A Kook’s guide to surfing in Scotland

Beatrice Cook

Scotland is not the first place many people think of when it comes to surfing; the tropical climes of Bali, the barrels of Hawaii and the surfer lifestyle of Australia are the images that immediately spring to mind when this sport is mentioned. And yes, whilst it would be super rad to hang-ten whilst riding the most perfect of green waves off the coast of California, not all of us are blessed with the good fortune of living in such ideal surfing locations. However, the UK has some of the best surf spots in the world, with places such as Newquay and Thurso churning out some of the sweetest and internationally renowned waves. And it is north of the border that I find myself joining the Glasgow University Surf Riders and their quest to bring ‘the stoke’ to Scotland.

The main thing you should know about surfing in Scotland is that it’s cold. Pure Baltic. While it’s pretty much standard practice to wear a wetsuit when surfing in the UK, it’s almost a necessity to wear one that’s at least 5.3 millimetre thick to prevent a severe case of hypothermia, even in the late summer months when the sea is at its warmest.  Don’t let this dishearten you though; the hardy Surf Riders battle on even in the bleak midwinter to the legendary Westport beach on the west coast of Scotland. Machrihanish and its neighbouring Westport beach are where the Surf Club descend at least twice a semester, bringing everyone from Fresher’s to Final Year surfers to catch some waves and have some raves.

Whilst Machrihanish has apparently been without much swell for as long as some of the older surfers can remember, the beach break of Westport offers waves for those taking out a foamboard just to catch some white water, to those shredding it up out back. According to the surf forecast website MagicSeaweed, Westport is a ‘fickle tide-dependant spot that can be epic’, and on a good day, with perfect conditions, 8 feet monsters can roll in, to the joy of the surfing locals. Set on a backdrop of towering sand dunes and rugged hills, and with the potential of spotting dolphins, Westport is a striking spot. One thing to note though, and this is from personal experience, is that Westport boasts some pretty hefty rip currents. And I mean hefty. To those unlearned of the lingo of the sea and surf, a rip current is a strong channel of water flowing out to sea from near the shore, usually cutting across the surf line, a beast to get out of and easy to get in to. While more experienced surfers use this as way of quickly getting out back, to a weak swimmer or surfer this a scary situation. However, with careful spotting and the safety net of other surfers around you, the likelihood of getting into trouble is relatively small.

Other spots around the coast of Scotland include Pease Bay and Coldingham to the east, Machir Bay on Islay to the west and finally, the legendary Thurso to the very north of mainland Scotland. Famed for some of the most challenging surf in the country, Thurso is described as ‘Scotland’s premier righthand reefbreak and a world-class barrel on its day…[with one of] the longest, hollowest rides in Europe.’ With locals’ possessive of this stretch of outstanding surf, this spot is best left to the brave souls of competent and competitive surfers.

Although the salty seawater chills you to the bone, and the sheets of good old Scottish rain blur your vision, nothing compares to the euphoric feeling when you catch your first wave, and if you’re lucky enough, riding it all the way into shore. Surfing is very much an addictive sport, and once you’ve caught the bug, you’ll be dreaming of bottom turns and cut backs in no time. While the idea of surfing in the notoriously cold Scottish waters isn’t the most tempting, it gives you the opportunity to say ‘I surfed that, and survived’, winning you instant credibility and steeze. So if after all that, surfing in Scotland hasn’t entirely scared you, it’s time to get suited and booted!

And in the immortal words of the Glasgow Uni Surf Riders; ‘wanna get moist?’