Drowning prevention: Why so few lifeguards in Scotland?

Since the six tragic drownings in Scotland over the weekend, many of us have been thinking about how to make our waters safer, and what we can tell people to help keep them safe – not just in the kind of situations those who lost their lives found themselves in, but other swim dangers too. A frequent message, given out by the RNLI and other experts, is to only swim between the red and yellow flags on a RNLI lifeguarded beach. I’ve advised that a few times myself and would have continued to were it not for the fact that swim coach Sarah Wiseman drew my attention to the fact that there are only eight RNLI lifeguarded beaches in Scotland and three quarters of them are in Fife.

Sorry, all you swimmers who live out west – or anywhere that’s also a significant distance from Fife or their two other lifeguarded beaches at Coldingham and Broughty Ferry – swimming is not for you. Stick to your inflatable paddling pools or large garden buckets. As Wiseman, who runs Beyond The Water in the Cairngorms, put it, “how am I supposed to go and swim at a lifeguarded beach? My nearest lifeguarded coastal beach is 111 miles away.”

So how many lifeguarded sites have RNLI got in the rest of the UK?

More than 230, more than 90 of which are on the south-west coast of England – a skewed distribution which perhaps made sense back in the days before the Covid-era staycation ramped up the craze for wild swimming and sent people into the water all over the country, almost no matter what the temperature.

There are other non-RNLI lifeguarded beaches, though, aren’t there?

Yes, that’s true. For instance, earlier this year it was reported that Loch Lomond hired lifeguards for this year’s summer season. You can also go to a private venue where organised open water sessions are hosted, such as Pinkston Watersports Centre (Glasgow), Knockburn Sports Loch (Bancory), Lochore Country Park (Fife), Kinghorn Loch (Fife), Foxlake Adventures (East Lothian) and Monikie Loch. But again, we’re looking at a tiny fraction of our waters that are supervised. We have over 30,000 freshwater lochs and these are just six sites.

But hang on, don’t we have 85 designated bathing waters in Scotland?

Oh, you heard that, did you? Must have been from one of those open water swimming obsessives (like myself). Yes. They’re monitored for water quality, but they’re not lifeguarded and, given, the phenomenal rise in wild swimming across the country, there should really be more of them too. Notably, an application for bathing waters status for Edinburgh’s Wardie Bay was recently turned down – for safety reasons! Whatever those reasons are, they don’t seem to have stopped half the city from going down there and taking a dip this summer, which is also partly the point. People are swimming – we need to make sure they are safe.

So, what you want is more lifeguards?

Clearly. Drowning prevention models often list lack of supervision as one of they key causal factors leading to drowning. But also, as Wiseman points out, “better management of tourist spots” and a ramping up of “water safety education in Scotland”.


Scotland’s summer drownings: How to stay safe while swimming

The Herald Scotland

The Herald Scotland

The Herald is a Scottish broadsheet newspaper founded in 1783. The Herald is the longest running national newspaper in the world and is the eighth oldest daily paper in the world. The title was simplified from The Glasgow Herald in 1992