Tamsin McVean is a cold water swimmer with a difference. She swims each day of the year, solo, no wet suit, and then captures her experiences in a beautiful, evocative blog that has caught the imaginations of a growing international audience. As a writer and photographer, she captures the raw essence of living on an island and swimming each day in its fierce cold sea. This is wild swimming and raw living with a difference. She lives on a quiet Hebridean island, on the West coast of Scotland. I managed to catch up with Tamsin and ask her about her love of cold water swimming and the highs and lows of living on a remote scottish island.
What inspired you to start cold water sea swimming?
I live on an island croft, that shores onto a fresh water loch, with a beautiful Hebridean sea all around. I never made the decision to start cold water sea swimming. It just happened, I think out of some inner necessity. I had been through several very difficult years. It was a time of intense crisis. Initially, there was a period of extreme loss, all within a very short timeframe. All the usual things that many people experience singly, all came at once for me.
Two months after my marriage broke up, my father died, and I lost my mother at the same time to Alzheimers. I later became very ill myself, and then withdrew internally after my best friend here on the island was tragically killed in a car crash, the very day after we had shared with each other the difficulty of coping alone, of the hard realities of isolation and loneliness. Even whilst living in a community. Trauma and loss are incredible triggers by themselves, but when you are living with this and trying to cope alone, without the support of family or close kin, it is a much more difficult ask. For me it was utterly overwhelming. I also had two broken hands at the time and when later I became more seriously ill, I started to really struggle coping. This was just the initial tipping point and the start of some very difficult years. There came a tipping point, when something had to change. So, I wasn’t inspired to start cold water sea swimming. But the sea drew me to it. From there, cold water swimming inspired me and my life, to start again.
My body took me to the sea, every day, in all weathers, storms, hail, snow, sunshine and calm, when I literally had nowhere else to go and no one to turn to. I went with nothing and I came back each time, feeling renewed, strengthened and that I could get through another day. It was a very deep instinctive feeling inside, that took me there. To hold me and to keep me safe. That is when my life transformed itself and a deeper creative inspiration and way of living came.
Why did you start a blog and what are your aims for the blog in the long term?
I started the blog simply as a way of recording each day’s swim. I called it My Daily Raw Swim, Cold Running Tides. It was something simple I could do for myself. It was quite simply my voice. Initially, I posted each day’s swim onto social media simply as a way of date stamping images and giving me a simple manageable discipline of writing a short paragraph each day. To make sense of it. To show that I was alive and well. Ultimately, it was my voice at a time of silence.
At the outset, it was also a cry for help. I was very lonely, so I joined the Outdoor Swimming Society, an online group. It is incredible to me know, how I met a community of sea there. We shared stories, experiences, tips and made friendships. Over time it has also become a tremendous creative and professional resource. Some folk have also booked to stay a few days at my holiday cottage – artists, musicians, wildlife lovers – and others have come just to swim with me here. It has been an extraordinary experience, and once which is very moving for me.
The blog has grown organically and I would hope to keep it this way. I always try to live each day without too tight, restrictive or prescriptive a structure, which I find can limit the creative process in many ways. This also allows the blog to keep evolving and subtly changing.
Originally, I posted pared back, simple prose and quick images on the blog. Then it was featured in the Sunday Times Magazine, How Does it Feel to … Wild Swim (May 2017) and was also aired on Radio Scotland and RTE Radio 1 Ireland. With sponsorship by Dry Robe International, I am now a brand ambassador and lifestyle advocate for this inspirational brand and we are working together on projects for the coming year. It has all happened very quickly for me and perhaps this is because it started from a raw flame of truth. Sometimes I have to pinch myself. It is working now as a multi-media showcase across different platforms and which ideally, when it is working well, seeks to break down the traditional barriers between subject/object and participant/viewer. I make short films, swim clips and also love to use still images and more unusual images taken in the water. I am loving exploring using a hand held in water photography and my words and images are now featured in magazines and print. I use a Sony A6000 gifted by Sony Cameras, with an in-water professional housing, a GoPro Hero 6 and am looking to invest in a professional film kit. I love to write poetry and also to explore word art. I guess I’m enjoying pushing back the boundaries, in myself as well as my creative work. I would hope the blog and my own media becomes inreasingly immersive over time. I am also now working with a London literary agent on a book and a screen play, having been approached by a couple of publishing houses over the summer. I can now see in time how My Daily Raw Swim: Cold Running Tides blog may become a wonderful real time reference point for this.
I have lived here for 14 years, and the last 7 years alone. I always loved the Highlands as a child. We used to travel up from the south, by the sleeper train, only in those days your car was also on board and overnighted with you. I loved waking up, with all the freedom of the mountains and the sea. The raw wildlife and beautiful nature, has always been an integral part of my own being, ever since I was a child. The idea to move here came having spent years working and living intensely hard down south, and wanting to bring my life and work back into balance. I came here to start a family. And also to be part of a close, welcoming and thriving community, having loved living in a very small hamlet community down south. Most of all, I wanted to live close to nature and closer to the Scottish wilds.
What is your favourite place on the island and why?
What are the best and worst things about living on a remote island?
That’s a difficult question. It is hard in some to say the best and worst things about island living, if it’s your home! Island living is unlike anything else I have ever experienced. Before I came here, I had travelled the world over and lived in many beautiful places. But this is home to me now.
As an immersive and somatic experience, this is translated into writing, photography, film and also my interest in natural medicine. It is my breath, so for me, this has to be one of the most nourishing aspects of living here.
Cold water sea swimming has lent an extra edge to this traditional landscape of soil. If you live on an island, sea is like the moon to the soil’s sun. Each lends itself to the other. It brings its own energy, perspective, moods and shift. These days, it is the sea that shapes how I experience living on the land. This is a really interesting, exciting and a beautiful blue space and dynamic that I am still loving to explore, and to share with others.
Landscape here though means, not just the soil and terrain itself, but a close proximity with our island community. And this is also a great strength. Community here is a strong and vital island resource. We are incredibly fortunate to have such a vibrant dynamic and relatively young community here. As with everything, life isn’t static and this island itself is changing. So it will be really interesting to see what the next 10 to 15 years brings.
I would say for me, living alone without family, is the hardest challenge. It was my dream to have my own and so this hits doubly hard. Therefore, I guess isolation is the biggest challenge. There is always community, friends or folk here to meet and interact with, but I do miss having that closer proximity with close kin or loved ones near. This translates for me, I hope now, into a source of strength and inspiration. Island living is ideally suited if you have an open mind, are resilient and interested in pushing back your own brakes and boundaries and living creatively. Self-sufficiency is not just about soil, croft, produce, livestock, craft, culinary adventure or wild foraging. It is also of resilience, strength and innovation of mind. The most exciting aspect for me is the impetus it lends to its creative expression and translation through a life and how this then is shared and experienced with myself and with others.
So ultimately, in my end is my beginning. You could say, the best and worst things are each other’s inspiration. They are mutually beneficial and organically evolving over time. I hope I am able to keep them flowing in this way. It is good to step up close to one’s own challenges, to try and reframe these and create something beautiful out of this too. For me, there is no better place to find this than here. And an island life is a great internal and external source of fulfilment through its potential for creative expression and joy.
A changing world, I think, is what all of us here on the island face alongside most other places. There are of course, within this, unique challenges for rural communities and arguably, even more so, for island communities. Sometimes there is a lack of budgetary allocation or skilled centralised administration, resulting in normal services being disrupted. For example, gritting of the roads, ferry services etc. Often there is a lack of planning and quick responsive action, or contingency measures planned out and discussed in advance. Here, we have our own active Community Council, Island Trust and Heritage Centre, who are each singly and collectively always looking at ways to integrate strategic planning with funding bodies, including the Council. I wonder if, now more than ever, it is vital to have an island plan that represents our collective voice, in order to allow us to be better equipped with working together with a cohesive island vision – and therefore to actively work together to secure the future we would like here.
Have you visited any other islands around Scotland. If so, which is your favourite and why?
I do have another favourite island. Or rather it is a small cluster of islands that I have yet to visit. They are the uninhabited islands of Mingulay, Berneray and Pabbay. I would love to explore these wilder islands, not just as a haven of seabirds including puffin, kittiwakes and razorbills, but also for their evocative history and once rich history of older islander fishing and crofting communities. I love old Norse literature and poetry, which I studied many years ago and Mingulay is also rich in ancient Celtic and Norse folk traditions and Viking place names.
Do you think there has been an increase in tourism after the recent programmes about scottish islands? How has this impacted on the island?
I think mainstream media, has undoubtedly helped Scottish islands in this respect. Also, increasingly so, the role of responsible social media. Here on the island, as in so many other Scottish islands, farming and crofting communities are changing. Increasingly, they are looking to support themselves through inspirational and dynamic diversification. Tourism that is low impact on the environment and community infrastructures that is well managed environmentally, will be vital for this. I see environment tourism as the way ahead. There is such scope and potential here to supplement livelihoods with innovative enterprise, creating employment and work, as well as to protect our fragile wildlife and species. Green and blue space tourism will ultimately create more jobs for indivdual’s, by nature of it working closely with the public, rather than more traditional industries with technology that will soon be electronicized or managed by robotised programming. It’s some way ahead, but it is a reality.
Our terrain and infrastructure here is not conducive to an influx of diesel or petrol tourism on wheels, just passing through and out again within a single day. But we are well set up for walkers, cyclists, kayakers and so on. More importantly, for tourism of short or longer stays, many islanders here offer holiday rentals and places to stay.
My own life is changing and evolving just now. So 5-10 years time is going to be an exciting fast forward. I see life for myself here, focused on my creative work. I am currently writing a non-fiction memoir, and screenplay and we are also discussing storylines for fiction work. I am lucky as I also experience the world very visually and so I would hope to also be developing my photographic and film work. I would hope in 5-10 years, my main workplace and studio will be here on the island. But I can see myself moving around much more, visiting the other islands and beautiful wild raw destinations in the Outer Hebrides. I would love also to explore Norway and that stunning fractured coastline of inlets and fjords.
Tamsin McVean: My Daily Raw Swim – my is website: www.tamsinmcvean.com
The home shore of my blog is at www.facebook.com/dailyrawswim
All Photos by Tamsin Mcvean