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The Days We Swam

Changing expectations in Scotland.

Light / Dark

Midnight Soho in London’s West End is like a zombie apocalypse—needles in the alleys washed with puke. It sets the perfect scene to make us put the pedal down, compass set firmly north, on that bastard-long road by night. Familiarity never eases the contours of the graveyard shift, travel companions dozing like they’re drugged, the same track on repeat mile after mile. This trip, as it transpired, held none of the promises expected. It was a lesson in adjusting preconceptions, embracing change, and finding joy in the unanticipated.

We’d hit the road for Thurso’s whisky-hued inside section, remembering a similar November chart and glorious, rifling emptiness. The only problem was, so had everyone else. What we found at the end of the road (excitedly stealing glimpses through the castle, the silence of anticipation and memories of tubes gone by) was a collection of crumbly closeouts with forty eager attendees. There were also judging pagodas riffling in the wind, a hundred vans, and speakers blaring bad music. Competition scene. Edgeland firmly humanized.

It once was that this unique spot (and its ugly sisters at Brimms) would suck in any infrequent crowd, leaving the rest of the north coast a happy hunting ground of rivermouth peelers, wedges, and a few mean slabs. Now each has an attendant crew, seeking solitude, wrestling with the uncomfortable truth that we’re squeezed onto our small island of 64 million people like lemons in a vice.

As we cursed the multitudes of identical others (like flipping off the mirror), Jack Johns, well known for his reckless exploits in waves of consequence, guided us straight into a boiling, twisting left. The lonely shoreline upon which we landed was the end product of us weighing the perfection/emptiness scale and falling hard on the latter. Full of fury this wave, beautiful in its own way, a dense little lump of reef. With a quiver of boards for right points, I opted to lie down.

Full of fury this wave, beautiful in its own way, a dense little lump of reef. With a quiver of boards for right points, I opted to lie down.

A roll of the dice later, an abandoned croft, a roaring campfire under a daybright moon, a mouthful of rich Dalwhinnie, and it was agreed: decision well made, room for the head to breathe. And the wave beneath—concentrated power.

The low tracks north and the no-exit left starts throwing up flickering rights. Black water and an immense northern horizon, all sea. “It’s a massive shorebreak,” Josh Vyvyan laughs maniacally, “onto rock.” But there’s a pit before it shuts down. Jack turns into a mechanical tube fiend, collecting scalps, hunting the thickest ones, traveling.

Walking out along a jut of land we scare up a tawny owl. In the track of its panicked flight, a little right point fights the wind. Josh races the hollow section, his lanky frame swooping into the micro tubes “like a giraffe in a cereal box,” as he puts it. Then it really goes flat, but Jack spots a window at an exposed finger of rock. It’s a long hike.

We don fins and bob in the dark water, trying to spook each other about Orcas, trying not to get compound fractures from the mean little bowls. The water is translucent, dancing with a livid brilliance. And somehow this session, chest-high at best, holds the greatest significance. This is the feeling I came for and what I hold onto—the joy of the lonely and unusual, the psychedelic swirl of the Cairngorms seeping into my system.