By Jamie Wiggan
ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Bounding along the windswept beach within a swarm of other bodies, you feel shielded somehow from the impending cold. But the first sting of North Sea water dispels the illusion, as it licks your toes then glances your ankles.
A few strides later, the waves lap against your waist; your chest locks. Breaths are short and shallow. You pick an approaching crest and throw yourself in, but you can’t swim because your clenched muscles refuse to cooperate. So you splash about for a few moments and gracelessly trundle back to shore.
Before you reach the sand, the promised euphoria sweeps over, loosening the grip of strangling cold - perhaps you’ll go back in? But the high soon fades. Perhaps not.
The ritual described here is surely the cruelest of Scotland’s many eccentric traditions, from savoring sheep’s lung (haggis) to wearing woolen skirts (kilts) sans undergarments to hurling 20 foot long logs over the shoulder under the guise of sport (tossing the caber).
They say the frigid water is good for you, but I’m not so sure. Two hours after partaking in the St. Andrews “Loony Dook,” I’m still cold despite the best efforts of a hot shower and a hot meal.
The Loony Dook (dip) tradition began in Edinburgh during the 1980s as an insincere suggestion for curing New Year’s Eve hangovers, and has since made its way up the East Coast to the small town of St. Andrews, where I’ve spent the past 10 days. Hundreds line up along the beach and run or walk as a herd into the water.
In any case, heavy coronavirus restrictions in place this year ensured few of the 200 hundred or so participants were there to shake off the effects of excessive merrymaking.They (and I) must have had some other motive.
New Year — or Hogmanay as it's known here — is the pinnacle of the Scottish calendar. The annual ceremony in Edinburgh draws hundreds of thousands of visitors to the small capital city and holds the world record for the largest new year celebration event ever held.
Fireworks fill the sky, casting snatches of sparkling light against the medieval castle’s stoney outline, while crowds throng the narrow cobbled streets below. Pipes and drums reverberate against the city walls and festive folk songs pour out of open tavern doors.
But this year the streets were quiet and the sky was dark.The official city celebrations were called off after the Omicron variant raised its head late November, and strict restrictions on public gathering prevented informal celebrations from filling the gaps.
Usually packed in with a live band and cheery celebrants, the tavern near where I’m staying was almost empty by 9 p.m.
“Hopefully we’ll be back to normal next year,” the stoic landlady said, as we departed three hours before the midnight bells.
Hopefully, indeed. But who can really say what might happen during the next 12 months?
Returning to my mom’s house and sitting through a dire BBC production as we rang in the new year, I resolved to partake in the loony dook the next morning.
Many do this to raise money for a worthy cause (to which I applaud), while others do it for purported health benefits (of which I — shiveringly — remain skeptical). But, really, I think everyone ultimately does it for something like the sheer hell of it.
By this, I mean the strange sense of accomplishment we get from stepping beyond our comfort zones, whether running a marathon, vacationing to a foreign country or simply striking up a conversation with a stranger on the bus. These choices — big or small — are choices for life in an uncertain world.
As we head into another year of pandemic worries, spiraling inflation and ongoing political volatility, our best response may be to seek out more of those “for the hell of it” moments that remind us we’re still alive.
That, at least, was my justification for starting the new year with an icy dook.
Or perhaps, I’m just loony?