FROM the boathouse at the edge of Loch Morlich, the east slope ski runs of Coire na Ciste, Coire Cas and the long, straight tracks of the funicular railway can be clearly seen on Cairn Gorm’s slopes. 

In winter – even with the troubled funicular abandoned and out of service – skiers and snowboarders whizz by the loch’s sandy beach on their way to the Day Lodge car park, padded in expensive layers of Gore-Tex and soft down to deflect the bitter cold and biting wind. 

On the Loch Morlich beach, however, Alice Goodridge can be found in her swimwear, clutching a sledgehammer to bash through a layer of ice, ready to dip her toe into shockingly cold water. 

Wanting to shed warm layers to tiptoe over a snow-covered beach to reach the ice-covered loch for a dip may sound a niche activity to be savoured by a masochistic few.

However, wild swimming in the shadow of Scotland’s once premier ski facility – and at a multitude of picturesque spots around Scotland throughout the year – has become one of the nation’s fastest-growing sports. 

Previously a way of life for generations who did not have the luxury of heated indoor pools or foreign holidays, outdoor swimming has soared in popularity in recent years, fuelled by adventurous outdoors explorers keen to embrace new challenges and increasing evidence of the therapeutic values of the great outdoors. 

It’s now among a range of ‘wellness’ activities which national tourism body VisitScotland is encouraging businesses to embrace in order to tap into a growing global market for mood-enhancing natural experiences. 

Recent research into tourism trends carried out by VisitScotland showed ‘restorative recreation’ – the involvement in activities like wild swimming or ‘forest bathing’, which soothe the soul or inspire feelings of ‘wellness’ – is gathering momentum. 

The body has called on tourism businesses to consider how to attract a slice of a £500bn wellness sector, pointing to research which found ‘wellness travellers’ tend to be high-spending, high-yield visitors, with international wellness tourists spending an average of 53% more than others. 

To help highlight the potential, the lure of the bitterly cold dip from the Cairngorm Wild Swimmers’ perspective will be explored in a new VisitScotland podcast, Ceud Mìle Fàilte, due to be broadcast later this month. 

Helen Campbell, head of visitor marketing at VisitScotland, said: “With many of our waterways and lochs set against stunning backdrops of magical forests and dramatic mountains it is little wonder we have seen a trend for wild swimming over the years, most recently as part of the growing global wellness movement.

“Wellness tourism has grown more than twice as fast as tourism overall worldwide, with more and more visitors looking for immersive experiences or ways to improve self-development.

“Our coasts and waters embrace opportunities for wellness, increasing the desire of the traveller to escape, recharge and experience new things, and there is potential for wild swimming to grow even further in 2020 as Scotland celebrates the Year of Coasts and Waters.”

Cairngorm Wild Swimmers launched in 2017 with just ten people but now has over 900 members in its Facebook group. Around 35 people turn up every Sunday morning to join its ‘Park Run’ style swim, regardless of the time of year. 

Meanwhile, at the weekend, around 100 swimmers from around the UK – and a few from America – gathered at Inshriach Estate just outside Aviemore to take part in a wild swimming festival that will see them enjoy invigorating dips in Cairngorm lochs and rivers. 

Enquiries from would-be winter swimmers have risen to the extent that Alice is now leaving her job with a local adventure company to launch her own wild swimming tourism business, SwimWild. 

It will provide guided tours to the national park’s more remote lochs and coaching for novice wild swimmers – breathing properly is key to ensuring the body does not react adversely to the shock of the cold. Three days in January have been set aside for a winter retreat for swimmers who also want to experience the sensual jolt that comes with swimming in water that’s barely 1⁰c. 

All of which could be good news for the Aviemore area. Once Scotland’s ‘jewel in the crown’ for winter sports, businesses were dealt a blow last winter when it emerged that the £26m funicular connecting the base station with the Ptarmigan Restaurant required major structural repairs. 

The work on the railway’s piers, bearings, joints and beam connections will not start until next May at the earliest.

“Wild swimming in winter is never going to attract the same numbers as snow sports do,” adds Alice. “But we are seeing more people coming in summer who want to train for triathlons, and others who want to experience winter swimming.”

Wild swimming is said to provide a particularly invigorating ‘buzz’, with the chilly water credited with stimulating the heart rate and raising adrenalin levels, with benefits ranging from clearer skin to reduced anxiety and stress.

Swimmers are also attracted by the prospect of swimming with dolphins, otters or with eagles soaring overhead and in dramatic scenery.

Cairngorm Wild Swimmers members range in age from primary school to a woman in her 80s with most, according to Alice, seeking the unique buzz that outdoor swimming provides. 

“It’s such a high, it’s like some kind of crazy drug, it gives you this release of endorphins, it helps the circulation. A lot of people have experienced mental health problems, they come swimming to help them,” she says. 

“We have people with depression and anxiety. This shock to the system helps reset the brain. Once you go in the water, all you can think about is the cold. It takes your mind off all the other things in your life.”