How to stay safe while swimming outdoors in Scotland this summer

Everything you need to know about swimming safely outdoors at popular summer beauty spots in Scotland. (Image: Kate MacDonald)Everything you need to know about swimming safely outdoors at popular summer beauty spots in Scotland. (Image: Kate MacDonald)
Everything you need to know about swimming safely outdoors at popular summer beauty spots in Scotland. (Image: Kate MacDonald)
With tragic news of six deaths in Scotland this weekend (July 24-25) taking place as a result of drowning, here’s what you need to know about swimming safely in Scottish water spots this summer.

The news of the six deaths, with one including a 16-year-old boy who drowned while swimming at Loch Lomond, has led to pleas from Scottish emergency services to the public to take care when venturing into Scotland’s wide variety of lochs, seas and rivers.

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This follows a sizzling hot week for the country in which soaring temperatures of 29C were recorded across Scotland, with many friends and families seeking out water spots nearby to cool down.

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As Scots enjoy summer and spend more time by the water after months of lockdown, the dangers of currents, cold shock and swimming alone should not be underestimated by those less familiar with water.

Here’s what you need to watch out for when going swimming and what you can do to keep yourself and loved ones safe in the water.

Where are the safest places to swim?

The wild swimming boom has led some to seek out quieter lochs and rivers - but these can often be more dangerous.

This is because they might not have many people around who can help if you get into trouble or could have less clearly visible risks such as stronger currents, sudden dips, sharp rocks or icy cold water.

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Emergency services like the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) recommend that the safest place to swim is wherever a lifeguard or attendant is on duty.

But if you are keen to try some wild swimming, doing so in the safely is vital.

You should try and go with at least one other person if possible and avoid anything that could lessen your ability to respond in the water or lose coordination, such as drugs or alcohol.

If you're unsure about the best places to go wild swimming across Scotland, you can visit wild swimming sites such as or find out more by joining wild swimming community groups on Facebook.

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These typically offer very inclusive and friendly environments where you can join a local swim group, make friends or get detailed, up-to-date information about wild swimming spots near you.

What is cold water shock and what are the symptoms?

To be expected in the chilly waters on Scottish shores, cold water shock takes place usually when your body is immersed in cold water of less than 20C.

According to Water Safety Scotland, the average temperature of seas surrounding the UK and Ireland is 12C – meaning cold water shock is something which can easily occur if you don’t take enough care in the water.

Cold water shock sees your body undergo an involuntary response whereby you find yourself unable to move or breathe, while simultaneously feeling your heart rate quicken as your blood pressure increases.

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By causing the blood vessels in the skin to close up, the shock of being in cold water below 20C can see even healthy, younger people suffer from heart attacks caused by reduced blood flow.

If you are intending to go into cold water of less than 20C, wearing a wetsuit or protective, thermal swimwear and using something to help you float is the safest option – but in any case, you should always check the conditions and weather for the day before going for a swim outdoors.

Water Safety Scotland state that if you or a loved one is experiencing cold water shock, you should do your best not to thrash about or panic and instead try to float on your back on the surface of the water.

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Relaxing like this will allow your body to stabilise and see the worst of the body’s initial responses to cold water shock wear off – allowing you to then call out for help or try to find a way to get out of the water safely.

What do I do if I see someone in trouble?

If you see someone struggling in the water you should not jump in to try and help them, says Water Safety Scotland.

If the conditions are unsafe, this can result in you both being at greater risk of drowning or becoming injured.

Instead, you should try to look for a throw line or life ring to help the person in danger and call emergency services.

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If you are inland, call the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service by dialling 999 and ask for them, but if you see someone in trouble in coastal waters dial 112 for the coastguard.

Following the tragic deaths of a number of people from drowning in waters across Scotland, Police Scotland Assistant Chief Constable Mark Williams said:

"The message I want to send to everyone is exercise extreme caution. It is better to keep a safe distance from water if possible.

"Tragically, this weekend has highlighted that open water is very, very dangerous. If you see someone in the water and distressed call 999 immediately. “Remember, you could get into difficulty yourself trying to help so please take care and seek help as soon as possible."

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