Surfs Up Scotland

Kaitlin Dryburgh

When evoking visions of surfing you wouldn’t be alone in picturing the white sands of Hawaii or California, perhaps even Australia or Portugal. Through-out popular culture surfing has been a past-time of those in warm climates, yet the rise of cold-water surfing has Scotland primed as the perfect trailblazer.

There’s a reason why many are flocking to Scottish beaches to hop on the Scottish wave craze. Our rugged coastlines from the likes of Thurso all the way down to Edinburgh’s Portobello beach offers even the most fanatical and experienced surfer a challenging time. Large swells to rival even the most famous Hawaiian beaches can be found on our coastlines. Whenever Scotland experiences a storm, one worthy enough to be named, you can bet that our beaches will experience an influx in surfers afterwards. With some waves peaking at 10m high Scotland is a surfing destination and more and more are beginning to come to that realisation.

The assumption that warm waters are the only way to surf is becoming an attitude of the past as the sport has fully started to adopt cold water surfing. The flight to the north comes at a time when the technological advances in wetsuit design sets to make the waters that much more bearable. With the option of being a little warmer in our cold waters, the uptake in wild swimming has encouraged many others to give it a go. Yet that’s not to say you don’t have to have a certain amount of grit and toughness to surf in Scottish waters. To an extent it’s a different culture, it’s one that requires a bit more work and mental strength. But in among the harsher side to what Scotland can offer comes the unremarkable beauty and remoteness that has become the real pull. An untapped wilderness which is a far cry from the crowded beaches of some of the more conventional surfing spots through-out the world. There is no commercialisation, no big egos, in some of the more remote areas in Scotland surfers describe a feeling of being carried by the ocean, just taking in the beauty of the surroundings and astounded by the emptiness. Something that is appreciated even more after frequenting other horrendously packed beaches.

This weekend the very best will be heading to Thurso to compete in this years Scottish National Surfing Championships. Overlooking the remains of Thurso castle the formidable Thurso-East will play host to a large sway of talent battling it out, with the likes of Pheobe Strachan and 2023 champion Mark Boyd. The championships have been running for a substantial time however the calibre of talent which keeps everyone performing at their best has only been increasing in recent times. Mark Boyd praises this years competitors as really pushing the level of surfing in Scotland. There is without a doubt a plethora of surfing talent in Scotland from veterans like Boyd to junior champions competing all over the world. Last year’s Junior World Championships set in Rio De Janeiro had a strong turnout from Scotland, with British junior champion from Murkle Craig McLachlan captaining the team and teenager Olivia Mackay all vying to make an impact. It also gave the teens the opportunity to surf without having to brace cold waters in thick wetsuits.

Even though Scotland is experiencing an influx in surfers both from within and from those visiting, we’ve already got a wealth of culture behind us. Since the 60s surfing has been a pastime in Scotland, with many pointing to Aberdeen beach as the first destination to adopt the sport. Often left as a footnote in the history of surfing in the UK, Scotland hasn’t received much recognition and thought for the people and areas who have influenced the sport over here. Now veteran surfers Andy Bennetts and Malcolm Findlay have looked to explore the relationship between Scottish surfing in their new book Surfing Scotland: Sixty years of surfing the cold water kingdom. The purpose of the book to bring to light the personality of the Scottish surfer, one of determined and hardened individuals, they work hard yet have a wicked sense of humour, and unlike the piercing cold waters and winds that look to batter you, they’re friendly and welcoming. This is the first body of work to ever look into the Scottish surfing culture and background. In modern times surfing’s popularity grew threw several micro surfing communities through-out Scotland, to start with those in Edinburgh had no idea there was a surf scene in Fraserburgh.

Yet perhaps one of the most interesting stories concerning the sports origins and in particular the first Scottish surfer comes from a royal family member. Princess Victoria Ka’iulani Cleghorn was a Hawiian royal born in 1875 and niece to King Kalakaua was an expert surfer and was blessed with Scottish heritage due to her Edinburgh born dad. She rode the waves up until her untimely death, and although she did visit Scotland it isn’t known if she ever braved the cold waters over here. Yet many claim she was the first ever Scottish surfer.

Looking to the future Scotland has something big coming to it. Just on the outskirts of Edinburgh coming this September will be the UK’s largest inland surfing resort. Currently under construction the wave pool alone is meant to be three times the size of Wembley Stadium pitch. Current plans put this to be more than just a wave pool and looks to include a resort type set up including food outlets, lodges, and classes in other outdoor activities. Other branches have been built with carbon cutting process and the hopes of reducing output. Hoping to encourage the sport year round and provide lessons and equipment for those who are new to the sport the Wavegarden could give surfing an extra-boost.

There are plenty of long-standing surf clubs through-out Scotland, and the talent many have produced is testament to the skills they have developed. And with increased awareness of the benefits that cold water swimming can bring more people are inclined to give surfing a go. There are also some incredible initaitves that soley look to join the positive benefits of cold water swimming and surfing, like The Wave Project. Working with children they deliver evidence based programmes to help promote positive mental wellbeing, education and champion inclusion so everyone can be included.

Unfortunately, for clubs and organisations such as The Wave Project they’re having to fight for their right to surf without getting sick. Sewage leaks are an epidemic and almost half of Scotland’s most popular beaches have experienced sewage leaks which have caused a high concentration of harmful bacteria to be lurking in the water. Surfers Against Sewage paint a dismal picture of what’s currently occurring in our waterways, thousands of people report getting sick after entering the water. Unfortunately, in Scotland only 4% of sewage overflows have reporting requirements, which is shocking. With the threat of climate change making our rainfall more concentrated and weather events becoming more frequent, this problem will only get worse without significant innovation and investment.

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