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Iona McLachlan on Surfing Scotland

Updated: Feb 9

Cord rider Iona's humble passion for the ocean and talent on a surfboard has led her to win the Scottish Women’s Championships and travel and compete around the world with the Scottish team. Nowadays, competitions take a backseat for Iona as she and her partner Finn run their successful surf school at Dunnet Beach, North Coast Watersports, where they share their love of the sea with locals and visitors, whilst proving that Scotland isn’t too cold for surfing!

Ioan on a lovely right hander in Scotland on her Cord

It would be easy to be put off by the cold in Scotland! So how did you first get into surfing and coaching?

I’ve always been obsessed with sports and the sea. I grew up just outside Thurso but until I was about 11 or 12 years old I didn’t even realise surfing was possible here! As soon as I did I started messing around in the white water at Dunnet Beach and quickly realised it was my main passion in life. The cold makes it all even better. It's more exciting and the waves are quieter.

How does your kit and gear play a part in making surfing accessible in the most northerly surf spot in the UK?

The right equipment is really important when surfing these cold waves. With a good wetsuit you genuinely don’t feel the chilly water at all! Since I run the surf school up here, I spend half my time trying to persuade people it’s not cold with a good wetsuit on. Everyone always thinks I’m crazy until they actually jump in themselves.

Ioan in the barrel on her new Cord in Scotland

Can you tell us about your journey from first learning to surf to winning the Scottish Women’s champs?

I’d say overall I’ve been a pretty slow learner. When I first started surfing there were no surf schools or anyone to teach me, so I tried to work it out myself. After a year or so I got to know Sheila Finlayson who took me under her wing. We surfed different spots together whenever we could.

The North Shore Surf Club also started up not long after that, which ran weekly surf sessions for locals. That’s when I started improving and giving the reef breaks a go.

There have always been so few local groms on the north coast. It was really just been me and a handful of others up until the last few years. There’s definitely more of an up and coming grom squad now, which is amazing to see. I could never understand why everyone living here didn’t surf! With the lack of surfers, it didn’t take much to stand out and I quickly won some national titles and competed with the Scotland team around the world. This was an incredible experience and has given me the drive to keep travelling and exploring whenever I can.

I don’t compete so much now, but I do the odd competition, mostly at home. I want to keep surfing fun without the stress competing can bring.

Iona McLachlan bottom turn in Scotland

When did you start your surf school and how has it grown? What do you offer?

Me and my partner Finn MacDonald started our own surf school called North Coast Watersports in Spring 2019. We’ve had an incredible response since starting and already had some crazily busy years. We offer a variety of surf experiences such as beginner group lessons, private lessons and surf retreats between Dunnet Beach and Durness. Paddle boarding is also available on calm summer days, plus new for this year are RIB tours! We’re still working out the details but hope to run wildlife spotting trips around this incredible coastline. It’s all very exciting. We’re really passionate about growing the water-sports scene and sharing our love for the sea and the area.

Your local area is mainly known for heaving shallow reefs but there is obviously enough variety to have a surf school on the beach! Can you talk us through the different waves in your area, from spots like Bagpipes to friendlier options?

There’s an amazing variety of waves along the North coast for all abilities. Dunnet Beach, which is where our surf school is based, is probably the most perfect location for learning to surf! There are very few currents or rocks, and just consistent mellow waves rolling in. Then you’ve got the stunning beaches further West. These tend to have a bit more power and shape to them than Dunnet Beach, making them better for more intermediate/ experienced surfers. And, of course, there are the many heavy reefs around the Caithness coast. These crazy waves are created by the flat Caithness slab rock. My partner Finn is one of the main people who charges them - I’m still working up to getting comfortable at slabs! I spend most of my time at the mellower reefs and have recently began working on getting the odd tubes at Thurso East.

Walkign up the reef in Scotland

What does your quiver look like to surf the range of waves around you and further afield?

I got my hands on a Cord Ark about a year ago and it’s the first board I’ve ever clicked with straight away. I could suddenly catch so many more waves and generate loads more speed! It’s given me so much more confidence to tackle slightly bigger, hollower waves. This is definitely my go to board for reasonably powerful reefs. I can’t wait to expand my Cord quiver and keep pushing my surfing.

I’ve got a 5’8” and 6’6” fish tail twin fin for mellower waves. I’ve been really interested in twinnies over the last couple of years. I love the style, look and feel.

I’ve also got an old, bashed up shortboard for the odd surf at heavier spots.

And finally a 7ft foamie. They are such underrated boards! I take this out at reefs and beaches whenever it’s under chest high usually. It’s always good fun!

Pulling in in Scotland

Photo by @coldsurfer

How does surfing in Scotland change throughout the seasons?

Winter is the main surf season for getting good waves at the reef breaks. The swell is pretty consistent especially around January and February, so you can normally always find waves somewhere. It’s also the coldest time so you can expect hail, snow and, on really cold days, even some ice floating through the line up.

The beaches max out most of the time in Winter so if you’re learning to surf then spring, summer and autumn are a better shout. Dunnet Beach has its own micro-climate so in the middle of summer the water can actually be pretty warm. We even had a group surf lesson go in without any wetsuits on last year!

Iona McLachlan on an over head wave on her Cord SUrfboard

What’s your golden piece of advice for someone wanting to surf in Scotland?

The conditions are very unpredictable in Scotland. You can’t always trust the forecasts. Sometimes you could rock up and there’s no one out, even if the waves are good. Some spots have strong currents or need specific tides so chat to locals when you can before jumping in. Most of us are pretty sound!

For me, no where else in the world can compare to Scotland.

Follow Iona's journey through Instagram here.

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