While it’s not like I haven’t seen men bobbing around in the Firth of Forth in woolly hats, as so many women do, I haven’t seen them like this. I haven’t seen them standing on the beach in a circle. Each of them, one-by-one, taking turns to talk about how they are feeling, before they all charge, like an enthusiastic buffalo herd, into the water.

But then this is no ordinary swim group. This is the Edinburgh Blue Balls, a men’s mental health swim group.

Among those taking part in that pre-swim “check-in” is actor Johnny Panchaud who recalls his very first such circle, vividly, as if he were still there.

“We’re all standing on the sand, all these men of different shapes, sizes, ages. We’re all nervous about swimming. And Marc, the founder of the group, just says, ‘We’re going to do a check-in today.’ Everyone was like, what the hell’s a check-in? Normally getting in the water is the scary part.

“So we’re standing in a circle, and even that’s scary, men getting in a circle, and we start telling each other how we’re feeling and what we’re struggling with. And these words like anxiety, depression, fear, that people always experience but, especially, men never share, start coming out.”

HeraldScotland: Johnny Panchaud, member of Edinburgh Blue Balls, copyright Marc Millar

Edinburgh Blue Balls swimmer Johnny Panchaud, copyright Marc Millar

Also in attendance at some of those early swim check-ins was keen rugby player John McMillan.

“As we went round,” he says, “everyone was sharing their fears and anxieties and you could see that, as it progressed, people’s chests were getting bigger, almost getting strength from the group itself.“

McMillan had found the group at a time of need, spotting it on Facebook in the run up to the fifth anniversary of the day he tried to take his life.

“Because I knew the anniversary was approaching,” he says, “things were building up. I knew either I was going to have a total breakdown or I needed to do something. Coming across this group was a huge weight off my shoulders. I was able to not bottle it up as much.”

HeraldScotland: John McMillan, member of Edinburgh Blue Balls, copyright Marc Millar

John McMillan, copyright Marc Millar

The Instagram strapline for the Edinburgh Blue Balls is “weekly swim group to give men the chance to improve mental and physical health”.

As the group has got bigger and the weather colder, they now no longer do a physical check-in before swimming and have replaced it with an online chat group. Issues discussed there include alcoholism, abusive relationships, attempted suicides, bereavement, depression, anxiety.

Of course, long before men discovered group wild swimming and got the t-shirt (and the budgie smugglers), women were there.

With my collaborator Anna Deacon, I’ve been writing books about wild swimming for some years now (Taking The Plunge, and more recently The Art of Wild Swimming series). At book events, people would sometimes ask us, why it was wild swimmers were mainly women? Why was it all blue tits and no blue balls?

But the pandemic has expanded the demographic coming to the water. With lockdowns and restrictions leaving many of us cooped up and isolated, more have been drawn to the great escape of getting into a cold sea.

READ MORE: The ice breakers. How Scotland's ice swimmers taught me to love the cold.

The past couple of years have taken a toll on our collective mental health. Deaths from alcohol, in 2020, were up almost 19 percent on the previous year and twice as many men as women died as a result of alcohol.

Depression levels have doubled during the pandemic. It’s against this backdrop that an outdoor swimming for mental health trend has emerged.

Particularly powerful has been the UK-wide Mental Health Swims movement founded by Rachel Ashe.

Meanwhile, this new wave of men’s groups, swimming explicitly for mental health, has arrived with names like Edinburgh Blue Balls, the Sunrise Club, Blue Balls Cornwall, Ice Guys North East and Fife Dippers Mental Health Men’s Dip.

It’s December 2021 when I meet Marc Millar for a chat at Bross Bagels, which he runs with his partner in Portobello. The 47-year-old sports the same broad beard that lunges out of the logo created by a friend for the group’s social media. That graphic is also emblazoned across various bits of entertaining group merchandise, including a hoodie, and their Edinburgh Blue Balls budgie smugglers. A set of blue balls, naturally, also feature in the entertainingly tongue-in-cheek image. Millar is himself a professional photographer, who has taken images accompanying this article.

HeraldScotland: Edinburgh Blue Balls, copyright Anna Deacon

Edinburgh Blue Balls swimming at Wardie Bay, copyright Anna Deacon

He describes how he had been following the Instagram account of Ice Guys North East, who swim from Roker Beach, Sunderland.

When he asked if they might start a group in Edinburgh, their reply was to encourage him to set it up himself. “So I had a couple of bottles of wine one night and did it. Before I knew it ten people were coming the next day.”

The group snowballed. “It’s a bunch of guys,” Marc says, “with absolutely nothing in common, all different ages, walks of life. Before a swim, everyone’s polite. But then you dip your balls in the water and you’ve got everything in common, everything. You feel so much empathy.”

One of the main issues, he observes, for a lot of the members is anxiety. “Also abusive relationships. And a lot of the guys are open about how they’ve tried to commit suicide as well. ”

What’s clear, from speaking to many other swimmers, is that Millar’s willingness to express his anxieties is part of its success. He’s not only leading them into the water, but into a particular way of talking about themselves.

As Johnny Panchaud puts it, “He got everyone’s trust so quickly and I think that came through him being extremely transparent. For the first month he was saying, saying, ‘Guys I’m s***ing myself, I’m still terrified before every single group.’ The leader of the group showing vulnerability has encouraged us to show vulnerability.”

HeraldScotland: Edinburgh Blue Balls, copyright Marc Millar

Edinburgh Blue Balls at Portobello beach, copyright Marc Millar

Panchaud shows his own vulnerability as he relates the journey that led him to being now 15-months sober.

Back in October 2020, he had hit a low, and whilst visiting his parent’s house when they were were away, he found himself alone with his own dark thoughts.

“I’m not going to say that I was thinking about committing suicide, because I don’t think I would ever have had the bottle to see that through. But the thought had entered my mind for the first time: ‘How do I get out of this?”

He called an old friend in London who flew up “at the drop of a hat” and after much soul-searching, he made a pledge to himself: he would stop drinking and taking recreational drugs. Five days later, he took up an offer from friends to go for a “wild water swim” at Portobello. In the run up he found himself genuinely losing sleep over the imminent dip.

“But we did it. I must have been in and out in two minutes. But after that, I went religiously, every single day for one month.”

In that early stage, he says, he was not “ready to look back at the trail of destruction I’d caused with my drinking and drugs”, or forward.

“I felt I’ve got to find a way of staying sober today. And with wild swimming, you physically can’t think about anything other than now.”

Amongst the group, he is not alone in his openness about dark times. David Nimmons, for instance, describes how prior to this he was driven to seek help from his doctor by his suicidal thoughts, and the attempted suicide of his brother.

“My marriage had ended. I was trying to make sense of everything, including my brother’s attempted suicide. I had started speaking to a talking therapist through the NHS which helped massively but I needed something else. I needed something to help me control it on my own terms.”

A reason swimming appealed was, he says, because his brother had attempted suicide by jumping off rocks into a river.

“For my brother, the idea was that this cold water was going to take him away. But for me the water gives me strength. No matter what day I’ve had, once I’m in the water with the guys it’s like life is beautiful.”

HeraldScotland: Edinburgh Blue Balls, copyright Anna Deacon

The circle, copyright Anna Deacon

It’s hugely moving to hear these men’s stories, told with hearts on sleeves.

Stuart Kennedy, for instance, describes the rollercoaster last few years of his life, in which his best friend died in a car accident, he split up with his wife and began a long stint of living with parents and friends, during the pandemic and then, just as he had started to feel that life was getting back to normal, his ex-wife was diagnosed with cervical cancer.

That cancer, sadly, would take her life, and leave Kennedy supporting his two young sons through the loss of their mother.

Then there’s Ryan Malone, who recalls,“Lockdown hit me pretty badly. But this has always been underlying. I’m 43. I’ve been speaking to a few people about why men in that age bracket are in such a bad state of mental health. For me, it was just a build up of anxiety and depression.

“It built up to one Sunday in August, when my wife was in London and I was on my own. I couldn’t breathe. I’d had anxiety and minor panic attacks before but with this I realised I needed to seek help. I went to the GP that Monday.”

HeraldScotland: Ryan Malone, member of Edinburgh Blue Balls, copyright Marc Millar

Ryan Malone, copyright Marc Millar

Malone mentions the mid-life crisis, which also something also broached by Mental Health Swims coach Salim Ahmed. The founder of SwimLab, Ahmed teaches swimming as an art, rather than competitive skill.

Men are, he observes, becoming more aware that there are several stages to the ‘midlife crisis’.

“There’s the accelerated way in which your body starts to fail; having to let go of your personal best and learning that you need to accept certain things are happening with your physiology.

“Men are becoming aware of that. They’re starting to discover that just having a swim every couple of days is making them feel so much better. And then they find that they’re getting their mojo back. But they have to embrace the fact that they have to approach swimming in a different way. Not to win, but to live.”

But is it even about swimming? It seems to me the male mental health swim trend is part of a wider men’s mental health movement that’s expressed in multiple ways.

Marc Millar observes: “It’s not actually about swimming or dipping. It’s just a mutual thing where everyone is doing the same thing at the same time.”

HeraldScotland: Edinburgh Blue Balls, copyright Marc Millar

Edinburgh Blue Balls, copyright Marc Millar

It’s January 10, 2022. A large, woolly-hatted flock of around 50 men mill around the groyne that leads down to the water at Portobello beach and are are joined by visiting swimmers Jonathan Cowie, editor of Outdoor Swimmer magazine and, of all things, a woman, Gilly McArthur, sporting a fake beard.

As the crowd moves towards the water, wading in what looks like some kind of communal baptism, there’s a flurry of grunts and out-breaths.

But there are no signs of competition here – just what looks like pure, joyful swimming to live.

Cowie and McArthur are here as part of a month of swims with men, their intention being “to expand out the message that cold water can be helpful and powerful for men as well as women.”

READ MORE: 5 Scottish wild swim spots with amazing communities

Emerging from the water, McArthur, comments on how she felt a touch of intimidation going in with so many men. It’s the mirror to something Millar expresses.

A resident of Portobello, he had watched groups of mainly women getting into the water there, and felt uncomfortable as a man with joining.

“I never would see any guys. And it was weird because I’d see so many groups of women and so many solo guys swimming. Still to this day when you go down onto the beach there are women together and the guys are swimming alone.”

That really seems to be the point. Men not swimming alone. But together.

The Art Of Wild Swimming Scotland and Taking The Plunge, both by Anna Deacon and Vicky Allan, are published by Black and White