The Scottish naturists are looking for new blood to preserve the blissful way of life that is Inchmurrin, the kit-off capital of Caledonia . . .
• Inchmurrin, on Loch Lomond, is home to the Scottish Outdoor Club
IT SEEMS an ordinary room, if a little old-fashioned, with floral prints on the walls and a view over Loch Lomond.
On banquette seating, four men and four women, aged from their 50s to late-70s, are enjoying tea, scones and a chat. They are wearing the casually robust clothes of Scots on holiday in their own country. This could be the clubhouse of a local history society or some sort of church group.
Look closer, though, and two signs reveal the truth. "As this is a naturist club," says the first, in stern black ink, "uniform is the norm (weather-permitting). We are not a clothes-optional club." The law having been laid down, the second sign limits itself to matters of etiquette: "Nae Bare Bums Oan Seats."
The Scottish Outdoor Club has been promoting naturism – known formerly as nudism – since 1938. Founded on Fenwick Moor, near Glasgow, the club moved to its current base, Inchmurrin island, in Loch Lomond, a decade later. It has a membership of about 30, down from 100 in its heyday, and they stay in wooden chalets arranged around a clubhouse on a south-facing hillside. The naturists rent this fenced-off, 11-acre space from the family who own Inchmurrin. They are welcome to visit the rest of the island, including the hotel, but for this they must put on clothes – or, to use the jargon, go textile. Nakedness is known among naturists as being in uniform.
SOC members visit here most weekends during spring and summer. A boat ferries them from Balmaha on a Friday evening and picks them up again on a Sunday. I was met at the Balmaha boatyard by Colin, a slender 69-year-old. He was fully dressed and wearing a lifejacket. Colin isn't his real name. "My son is in a sensitive job," he explained, "and I don't want to cause him any embarrassment."
Naturists often worry about being misunderstood and ridiculed. It can cause problems at work or within families. One man on Inchmurrin has fallen out with his brother over it. A woman says that her strait-laced son would love her to give it up. During the Glasgow Fair holiday, the naturists can hear the commentary from passing tour boats – "And here yer comin' up tae the nudie bit. Get yer binoculars oot."
For years it was the norm for naturists to use first names only or nicknames. It wasn't the done thing to ask where someone lived or what was their occupation. These days, though they are more relaxed, there is still a reluctance to be named in public. "People get funny ideas about naturist clubs; that we're all swingers and so on," says Colin, steering the boat past a small island that is home to a colony of shags. "But nothing could be further from the truth."
British Naturism, the organisation for naturists in the UK, has 12,000 members. Naturism is twice as popular, per capita, in Britain as in the United States, but we lag behind much of Europe. The reasons are climatic and cultural. Simply put, it is not often warm enough to take all your clothes off outdoors. Also, we are the country of saucy seaside postcards and Carry On films; Britain blushes and titters at the thought of nakedness.
In Scotland, where it is colder, naturism is even less widespread. "The Scots are very narrow-minded, except when they're drunk," says Marion, a 77-year-old naturist from East Kilbride. "There's a Presbyterian thing that, actually, you shouldn't be enjoying yourself at all."
The SOC is one of two naturist societies in Scotland. There is a society called Sunnybroom, based in the countryside west of Aberdeen. In Glasgow, you can swim naked at the Western Baths on Sunday mornings. There are also a number of unofficial naturist beaches around the coast and an officially designated one – Cleat's Shore, on Arran. But Inchmurrin is the hub of naturism in this country, the kit-off capital of Caledonia.
I arrive on a typical spring morning – unseasonably cold, with the threat of rain. It's early in the season, so there are only eight people here today, and not all of them are undressed. "I've not got mine off," says Frances, who is 79 and from South Lanarkshire, "because my leg is out in a rash."
The nudity is very casual. It just sort of happens. I'm sitting in the chalet of Alice, a friendly woman in her 50s who is a tremendous cook, when Colin daunders in, clad only in black socks and Ugg boots.
• 'It's a wee paradise over here. Folk don't know what they're missing.'
"Have you got your towel, sweetheart?" asks Alice, who is dressed. For hygiene reasons, the naturists carry towels and sit on them while visiting.
"Somebody told me," says Colin, "there was apple pie on the go."
"Oh, for God's sake!" says Alice. "It's just oot the oven."
Colin takes a piece of pie and looks at it askance. "This is naked without a bit of cream."
Alice resumes the story she was telling. "Once, I was really depressed, and I went away with my husband for the day. He was fishing and I stripped off. Aw, it was so beautiful in the sun. It was like a weight coming right off me."
Colin nods. "I had a very stressful job, but never needed to go to a shrink. You just come here and the birds are singing. It's so relaxing.
"We're not fanatics. You've maybe seen in the papers this joker who keeps getting arrested for walking the streets naked. He's a bampot and he doesn't do anything for naturism."
The bampot in question is Stephen Gough, the so-called Naked Rambler, whose nude hikes from John o' Groats to Land's End have resulted in jail terms. Public nudity is not a statutory offence in Scotland, but those going naked may find themselves charged with breach of the peace. Nakedness is not, per se, a sexual act, so an indecency arrest is less likely.
Gough is in Perth prison, serving 21 months for breach of the peace and contempt of court after refusing to put on his clothes. Many naturists dislike him and regard his actions as harmful to their own image.
There is a schism within naturism between those for whom it is a lifestyle to be enjoyed privately within designated areas, and those for whom it is an ideology. Most of the Inchmurrin naturists belong to the former camp, though one couple who own a chalet – Mick and Diane Goody, from Cambridgeshire – have travelled through London on a mass naked bike ride and sailed naked down the Thames. They believe that people should have the right to go without clothes on all Britain's beaches and in public parks.
I ask Colin if he can explain the appeal of naturism. After all, he would experience tranquility on Inchmurrin even if he kept his clothes on. So what added value is there in nakedness? It is, he suggests, to do with equality and togetherness. "When people are dressed, others look at them and put them in a pigeonhole. Here. when everybody's naked, you don't know whether they are a lawyer or a binman."
He stands and lifts his towel from the couch. "I'm going to put my clothes back on because I need to use my chainsaw."
Alice rolls her eyes. "We've had eejits here that's used a chainsaw with flip-flops on and nothing else."
Chainsaws loom large on Inchmurrin. All the relaxation is underpinned by a great deal of work. Often the birdsong is drowned out by the buzz of logs being sawn for the sauna. The chalets and clubhouse require constant maintenance – roofing, painting, guttering etc – and there is always grass needing cut, hedges trimmed and brambles cleared. There's a fair bit of heavy lifting too. Once, years ago, a man carried a piano to the clubhouse on his back. These days, the Friday evening journey up the steep hill from the shore is aided by two dumper trucks, the luggage loaded into their giant shovels.
Walk around the sites and the irony is obvious: nature, if left alone, would soon reclaim this place from the naturists. The rain and sun take their toll on the wooden buildings, and the vegetation threatens to overwhelm them. On the front of one unoccupied chalet, a painted yin-yang symbol is fading into nothingness. This is one reason why the Scottish Outdoor Club is having open days, today and on 30 May – without new blood, people who are able and willing to take on some hard work, the club could eventually fold. Colin is blunt. "It's getting too old. If we don't get some younger members it'll die out."
Everyone here would be sorry to see that happen. This place means a lot to the naturists. Some of them have been coming here for almost 50 years and have enjoyed it in the company of children and grandchildren.
The 1960s, 1970s and even the 1980s were, of course, more innocent times. These days, many people would be, at best, uncomfortable with the idea of naked children in the company of naked adults they are not related to. British Naturism has a written child safeguarding policy and advises all affiliated clubs that they should appoint child protection officers who have been checked by the Criminal Records Bureau.
Though there are no children on Inchmurrin now, everyone says that it is a great place for them to play and hopes that, one day soon, new families will join. "My daughter was carried up here in a carry-cot when she was three weeks old," says Doug, the 65-year-old club chairman. "She virtually grew up on Inchmurrin, and from the time she was three you could let her wander about in the knowledge that people would keep an eye on her. It was so easy and natural."
His daughter, Emma, is now 25. She describes her childhood experiences as a pleasant mixture of liberty and security – free to roam around and explore a beauty spot, she also felt that the adults were a sort of extended family who would make sure she was safe.
Didn't she feel odd, as she got older, being unclothed around her parents? "Because I went from such a young age, it never crossed my mind that it was strange," she says. "It was normal that you might see your parents naked and they might see you naked. There was nothing embarrassing about it at all. I don't have children, but if I did I would be happy to take them to Inchmurrin."
Can she say how growing up in that way might have shaped her? "One of the things is that because you don't rely upon hiding behind clothes you realise that fashion isn't the be-all and end-all. So that's quite liberating."
Early and frequent exposure to naked people of various ages has had a further influence. "I've had conversations with university friends and what I view as normal body image is quite different from most of them. I was more accepting of different body shapes and knew that everybody didn't have to look like the models you see in newspapers and magazines."
As the afternoon warms up and more people strip off, and bottles and boxes of wine are opened, the pleasant lifestyle of Inchmurrin grows more apparent. Alice, now naked, reveals how she copes with the blight of midges – a liberal application of body cream mixed with eucalyptus and citronella.
Then she tells a story about the first time she went nude, while on holiday in Yugoslavia, and found herself drifting helplessly out to sea on a lilo. A German man swam to the rescue, but dragged her to safety on a 'textile' beach and she had to run past the gawping tourists. But despite this fiery baptism, she is now evangelistic about the unclothed lifestyle. "I love being a naturist," she grins, "and I do quite a lot of my housework in the scud."
For her, it's to do with confidence. "I was awfy self-conscious years ago. I worried – was I too fat for my swimming cozzie or too skinny? On a textile beach everybody's going, 'Aw, look at the state o' that!' But on a naturist beach nobody looks at you twice."
The reason the naturists give for living their lives this way are various. Some are pragmatic: exposure to sunshine and air helps relieve eczema, says one man. Most speak vaguely of relaxation, escapism and especially freedom. Alice says that revealing your body to others results in emotional intimacy – "You can't hide. So you're more honest."
So what sort of people are naturists? "We don't get many working-class people in naturism, and that's a great sadness," says Michael Farrar, chairman of British Naturism. "Middle-class people may feel more need for release from the bonds of civilisation."
Those I meet on Inchmurrin are mostly retired, but in their day worked as engineers, cooks, businessmen and lorry drivers, among other professions. "It can attract people who are very orthodox, and this is maybe their little bit of eccentricity," says Doug.
What about politics? Is there a general liberalism? "I wouldn't say that," he laughs. "Folk accuse me of being more right-wing than Attila the Hun."
Another woman, sitting fully clothed beside her naked husband, tells me, "Any Sunday we're not here we're in church."
It's interesting how conventional the naturists seem, and how intolerant of unconventionality. "We've had one or two come up that hill who are right weirdos," says Laura, a woman in her 60s from Renfrewshire. "A single guy came over and it turned out he was one of these people that go walking naked over the moors. He appeared in the clubhouse wearing a denim mini skirt."
"He had it on in the sauna for a while," says Colin, "and he was told, 'Get that off or get out.' There was another joker, who drank solidly and ended up falling off the jetty when the ferry came to take him away."
• The naturists rent an 11-acre space from the family who own Inchmurrin
They are careful about who they let join. Prospective members are invited for a one-day trial. The number of single men given membership is strictly limited, and you will not be allowed to join if you are one half of a married or long-standing couple and your other half doesn't want to come. "We could fill this club with married men whose wives are not naturists," says Laura. "But we would end up with three times as many men as women, and the women would feel intimidated."
Why do they get so many more enquiries from men? "I can only assume that in some cases it could be sexual," says Colin.
The naturists are absolutely insistent that there is nothing sexual about what they do, and that people do not look at each other in a lustful way. Occasionally, two naturists will begin a relationship, but these assignations sound pragmatic rather than romantic. "You see what you're getting," says Marion. "There's no mystery."
What about male arousal, though? Men are not really in control of what goes on down there. So what's the protocol? "There was one guy that came here and Dougie had to speak to him about it," says Laura. "What we find is that it doesn't happen with true naturists. If it happens, then you are here for the wrong reason. Let's face it – you look at the women in this club; we've got no page three girls. We've got nobody that's going to turn anyone on."
Colin, gallant, demurs. "Well," he says. "It depends on your taste."
The first naturist site in Europe, Freilichtpark, opened in Germany in 1903. The first in the UK opened in Essex in 1926. Naturism was suppressed by the Nazis but boomed in Britain throughout the 1930s. By the middle of that decade, reports of naturists were appearing in the Scottish press. Nudists, declared the Sunday Mail in 1935, had been spotted, through binoculars, in a field near Hamilton, dancing to a gramophone. The Glasgow Bulletin, three years later, reported that "a sun-bathing and naturist club" was to be established in the St George's Cross area of the city, catering to those visiting the Empire Exhibition.
While domestic naturism flourished for decades, the pendulum has now swung back towards Europe. The availability of information on the internet, together with cheap flights to the continent, has meant that those interested in naturism can easily experience the lifestyle on the beaches and in the resorts of France, Spain and other countries where, unlike Scotland, sunshine is the norm. That's why the Scottish Outdoor Club and other UK societies are struggling for members. "It's a wee paradise over here," says Laura. "Folk don't know what they're missing."
After more than 60 years, it would be a shame to see this place go. But Inchmurrin, undoubtedly, has an elegiac feel. On my way off the island, I pass Alice's chalet. She's visible through the window, vacuuming the rug, listening to Flower of Scotland at high volume, her bottom poking out beneath her cardy. And I can't help wondering about Alice and all her fellow Scottish naturists – when will we see their like again?
For more information on the Scottish Outdoor Club, see www.scotnaturist.freeservers.com
• This article was first published in the Scotland on Sunday, May 9, 2010