By Toby SkinnerApril 9th 2021

With gorgeous beaches and dramatic coastlines, Shetland has always been a great place for open-water swimming. Now, in the wake of lockdown and a growing nationwide appreciation, more and more people are diving in.

For Emma Knight, open-water swimming has just become part of life. Most days – even in winter, when the hail is bouncing off the sea – she’ll walk down to Bain’s Beach in Lerwick, and head into the Bressay Sound in just a swimming costume, hat, gloves and neoprene boots.

“It’s become an important part of my life,” says Emma, an auxiliary at Lerwick’s Anderson High School. “I’ve suffered with poor mental health in the past, but swimming has helped that. It just gives me this feeling of peace being out there, when I have clear head space and can think about lots of things. I love swimming alone, when no one can reach me and I’m not running around after my family, but also doing it with friends, when there’s a lot of coffee, tea and cakes.”

Open-water swimming has boomed in Shetland over the past few years, and especially during Covid restrictions, when the sea has become a place of freedom and escape. But it’s not a new hobby for Emma, who was part of a group of 19 people who swam from Bressay to Lerwick in 2014, raising £20,000 for charity. While planning the swim, her cousin Abigail Robertson set up a Facebook group called Selkies, after the Shetland word for seals. Now, the group has become the fulcrum of an active community of Shetland sea swimmers, with more than 765 members. While the sea off Shetland’s almost 1,700 miles of coastline is undeniably chilly, it tends to be warmer than the east coast of Scotland, with the Gulf Stream helping temperatures to 8°C in the winter and 12°C in the summer.

“It’s definitely got bigger,” says Emma, who swims alone and with friends all across Shetland, including from her second home at Ollaberry, in the North Mainland. “The Selkies group is more active than it’s ever been, and there were so many people in the water here when the toughest lockdowns were lifted,” she says. “At times, Bain’s Beach has been like Piccadilly Circus.”

The Selkies group is more active than it’s ever been, and there were so many people in the water here when the toughest lockdowns were lifted.

Emma says there are many new arrivals to Shetland who are joining the Selkies group, but that there are also plenty of people who have turned swimming into part of their lifestyle. These include Catriona Barr, a local anesthetist and regular swimmer, who made headlines a few years ago when she realised she was swimming alongside an orca while swimming out to The Knab on the edge of Lerwick. Emma Williamson, a local nurse and keen swimmer, posts regularly on the Selkies page and has her own Instagram account, @shetlandseaswimmerselkie. Others are more adventurous like Ryan Leith, a port controller at the Lerwick Port Authority, who sometimes leads local groups on challenging swimming trips, for example to the cave-ridden Calders Geo inlet at Eshaness.

Emma says that regulars like her get used to the cold. “When we started, we’d be in wetsuits, but you get used to it, and now I don’t bother, even in the middle of winter. You have to go quite regularly, but your body adapts to the cold, and you start to really feel the health benefits of it. I can’t remember having a cold through all of this past winter.”

The outsider’s view

Anna Hart, a journalist and regular wild simmer based in Margate, Kent, says: "Wild-swimming Shetland's beautiful beaches is one of the most memorable holidays I've ever had. Pristine white sands, seclusion, dramatic cliffs and hills, bright blue waters – if you don't mind a bit of wind, this is the sort of coastline that open water swimmers like myself dream of. St Ninian's Isle is particularly beautiful; I have family in Bigton so have a soft spot for that area." Read Anna's account of her trip in this Stylist piece.

The recent spike in interest in sea swimming – which has been seen across the UK, too – has also spawned possible new business ideas. Hannah Mary Goodlad, a Shetlander who currently works in the offshore wind energy industry in Aberdeen, is seeking planning permission for a new log-fired outdoor sauna at a currently undisclosed Shetland location.

“I had the idea when I was at a sauna in Oslo, and just thought it would be brilliant in Shetland,” says Hannah Mary, who has named the would-be business GLØD, after the local word for a glimmer of heat or light. “It’s always been a place receptive to ideas from Scandinavia, but more than that Shetland has an incredible coastline.”

Along with her husband Callum Scott, Hannah Mary has been running surveys on Facebook to determine the local appetite for a sauna, and the potential benefits for the local community and tourism – with the hope of launching by next summer. “The response has been really positive so far,” she says. “There’s been a real surge of interest in wild swimming, not just here but across the UK. There are lots of similar businesses starting across the country, and they’ve been really good at sharing ideas and tips.”

With a growing community of local swimmers, it’s not hard to imagine an enthusiastic uptake for a new sauna – not that it’s necessary to get the swimmer’s buzz. “Just going out in the water here is amazing,” says Emma. “It’s not often that you don’t see a seal out there, and you just get this amazing feeling of peace from it. I love it, and I only see it getting bigger here.”

See the Selkies Facebook group to see what Shetland’s open-water swimmers have been up to, and to get involved yourself. Read about locals' favourite beaches here.