Uist sea swimming is fast emerging on the cusp of a wave of positivity
Since November Deirdre Steele and Fiona MacDonald from Lochboisdale have been regulars on the beaches at Garrynamonie, Smerclete, Kilbride and Eriskay, sometimes plunging into the icy waters before 7am much to the bemusement of bewildered locals. More than once I have heard the refrain, “A bheil iad glic?” (Are they wise?), but both women have their own personal, powerful stories for taking on this challenge which has seen them rack up over 50km between them.
For Deirdre her inspiration comes from Immerse Hebrides’ founder Norma MacLeod from Lewis who set up the group in 2019 after being diagnosed with breast cancer which mirrored her own situation a few years ago.
“I had moved to Stornoway to be closer to my husband who was working there and at the same time I was waiting for my own diagnosis after discovering a lump,” Deirdre told me earlier this week. “I read about Norma’s story and how she set up Immerse Hebrides, and when my own diagnosis was confirmed, I resolved to deal with it as proactively as I could.”
Since then Deirdre has become a passionate advocate of the physical and mental benefits that activity or sport can offer when dealing with bereavement or recovering from a diagnosis such as breast cancer. However, she’s the first to admit it wouldn’t be possible without her swim buddy Fiona who makes sure she stays motivated.
“There are mornings when you just don’t feel like it, especially as my treatment is ongoing, but when you’ve made an arrangement you drag yourself out and we keep each other going. There have been mornings when it’s been dark and cold and we’ve been in the water with head torches with only the occasional seal and the stars above us for company, but there are also days like last Saturday morning when I was lying on the water in Eriskay and thinking ‘this is so beautiful, isn’t it great to be alive’.”
Fiona is raising funds for St Andrew’s Hospice in Airdrie where her brother in-law John died of pancreatic cancer last year. Having set an initial target of £500 she’s now well over the £3000 mark with another few days left before the challenge finishes. Her efforts have even attracted the attention of Scottish singer-songwriter, Lewis Capaldi who sent her a supportive video message.
With 20 members now in the South Swim Buddies group it seems the popularity of sea swimming is on the cusp of a wave in Uist with another group, the ‘Uist Selkies’ also thriving in North Uist.
For Deirdre who is now back at her work with community landlord, Stòras Uibhist, it feels like they are growing their own community and while it might not be for everyone, she’s in no doubt about the role sea swimming has played as she continues her own recovery.
“I am so glad I discovered sea swimming when I did,” she said. “Prior to my diagnosis I was a keen runner and gym user, but after my treatment I didn’t have the same strength or stamina, so sea swimming offered me a way of building up my fitness at my own speed. Physically and mentally it has made me stronger and there’s also the friendships that grow when you are part of a group like this, so yes I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone who might find themselves in a similar situation.”
Any women looking to dip their toe in the water are encouraged to join the group next week when Immerse Hebrides are organising a ‘Bikini Dip’ on 8th March to mark International Women’s Day. With the £5 entry fee going towards Western Isles Women’s Aid, it’s for a worthy cause and could be the start of a new, healthier you. [email protected]