from the southern border to the tip of the north coast, with the largest concentration being in The Highlands.
Blue Scotland contains adventures on many of Scotland’s most famous lochs, from Loch Lomond to Loch Ness. But also, a handful of Scotland’s lesser-known lochs, such as the stunning and remote Loch Morar in the west highlands and the vast, high-level waters of Loch A’an in the Cairngorms National Park.
My favourite swimming location
Easdale Island, tucked in the Firth of Loan, 15 miles south of Oban, is a wild swimmer’s dream. Here you can experience an otherworldly blue space in steep sided slate quarries filled with incredible clear, blue waters. There are multiple filled quarries dotted around this small island, all a stone’s throw from the ocean. Easdale is a car free island, so unless you are planning to kayak or paddle board across, the only way to reach the island is by the small passenger ferry from the harbour. To avoid the summer rush, visit later in the year, these quarries are often sheltered from the wind by their steep sides, but don’t forget to take your wetsuit and ease yourself in slowly, at 60-90m deep these quarries are cold!
My favourite paddle boarding location
Located in the Northwest Highlands, Loch Maree is a wonder to experience from off and on the water at any time of year. At its deepest this loch sinks to 110m deep and spans 20km in length. Loch Maree is home to 66 individual islands and most fascinatingly, one of the islands has its own loch, with its own island. Loch Maree makes an incredible explorative paddle board or kayaking destination thought-out the year as well as a great place for a bracing swim with the backdrop of one of Scotland’s most famed mountains. The larger islands of Loch Maree contain ancient Caledonian pine trees, these are some of the most pristine remnants of our ancient woodland left in Scotland, with some aged over 350 years old.
My favourite surfing location
Sandend Bay is a jewel on the Moray coast of Scotland. Here you will find sand dunes backing a large north-facing golden beach which slopes gently into the water. Overlooking the beach is the picturesque village of Sandend, made up of a handful of quaint colourful cottages and a small working harbour. This beach often picks up North Sea swell and is a popular spot for surfers, as well as swimmers, kayakers, and families staying at the beach side campsite. During the darker months, when the campsite is quiet and the waves are good, a few lucky visitors can glimpse the Aurora Borealis lighting up the night sky over the village.
My favourite kayaking location
Arisaig Skerries are a collection of small islands and semi-submerged rocks that litter the entrance to Loch nan Ceall, at the head of which lies the village of Arisaig on the west coast of Scotland. Twice a day, every day, the interconnecting terrain of the Arisaig Skerries changes from ocean to land and back again. At high tide, only the tallest points of the islands are visible, but as the tide pushes out, the landscape shifts to expose an extensive network of sandbars connecting many of these islands. The Arisaig Skerries are a brilliant place to explore by kayak or paddleboard for experienced paddlers, the wealth of wildlife and adventure potential out there is incredible.
From the tops of its highest mountains to the depths of its deepest lochs, Scotland’s natural environment is a wonder to behold and a real privilege to spend time immersed in. Scotland has accessible blue spaces near every city, town, village and small hamlet. Some are mind-blowingly stunning, some are wild and alive, and others are calm and inviting. Grab yourself a copy of Blue Scotland and get out there to explore them!