Edinburgh Hogmanay has dropped the South Queensferry loony dook from its programme – though that has not stopped the locals from running the dip, which assembles around 2pm at the boathouse steps on New Year's Day and enters the waters of the Firth of Forth half an hour later.

The ‘loony’ spirit, after all, is hardly one that waits for tickets or official stamps. Though, if what you want is the full experience of thundering into the water as a herd, it helps if a specified time and place is set.Hence the appeal of an organised loony dook, like those also taking place not only at South Queensferry, but also at Broughty Ferry, Portobello, Helensburgh, St Andrews, Kirkcaldy, Kinghorn, Loch Venachar. You know the crowd will be with you.

Of course, you also don’t, these days, need the first day of January for a dook. With the rise of wild swimming, Scotland is now a 365-day loony dooking venue.

What struck me, having done a year documenting wild swimming groups and communities for my book The Ripple Effect, is that group wild swimming is essentially the spirit of Loony Dook expanded throughout the whole year. Yes, it’s centred more around what many call a “bob and a blether” than the quick in-out – but its essence is similar, and it too frequently does involve silly hats.

New Year, in other words, like all festive things has spread.

This year's upcoming loony dook is also a reminder of how people use dips, not just for health reasons, but to mark special moments. When we start our year with a plunge, we are not just giving a hangover a drenching with coldwater shock, we’re also practicing a yearly ceremony – and that ritualistic water immersion has a long and well-documented history.

The Herald: Cockenzie Loony DookCockenzie Loony Dook

Over the past year, I’ve been trying to dig into just how long the tradition of plunging into very cold water en masse has been an element of New Year festivity. South Queensferry has only been doing its famous fancy dress dook into the Forth since in 1986 it was jokingly suggested by locals for a New Year's Day hangover cure.

But the fabulously-named Ye Amphibious Ancients Association in Broughty Ferry has been Neer’ Day's dooking for longer - since 1891 - and, until Covid restrictions in 2021, the dook had never been cancelled, even in 1989 when dippers had to break the ice in the harbour with pick-axes.

READ MORE: Wild swimming: How recovering alcoholic found answer in cold

READ MORE: Stone cold sober: Wild swim groups helping alcohol recovery

“The New Year’s Day Dook,” says the club’s website, “is a tradition handed down by the fisher folk of Broughty Ferry - some of whom bathed in the waters of the Tay every a morning except on the Sabbath.”

Scotland is also not alone in dooking. The first New Year's Dive in the Netherlands took place in Zandvoort in 1960. Oslo has had a New Year's day dip for the last 29 years. In Denmark, Søndervig's winter bathing festival involves a jump into the cold water on 31 December, often followed by oysters and champagne

But coldwater immersion, and even the coldwater cure, are far from new, having become fashionable in the 18th century.  Robert Burns was advised to swim in the Solway Firth. Days before his death, he wrote in a letter, “The medical people order me, as I value my existence, to fly to sea-bathing"

This coldwater trend was partly driven by the English physician John Floyer, who in 1709 wrote a treatise titled, Psychrolousia. Or, the History of Cold Bathing.  In it, he observed that it can be assumed that coldwater swimming had been practised “anciently” in England, “because all the Northern Nations used that method for fortifying themselves against their cold air.”

“The Art of Cold Bathing,” he wrote, “was certainly first Invented by the Common People, who used it for the preservation of their health, and fortifying themselves against cold, as other animals do. The priests further improved this by applying it to Divine Immersion, thereby to purify the spirits, and to make them more calm and vigorous in devotion.”

People these days often dook for health reasons – and its benefits are often extolled within the wild swimming movement – but a loony dook is also about something else. It feels more like a pagan carnival; or an irreverent take on a religious immersion - and its a reminder of those traditions.

It’s not difficult to see – if you have any experience of the thrill of cold-water dipping - why John the Baptist and other religious figures may have fixed on it, or why the Russian practice of submerging in a cross-shaped hole in the ice may have remained popular, even with Vladimir Putin, up until this day. 

What goes on in cold water – the cold water shock – takes us to another place, allowing us to be reborn into a new day, and in this case a new year.

As one wild swimmer put it to me: “I don’t know if they had dryrobes and muffins afterwards, but I’ve got it on good account that John the Baptist was the actual first-ever coldwater group.”

The coldwater dip is also an element in what I like to call ‘winter braving’ - the idea that the best way to get through the chill and darkness is not by hiding under a duvet, but through throwing yourself at it.

The Scandinavians are particularly good at this, and a philosophy of friluftsliv has been popular since the 1800s. The word translates as ‘fresh-air life’, and is all about getting out and being active and embracing nature whatever the weather.

So there it is. If you were wondering what the point of doing a loony dook is, you now have a few reasons. To be reborn into the New Year; to participate in the kind of frilutsliv that can help you get through winter; to feel part of something bigger by immersing yourself in a sea that connects you to other New Year’s dippers.

But that’s not why most of us do it. We do it because it gives us an excuse to squeal and scream and laugh – and all the better if it’s not too ‘official’.