Gilly McArthur’s Cold Connection

“I was dressed as a ‘hairy Highlander’, which seemed like a great idea until I nearly drowned trying to swim in a kilt!” Fearless cold water swimmer Gilly McArthur chats about her love of icy dips and why she thinks more of us should be doing it

By Sian Lewis

Photography and Film by Scott M Salt

“When I come to the water’s edge, I pull away from everything else going on in my life and find a moment of peace.” Gilly McArthur’s soft Scottish brogue and obvious passion makes her descriptions of the joys of winter swimming sound very tempting indeed. Then she thinks back to her first proper cold water swim, in Lake Windermere. “I had no idea what I was doing. I went home afterwards and Googled: can pike kill you?”

The short film ZERO directed by Scott M Salt, produced by Sequence 13 Films.

Aberdeen-born Gilly is an ice swimmer, rock climber, illustrator and mental health advocate, now based in the Lake District. She’s come a long way since her pike panic – this fearless dipper now regularly swims in frozen lakes and snow-edged tarns, using an axe to break ice on the surface of water that would give most people goosebumps just to look at. Her Instagram chronicles her aquatic adventures: a mix of community swim sessions, gnarly ice hole dips and selfies where Gilly’s swim hat reads ‘yep, still Baltic!’

Shot on location for the documentary Body Of Water, Gilly enjoys the sun and the multiple sensations of the water on her skin.

When we speak, she’s just back from the Scottish Winter Swimming Championships. Was she there to compete? “I was more excited about the swimming community element. People come together, and there’s a lot of fancy dress and silliness. I was dressed as a ‘hairy Highlander’, which seemed like a great idea until I nearly drowned trying to swim in a kilt!”

This tartan-clad dip in Loch Tay echoes how Gilly describes her approach to wild swimming – as ‘non-competitive, inquisitive and adventurous’. “I’m also a climber, and I like to push myself on rock. But in the water, it’s something different. I love introducing new people to the benefits of swimming. I do a lot of coaching for beginners (Gilly is a qualified level 2 STA Open Water Swim Coach) and it’s so rewarding opening that door for others. Swimming doesn’t have to be for fitness, either – often it’s nice to just bob about, be immersed and be away from screens.”

Gilly also knows first-hand about the benefits to be had for the human body and mind when the water temperature drops. Cold water immersion has been proven to boost endorphin levels, benefit the immune system and alleviate stress. “I swim more in winter because I like the cold connection. I’ve noticed my immune system gets a real palpable boost from regular immersion – couple that with a connection to nature and a chance to join the swimming community, and you’ve got the golden triangle of why I think winter swimming is lovely for us. I swim in the summer too, but I’ll also have an ice bath or a cold shower to make sure I get that boost.”

Production still from the short film ZERO. Gilly basks in the waters of the ice hole that she has made in a high tarn in Mardale, the Lake District.

Exhilarating

Some of the most rewarding swims are off the beaten track and take time and effort to get to.

Has Gilly always been in touch with her inner ice mermaid? “As a kid growing up in Scotland, I was a bit feral and would regularly get chucked into bodies of water. But my love for the outdoors was captured more seriously when I left a corporate job and moved to Chamonix in France, and discovered climbing. Then, when I came to the Lake District eight years ago, I realised that it rains a lot in the UK! So when I couldn’t climb, I would swim instead. I remember I had a thick surf wetsuit on the first time I turned up at Lake Windermere, and there were a bunch of women there just wearing swimming costumes. I thought they were going to die. They explained that feeling the winter water on your skin really is amazing so I ditched my wetsuit and never looked back.”

Gilly may be surrounded by myriad tempting lakes in Cumbria, but she still loves to explore the wilds of Scotland. “My most memorable swim? It might have to be last year, when I swam in Fingal’s Cave (a sea cave on the tiny, uninhabited Scottish island of Staffa, known for huge hexagonal columns of basalt that rise up from the water). “It was bucketing down with rain, but in the cave the sea water was really calm and clear. I think we often forget that we have truly beautiful bodies of water in the UK and that we don’t need to travel far to find paradisiacal spots. I always recommend that people learn to use a map and go off the beaten track to find their own swims. Adventures are out there to be had.”

A split level shot taking in the stunning scenery around Wast Water in the Lake District (England's deepest lake 258ft).
Gilly walks into the freezing waters of Stickle Tarn while enduring the biting wind chill.

Gilly is an ambassador for Wonderful Wild Women, a Cumbria-based community celebrating women in the outdoors and who regularly swim together. But it’s not just her fellow females that Gilly wants to help discover the mental health benefits of cold water swims. “For the past few winters, I’ve swum every day in January to raise money for mental health and homeless charities. I found it very rewarding, but last year was a bit lonely. I also realised that my swimming group is made up of 90% female members and I thought – where are all the guys? So this past January I swam each day with different groups of men, joining them in the water to capture and share their stories. I’ve also set up Blue Mind Men, a cold water and mental wellbeing swim club for men, alongside (Outdoor Swimmer magazine contributing editor) Jonny Cowie. For us, it’s all about building accessibility, providing a handhold to help others find their own place in the outdoors.”

Wast Water, the Lake District. Gilly enjoys the calm of being fully submerged in one of the area's most iconic glacial lakes.

Adrenaline

Gilly stands next to the ice hole that she’s cut with her axe.

Making sport accessible to all is something Gilly also strives for in her other passion – rock climbing. She co-founded the Women’s Trad Festival, the largest festival of its kind in the world, to help beginners transition from indoor to outdoor climbing and to support women and other marginalised genders in outdoor leadership. “In the climbing world, 80% of the instructors are male,” explains Gilly. “But the festival flips that – for a weekend, we have a climbing community of 90% women. (The festival) also has a big focus on mental wellbeing. Climbing has similarities to cold water swimming – you’re often outside your comfort zone, and I think gaining confidence both in climbing and swimming makes you braver in other aspects of your life. Both pursuits are a good leveller, and show women and men that you can be confident, and be yourself, in the body you have.” And Gilly has a life-affirming message for anyone who wonders if they’re good enough at their chosen sport. “You’re a climber if you just climb easy top rope routes. And you’re a swimmer if you only do 25 metres and then have a cup of tea on the shore.”

Gilly warms her hands on the shore of Harrop Tarn, the Lake District. Production still from the film Body of Water.

Gilly herself has seen a big increase in newbie swimmers finding solace in the water in the wake of the pandemic, and Outdoor Swimmer Magazine reports a huge increase in swimming participation in the UK. “In lockdown, a lot of people suddenly felt like they had lost control. Outdoor swimming provides a space where you can regain a little bit of it. A wild swim fits easily into a busy day. Plus, people have heard about the mental health benefits of swimming, and a lot of us could do with a boost! There are great books and online resources out there to help new swimmers stay safe in the water, but it’s also important to make sure they know how to be respectful of the natural world. We can all work towards being a better swimmer. Leave no trace of your visit or, even better, pick up litter that isn’t yours. Be mindful of where you park and the noise you’re making at a swim spot. If each new swimmer started campaigning on water accessibility and water quality, we’d really see a positive difference.”

Gilly treads water in an undisclosed location in The Lake District as the sun illuminates the clear waters.

And what advice would Gilly give to beginner or fair-weather wild swimmers who want to keep dipping once winter draws in? “I always say: start in the summer, and as the degrees drop, just keep going. The first time you try going for winter, it’s a good idea to commit to swimming at least twice a week – swimming regularly makes the shock response diminish. What’s lovely is that you don’t lose your ability to stick out the cold – it stays with you from winter to winter, so keep going and it will definitely get easier. People often trip up because they push themselves too hard, trying to be in the water for too long. Instead, go in with a playful attitude, and listen to your body, day by day.” She lowers her voice confidentially. “Here’s a secret. Cold water swimming is always hard for the first two minutes. I’ve been swimming in icy temperatures for eight years, and I still have that ‘blimey!’ moment for the first minute or two. Just stick with it – after that, it feels wonderful.”

Gilly walks across the ice sheet that's formed over a high tarn in Mardale.

Photography by Scott M Salt

Editorial Design by Root

If you love this you’ll also love...

Below-Zero Hero

“I work with the water, not against it.” Manhattan’s famed ice swimmer Jaimie Monahan talks about her attitude to swimming, and why it works for her 

By Annabel Herrick

Water World

Record-breaking freediver Alenka Artnik and underwater photographer Daan Verhoeven work in symmetry: we discover her passion for the sport and how those deepwater skills are captured

By Martina Žoldoš

Power Through Dance

“I want to see more plus-size bodies in a joyful state.” Trina Nicole’s dance platform is accomplishing much more than she imagined. We talk to The Curve Catwalk founder about her plans

By Tomi Otekunrin

Taking The Plunge

The ritual of a freshwater dip is healing for many. We speak to Wonderful Wild Women about community, courage and braving the cold

By Annabel Herrick

This week’s exclusive offers

Rogue Room Redemption

Join rebellious wellness provocateurs The Rogue for a 'Redemption' yoga class to the backdrop of a live techno DJ.

20% off Yogi Bare

Eco sensitive yoga brand with props, mats and accessories made for every body.