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.

How we enjoy our waters is changing. More and more of us are getting involved in watersports. Research published this year showed an ongoing rise. The annual Watersports Participation Survey showed that approximately 3.9 million UK adults took part in one or more boating activities in 2018. Of the boating activities, canoeing was the most popular, with 2.1 million people going paddling at least once a year, in canoes, kayaks or stand up paddleboards.

This year VisitScotland hopes to encourage that still further. Its Growth Fund has awarded funding to West Coast Waters and Sail Scotland to deliver marketing campaigns recognising the importance of sailing and watersports activities as a key reason to visit Scotland. In October Kip Marina on the Clyde will be host to River Of Light, in which Scotland's Boat Show is transformed into a glittering nighttime display as boats are festooned with lights, and non-yachties are invited down to enjoy the display. But you don’t have own an expensive yacht to get out on the water. There are more accessible ways to float. You can be part of a community that builds a skiff and rows it out on the water, or hire a kayak or canoe.

Time spent in our seas and lochs provides an often-valued connection with nature. Indeed, that’s what many of us are there for. Wildlife tourism, it has been calculated, nets more than £127 million for the Scottish economy each year. One of the best ways to see many of our astounding native species – whether puffins, seals, kittiwakes, sea eagles or porpoises – is by boat.

James McGurk, a wildlife guide for Seafari Adventures, has described to me some of the sights he has seen, including a boat-trip to the famous Corryvreckan, in which fins suddenly appeared around the boat. “Bottlenose dolphins around here are the largest in the world, over four metres long, enormous creatures. When they see a boat, particularly in this area, all they want to do is play, so they’ll just head straight for you. They try to ride in the bow wave. These dolphins had young ones with them – probably a few weeks old, and you could see them moving underneath the water. Then the parents started almost nudging them into the bow wave of the boat as if they were trying to say this is how we play with a boat. It was really magical.”

The more we connect with nature, and what is going on in our waters, however, the more we witness our own impact. We see, for instance, as we swim, sail, canoe or beachcomb, just how much plastic pollution is on our own shores. The global problem that documentaries like Plastic Ocean and Blue Planet have made us aware of is right on our doorstep. The fightback against such plastic pollution has already begun, and not just on the beaches, where communities are organising clean-ups. It’s also happening in the rivers, where Joy Godfrey and Stuart Forbes were behind a clean-up campaign of the River Esk, titled I’m Back Caring.

Godfrey recalls that she began to notice the rubbish in the river she had played in as a child. “It is devastating to see the wet wipes and sanitary towels and smell the sewage in the River South Esk. Powerless as I felt to change this, the Dipper standing on a sewer wet wipe draped over its fishing perch is even more powerless ... and I knew that whatever my limitations, I had to be a voice for their habitat.”

Among those making inroads in battling such pollution is Dr Madeleine Berg, from Fidra, the organisation behind the The Great Nurdle Hunt, which helps document and clear our coastlines of the tiny plastic pellets, and other awareness-raising projects. What’s remarkable about Fidra is what they’re doing to help change things. Not only did they develop a citizen’s science project which removed millions of nurdles from our beaches, but they are working to fight them ending up there in the first place.

“It’s accidental spills that aren’t cleared up properly that lead to this problem. There are lots of ways that companies can work better to ensure that’s not happening. At the moment industry has put forward a voluntary toolkit. We’ve been pushing to make that scheme certified and externally audited, and to cover the complete supply chain, so that the people who are putting plastic on the market, retailers, can check back down the supply chain and find out whether pellets are being used responsibly all the way along.”

One of our deepest and most long-running connections to the sea is as a source of food. It’s one of the cupboards in our national larder. Last year, in 2018, Scottish-registered fishing vessels landed 446 tonnes of sea fish and shellfish with a value of £574 million. Meanwhile, a report by the Scottish Salmon Producers' Organisation shows that their industry had a turnover of just over a billion pounds in the same year.

Food is also one of things people go to the water’s edge for – fish and chips on a windy beach while being dived at by seagulls, a crab sandwich at the harbour in Oban, oysters at Loch Fyne. Food tourism, where people travel for memorable food and drink experiences, is now a growing trend.

A VisitScotland spokesperson notes: “It’s been really interesting to see the fishing industry diversify over the years to bring traditional activities to the forefront and help attract visitors looking for authentic and enriching experiences, all spotlighting the provenance of our natural ocean larder. From seafood safaris where you can sample delicious shellfish to immersing yourself in a taste of a fisherman's life on a boat ride.”

Stranraer Oyster Festival, they point out, is just one example of the events showcasing Scotland’s natural larder. More than 10,000 visitors enjoyed the packed programme in 2017, and in 2018, they expanded and delivered a programme enjoyed by 14,000 visitors. It is hoped that, once the final numbers are in, this year's event, held over three days in September, will be even bigger again.

There are also food producers around the country, finding new ways of producing a sustainable, renewable harvest from its waters. Among them is Fiona Houston, of Mara Seaweed, whose company is taking the joys of eating Scottish seaweed as a seasoning and alternative-to-salt into the mainstream, with support from Tesco's business incubator scheme.

Houston says: “It’s really the health benefits that people are waking up to – so Tesco are putting it on the shelf as healthy salt.”

Houston believes Scotland needs to take this further and has the opportunity to be “at the forefront of a whole new blue economy”.

“It’s not only about human health," she says, "it’s also about planet health, because seaweed has such an incredible role to play in reducing global warming. It’s a carbon sink.

"What is amazing about seaweed is that it requires no soil and no fertiliser and even if you’re farming it, it’s not being farmed in the intensive way you are on land. All you’re doing is putting ropes out into the sea and the seaweed grows with the nutrients in the water and the sunlight. It’s more like ranching than intensive farming.”

But the story of our relationship to our marine larder is not a straightforward one. The herring population, which was a source of such a boom a century ago, collapsed, overfished, in the 1970s, and there is only tentative talk of it now possibly returning. North Sea cod, which had only just in 2017 been put back on the menu as a sustainable fish, lost its blue tick certification this year. Wild salmon stocks have dropped so much that they are being seen as a conservation issue. Last year, for instance, saw the lowest catch levels, ever reported in Scotland.

If you have been eating Scottish salmon this Christmas then, unless you hooked it out of the water yourself, you were consuming a farmed product. Since the closure of the last wild salmon facility in late 2018, all of Scottish salmon production has been farmed, and the industry is not without its own criticism for its fish welfare and environmental impact.

One of the things that has been clear to me is that the people who know our waters best are those who spend time in or on them. Those who fish them, or dive in them, those who research them, or have dedicated their leisure time to pottering about on the water, whether on skiffs, yachts, kayaks or paddleboards. And yes, those who swim in them. People, like, for instance, Richard Cox, who completes, this week, a year of swimming in the sea and other wild spots, every day.

A scallop diver, like Alasdair Hughson who runs Keltic Seafare, for instance, bears witness to what is going on under the surface of the water. Hughson has been diving since he was 12 years old, and grew up watching his father scallop-diving, and speaks of his concern that decades of scallop dredging have damaged areas of the seabed.

The Year of Coast And Waters allows us to look into our seafaring past, to examine how we’ve become the nation we are, shaped by ship-building, trading and fishing. But it’s also an opportunity to look forward.

Our relationship with the sea is ever evolving. As much as it is our history, it is also our future. Getting our relationship with the marine environment right is key. The sea still has much to offer us. Its powerful tides are a source of renewable energy. The kelp forest that grows in some parts can act as a carbon sink.

Above all the Year Of Coast And Waters should be a reminder that if we want to forge a future for all life in this country and on this planet, we must go to the water’s edge and look at what lies beneath, and look after it.