Calendar An icon of a desk calendar. Cancel An icon of a circle with a diagonal line across. Caret An icon of a block arrow pointing to the right. Email An icon of a paper envelope. Facebook An icon of the Facebook "f" mark. Google An icon of the Google "G" mark. Linked In An icon of the Linked In "in" mark. Logout An icon representing logout. Profile An icon that resembles human head and shoulders. Telephone An icon of a traditional telephone receiver. Tick An icon of a tick mark. Is Public An icon of a human eye and eyelashes. Is Not Public An icon of a human eye and eyelashes with a diagonal line through it. Pause Icon A two-lined pause icon for stopping interactions. Quote Mark A opening quote mark. Quote Mark A closing quote mark. Arrow An icon of an arrow. Folder An icon of a paper folder. Breaking An icon of an exclamation mark on a circular background. Camera An icon of a digital camera. Caret An icon of a caret arrow. Clock An icon of a clock face. Close An icon of the an X shape. Close Icon An icon used to represent where to interact to collapse or dismiss a component Comment An icon of a speech bubble. Comments An icon of a speech bubble, denoting user comments. Comments An icon of a speech bubble, denoting user comments. Ellipsis An icon of 3 horizontal dots. Envelope An icon of a paper envelope. Facebook An icon of a facebook f logo. Camera An icon of a digital camera. Home An icon of a house. Instagram An icon of the Instagram logo. LinkedIn An icon of the LinkedIn logo. Magnifying Glass An icon of a magnifying glass. Search Icon A magnifying glass icon that is used to represent the function of searching. Menu An icon of 3 horizontal lines. Hamburger Menu Icon An icon used to represent a collapsed menu. Next An icon of an arrow pointing to the right. Notice An explanation mark centred inside a circle. Previous An icon of an arrow pointing to the left. Rating An icon of a star. Tag An icon of a tag. Twitter An icon of the Twitter logo. Video Camera An icon of a video camera shape. Speech Bubble Icon A icon displaying a speech bubble WhatsApp An icon of the WhatsApp logo. Information An icon of an information logo. Plus A mathematical 'plus' symbol. Duration An icon indicating Time. Success Tick An icon of a green tick. Success Tick Timeout An icon of a greyed out success tick. Loading Spinner An icon of a loading spinner. Facebook Messenger An icon of the facebook messenger app logo. Facebook An icon of a facebook f logo. Facebook Messenger An icon of the Twitter app logo. LinkedIn An icon of the LinkedIn logo. WhatsApp Messenger An icon of the Whatsapp messenger app logo. Email An icon of an mail envelope. Copy link A decentered black square over a white square.

After Dunblane: Traumatised father of young victim on how swimming saved him after awful loss provoked mental collapse

© Andrew CawleyOutdoor wild swimming has had a huge benefit to Colin McKinnon's mental wellbeing
Outdoor wild swimming has had a huge benefit to Colin McKinnon's mental wellbeing

Breaking the surface of a freezing lochan, Colin McKinnon catches an icy breath and thinks of his son.

He will think of Brett often, and imagines the little boy he describes as fearless, loving wild swimming as much as his dad.

His son, though, was lost in the Dunblane tragedy and, for Colin, swimming in the rivers and lochs of Scotland is a passion that has literally saved his life as he struggled to come to terms with the terrible loss.

Brett was just six years old when he was killed along with 15 of his classmates and his teacher in the primary school shooting in 1996.

In the years that followed, 55-year-old Colin struggled to endure, suffering from post ­traumatic stress disorder, depression and anger issues.

Three years ago, as the 20th anniversary of his son’s death loomed and a number of personal pressures took their toll, Colin suffered a nervous breakdown.

Medical support helped but, he says, wild swimming around Scotland – a hobby he discovered by chance – brought him back from the brink.

He swims in open water near his home in Alness, Ross-shire, but travels all over Scotland and, he says, thoughts of Brett are never far away.

© Andrew Cawley
Colin swims at An Lochan Uaine in the Cairngorms

He said: “I always think of Brett when I’m swimming. What would the wee fella think of this? It’s ­difficult to imagine what he would be like but I like to think he would have wanted to come with me.

“I feel safer thinking about Brett when I’m out in the water, as if I can deal with what has ­happened a bit more.

“I also think in a way it makes me braver. There’s nothing that could ever hurt me as much as losing him, so being out wild swimming does not phase me.”

The tone of Colin’s voice grows softer when he talks about his beloved second-born child.

“I think a lot about what he’d be like now, what he’d like to do, where he’d be.

“He was so funny, and so full of life. I had to have eyes in the back of my head when we had him on days out. He was fearless and nothing phased him.

“I remember on one trip to the shows he insisted on going on the ghost train, even though his older brother wasn’t keen.

“He was only five and off he went by himself, and came out of the end laughing his head off. He wasn’t afraid of anything.”

Colin with his son Brett before his death at Dunblane Primary in 1996

On the day of the tragedy, Colin was due to have Brett and big brother Colin to his house for a sleep-over, as he did every Wednesday since his split from their mum.

But, just after nine on that morning, Colin heard a radio news bulletin that made him stop in his tracks: a shooting at Dunblane Primary.

“I drove at a horrendous speed, and I remember with each radio report, the number of casualties got bigger and bigger,” he said.

“I was doing the maths. I was telling myself what had happened was terrible, but that my boys would be fine.”

But when Colin arrived, his life changed forever as police confirmed Brett was among the victims.

“It was like everything stopped at that moment,” he recalled. “Things were going on around me, but I wasn’t part of it. My life had stopped.

“I can remember almost pleading with myself, ‘this is a nightmare, I’ll wake up any moment now’. From that moment on, things just got worse.”

The hours and days that ­followed were some of the worst times of Colin’s life and, even after support for PTSD and depression, he admits the next two decades of his life were “up and down” as he tried to come to terms with ­losing Brett.

In 2016, as the ­anniversary of the tragedy approached, he hit rock bottom and had a nervous breakdown and was admitted to hospital.

Medical intervention helped get Colin back on the right path, but it was getting in the water that really accelerated his recovery. He said: “I’ve learned all sorts of techniques to relieve myself of guilt and to deal with those images that come back to haunt me time and time again.

“While they work to an extent, it is nothing compared to the way I feel when I’ve been for a swim.

“I have a focus, and confidence, and I am no longer ashamed of the struggles I have had with my mental health, which for years I really was. Even after what I had been through, I kept all of my treatment a secret from everybody.

“But now, my mind is clear, and I can think through any stressful situation rationally. I can admit my mental health needs regular attention to keep me where I want to be, just like my physical health.

“Whatever happens to my body when I’m in the water – whether it’s the cold or the fact I need to be mindful of my breathing, or simply just the exercise – it has such a positive effect on my mental health.”

© Andrew Cawley
Colin in the water

Studies of the activity prove Colin is not alone in feeling the benefits. Wild swimming has become popular around the world with people for similar reasons.

Colin, who swam competitively as a child, rediscovered the hobby after chatting with an open-water swimmer who invited him along to join her and some friends.

He said: “That first time, we swam round the perimeter of Loch Achilty. That was it, I was hooked.

“I don’t know the science behind what it does to me, perhaps it is the rush of adrenalin, but I am different person when I come out than I was when I went in.

“People are always asking me about the freezing Scottish water. It probably puts people off trying it. But, honestly, I think it’s one of the big pluses.

“When you first get in, ­everything else in your mind subsides, while you concentrate on surviving the cold water. By the time your body is getting used to it, you are much calmer.

“It’s quite something being so close to nature and it’s incredibly freeing being in there, especially because on swims you often see things you wouldn’t see from a boat or from the shore.

“My favourite place is in the Cromarty Firth. There are two headlands with cliffs and there’s really small caves that can only be accessed by swimming out. You can swim right through them and it’s just breathtaking.”

Now Colin makes sure he goes out swimming at least twice a week, treating it as an essential part of his health regime.

He said: “I usually swim an hour or more in summer. But in winter I swim without a wetsuit for shorter dips and it can have an affect in as little as 10 minutes.

“It has such an affect on my mood that my partner Wendy knows exactly when I need to get out and go for a swim.

“I would truly recommend it to anyone who just wants to clear their head or take a bit of time to themselves.”

“Wild swimming has absolutely saved my life.”