Looking for more in Scotland's Stories?

Wild Swimming in the Mareel

Author: Charlotte Anderson
Year: Adventure

If you google mareel the first thing that will come up in your search is the state-of-the-art entertainment venue in Lerwick, Shetland. An excellent venue for sure but that is not what mareel actually is.

Mareel is phosphorescence in the sea that appears during late summer into autumn (marr = sea and eldr = fire in Old Norn). In the past it has been attributed to dragons and gods across Asia and a sign of premonition for the Romans. Phosphorescence is created by tiny marine organisms which glow in the dark when oxygen is dissolved in the water around them.

More often associated with warm tropical islands, it is actually found all across the UK as well. If you speak to anyone who makes their living around the sea, they will probably have seen it at some point in their life, but many have never heard of it before.

Cut to the 1st of September 2021 around 10pm, a calm night, when car headlights can be seen moving slowly down a single-track road parking out of the way. Engines are switched off and it is dark once more in Ollaberry. Out climb folk in dark waterproof cloaks or even their dressing gowns with head torches on. People say hello to each other but in the darkness, it is hard to see who it is. Head torches just blind folk. Differentiating folk from their voices is the only way. Someone asks if this is some kind of cult as more gather at the top of a garden. Light suddenly floods out of an open door as two folk come out into the night, not sure if they were in the right place they had popped inside for a yarn.

An excited chatter fills the air. The cloud cover makes the sky very dark, no stars or moon out to guide the way. New and experienced sea swimmers alike have been brought together tonight in search of something a bit mysterious. The group begin to move down through the green gate at the bottom of the garden and jump down onto the sand, feet sinking in. It is an extremely low tide. The ridges of wave ripples have been imprinted into the beach as the tide ebbed and sea glass glints when it catches the light from a torch. Once everyone has reached the edge of the water, bags and shoes are set down, everyone disrobes standing in their swimwear looking to the dark sea and the head torches are switched off.

The group begin to make their way into the chilly North Sea. Everyone is quiet, looking down at their feet as they slowly wade out into the water. A sudden shriek from the left “My feet are glowing!” Everyone starts to kick their feet and exclaim in disbelief as their feet turn a pale green. The bravest of the group start swimming out while the more unsure stand up to their thighs in the water trying to acclimatise to the cold water and give a squeal when something unknown brushes against their leg.

“I’m going in! Who's coming with me? After 3. 1… 2… 3!”

When you take the plunge, the sudden cold pushes all the air out of your lungs. Some shriek, some make no audible sound, breathing quickly trying to get more air in their lungs and some appear as if they have just dived into a heated pool, the cool water having no effect. After a while your body adjusts, and the water feels therapeutic, bringing your heart rate down.

As you swim a bit deeper, the mareel becomes brighter. With each movement of your arms, it is as though the water is full of shimmering glitter or fireflies or stars, something a bit magical and equally hard to explain. Treading water, you can see your arms and legs glowing pale green under the water, surrounded by these tiny organisms. The cold water is both relaxing and invigorating at the same time, creating a sense of balance within you. The low chatter of the group still in complete amazement of what they are seeing is only broken occasionally with a squeal when someone has swum through a patch of seaweed, drooie-lines wrapping around their limbs, proving difficult to shake off. Is this what a grindylow gripping your leg would be like?

Time seems to come to a standstill as you float around in the dark sea, watching the mareel swirl around you, not a breath of wind to even ruffle the water. Although you are in with a group of people, everyone is self-contained in their own little bubble watching the water beneath themselves. But of course, time is not standing still and your feet and hands begin to go numb. It is time to leave the enchanting world of mareel that made you feel like an ethereal mermaid and return to the land rather ungracefully, wading through the shallows breaking the muffled darkness as you splash up the beach. You have a sudden appreciation for the selkies that wiggle their way ashore.

As everyone tries to rub some warmth back into their skin with their towels and pulls on their robes which stick to their damp skin, the group slowly amble back up the beach again, turning their backs to the sea, leaving the mareel in peace until another night.