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Past Times

Kessock Ferry Swim: When Inverness kids as young as seven took on the challenge

With this year's challenge coming up on Sunday June 25 it's astonishing to look back at the achievements of the children who swam from South to North Kessock, sometimes in nothing but their underwear and plenty of grease.
Susy Macaulay
Pat Ireland, right, received a medal after taking on the Kessock Swim aged just seven years old. To the left is an archive photo of a swim from 1954. Image: Highland Photographic Archive/DC Thomson
Pat Ireland, right, received a medal after taking on the Kessock Swim aged just seven years old. To the left is an archive photo of a swim from 1954. Image: Highland Photographic Archive/DC Thomson

Jellyfish, tangly seaweed and strong tides — it seems incredible these days that young children used to take on the Kessock Ferry Swim.

The challenge has always proved an irresistible one, and this year, the second in its modern revival, there are 300 entries for this Sunday’s feat— but they must be over 12.

There was no lower age limit in years gone by, so in the more gung-ho 50s and 60s, plenty of children took part in the swim.

The three-quarter mile plough from South Kessock, Inverness across the Beauly Firth to North Kessock must be one of the most stunning open water swims in the Highlands.

Not that the swimmers are likely to be taking time to gaze over at the elegant Kessock Bridge or the lush scenery as they forge across, for the return swim must be completed within an hour, and it can be a tough struggle against the tides on the way back.

The Kessock ferry at North Kessock with Inverness in the background, on 20th February 1973. For years, this was where the Kessock Ferry Swim took place. Image: DC Thomson, 20th February 1973

Nor is it a random crossing point.

The Kessock Ferry Swim made a splash long before the bridge arrived

The Kessock swim follows in the long-lost wake of the old Kessock ferry, the only way to get straight across the firth before the bridge was opened in 1982.

It’s hard to know when the idea of a Kessock Ferry Swim took root, but by the late 1940s, it had become an annual event, attracting the best local swimmers, hardy souls no more than a few dozen in number including some under 10 years old.

A proud new ‘Inverness Corporation Pool’ had opened in Glebe Street and three clubs were able to meet there regularly, the Inverness Amateur Swimming club, the Inverness Ladies Swimming Club and the new LMS Swimming Club.

Water babies: Pat Ireland with her mother Ina and six of her siblings at Inverness pool in the early ’60s. Image: Pat Sanderson/Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

The LMS club was a happy by-product of the presence of London Midland Scottish, the railway company which had taken over the Highland Railway in 1923.

It was to this club that a very young Pat Ireland (now Sanderson) belonged when she first tackled the Kessock Ferry Swim.

Meet Pat, Who took on the Kessock Ferry Swim at just seven years old

Pat was the youngest of eight, with one sister and six brothers.

The entire family were fearless water babies, Pat’s mum and dad making sure the tribe all learned to swim as early as possible.

Pat and her amazing family of swimmers with some of their trophies and certificates. Pat is on the sofa, far right. <br />Image: Pat Sanderson/Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

In 1964, Pat was seven years old, and went down with her family to watch her older brothers taking part in the swim on the Sunday morning.

Pat remembers asking her father if she could join in.

“He said, yes, strip down to your vest and pants and get greased up and get ready.

“My sister Lynne, who was eight also got greased up.

“They put some thick stuff from a tub all over you to help keep out the cold.”

Diving in to the Kessock Ferry Swim with her siblings

At 10am, off they all set, all eight siblings, with several others from the LMS club.

Pat said: “My main memory is it was freezing cold.

“We only did the swim out, but I remember shaking and quivering when I got out.

“We were all taken into the ferry ticket office and given hot soup, still with our towels wrapped round us.

“Then we were taken to the swimming baths to get washed in the showers because we were full of grease. The baths were closed off to everyone else.”

Pat’s feat of endurance won her a trophy from LMS for being the youngest to swim the Ferry.

Pat with one of the many medals she won when she was at primary school competing in U-12 competitions.<br />Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

She swam it again the following year, testing her stamina by swimming it both ways that time.

Quite a leap in one year for an eight-year-old, but Pat explained she was training hard at LMS and competing in events throughout Scotland so she was ready for the two-way challenge.

Little did she know it would be 57 years before she would tackle the Kessock Swim again, this time with her brother Raymond who would earn the title of oldest swimmer, aged 71.

Training every day

Pat carried on training every day after school, winning countless inter-school trophies for Ness House at Inverness High School.

But the enthusiasm left her in second year, Pat remembers, although she was at the top of her game and being pushed to carry on competing.

She went on to marry her school sweetheart, Drew Sanderson, himself a keen sportsman.

Swimming was a way of life for Pat as she grew up, and brought her own children up. Image: Sandy McCook/DC Thomson

“We had four kids and we were always in the water, especially in the holidays when we went to Butlins in Ayr.”

She’s worked in school kitchens all her days, currently in Kinmylie primary but with many years at Muirtown, Charleston and Merkinch schools.

Pat and her brother Raymond will be participating again this Sunday and have done three training sessions by way of preparation.

Changed times

Times have changed at the Swim, now run by the charity Aban.

Getting greased up is firmly consigned to history.

Nowadays it’s all about wet suits.

Pat’s been persuaded to get one, along with a tow float, for safety.

Large crowds and no neoprene: The Kessock Ferry Swim in 1954.  Image: Highland Photographic Archive/Am Baile

Whereas in days gone by there were only a few dozen taking the plunge, there will be around 300 this time.

And Raymond isn’t likely to be the oldest this year as there’s a rumour a 76 year old lady will be taking part.

As ever, Pat will be using her favourite breaststroke.

She said: “Crawl is faster but more tiring. I always stick to breaststroke, although it’s slower.

‘It’s not a competition’

“It’s not a competition, although some treat it as such.

“The way back is against the tides, you can get seaweed galore and water bouncing up in your face, but I was fine last time.

“It was great coming out afterwards, I felt really good.”

Ian Black (aged 9) getting oil rubbed into his legs sy swimming teacher Curly McGillivary and talking to his brother George before swimming the Kessock Ferry route. Image: courtesy of Ian Black.

Before Pat, another young Invernessian had tackled the Kessock Ferry Swim, aged nine, in 1950.

This was the future Olympian dubbed the Human Torpedo, Ian Black.

Future Olypmian was a natural in the water

He was a natural in the water, and his attempt attracted throngs of people to cheer him on.

He was accompanied by two adults, one of whom was stricken with cramp during the swim, and a safety boat.

On his return he received a hero’s welcome, which grew bizarre as he was held aloft at the town theatre before the variety show and introduced to the audience every night for the rest of the week.

Ian Black, Sports Personality of the year and DailyExpress Sportsman of the Year in 1958,  pictured here with both trophies.  Image: DCT

Ian left Inverness for Aberdeen to develop his swimming talent, and to this day remains the youngest-ever recipient, at 17, of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year award.

For her new booklet ‘The History of the Kessock Ferry Swim’, Inverness author Jennifer Morag Henderson discovered more astonishing achievements by Inverness youngsters in the ’50s.

Jennifer said: “It was so enjoyable speaking to the people who had done the route as children.

Doing the double-double

“Sandra Lea (nee Whyte) did the double-double, four crossings of the route aged 15 in 1955. She did in just over an hour and 29 minutes.”

Sandra had been swimming the route since the age of 8, and carried on until she was 17.

Swimming the route again was her way of celebrating her 80th birthday.

Five crossings before the tide turned

And in 1959, Ian Tulloch set out to see how many times he could cross the first before the tide turns.

He was 14 and managed an astonishing five crossings before the tide turned dangerous.

Hugh Maclennan, who did the swim in the 1950s remembers how the ferry worked around the swim.

“The ferry skipper was pretty good, he would watch too, he wouldn’t come up when there was a bunch of swimmers in the water.”

Donald Macfadyen sounding the starter horn for the revived Kessock Ferry Swim on June 26, 2022. Image: Àban

Donald Macfadyen took part in the first Kessock Ferry Swim in 1946.

The route was something of a playground for him and his friends as teenagers in 1946 and 1947.

Donald sounded the started horn for the swim’s revival last year.

The outdoor activities charity Àban now runs the swim.

Organiser Johanes Petersen said: “Traditional outdoor activities in schools are on the decline or have stopped in the Highlands.

“We feel it’s very important to bring back local traditions and keep a sense of pride in communities.

The start of the  revived kessock Ferry Swim in 2022.   Image: Sandy McCook/DCT

“We love the Swim for its history and tradition and its multi-generational appeal, something so positive for the young people of Kessock and Merkinch.”

This year’s Kessock Ferry Swim starts at 5.15pm from South Kessock pier.

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