The past few years have been about as rough as any. Lockdowns took away our freedom to meet and socialise with those we love. Post-pandemic, we’ve had to rethink how we work, live, and generally make the most of our time.
For many, returning to normalcy has created as many problems as it was supposed to fix. For those suffering from depression, anxiety, and loneliness, getting back ‘out there’ has proven to be a significant challenge.
From the ashes of a global mental health crisis, support groups like Edinburgh Blue Balls have risen to the challenge of creative problem-solving. These vigorous individuals gather together for a ritual dip in the deep blue.
In simple terms, Edinburgh Blue Balls (EBB) is a group of men (and occasionally women and children) who meet weekly to soak their bollocks in frigid waters. You can find the group every Thursday and Sunday, just outside of Edinburgh at Portobello Beach.
People from all backgrounds, shapes, and sizes become one as they brace themselves for a dip in nothing but their swimming costumes. To an outside observer, this is a strange but not uncommon ritual.
Edinburgh Blue Balls was created by Marc Millar in September 2021. Initially, he was looking for an outlet for dealing with his own mental health issues. Inspired by Ice Guys North East in Sunderland, Marc started a local group. EBB's mission is to promote mental and physical well-being.
Sure, at first glance, Edinburgh Blue Balls look like a group of lads nearly donning their birthday suits as they bob up like ice cubes. There's a lot that goes into every outing. We sat down with a couple of active Blue Ballers to hear their stories.
Colin Arthur is on the mental health board at his local rugby club. He also plays for the club and considers it his safe space. Additionally, he works in student support for mental well-being.
Like most of us, Colin has had a few demons to deal with throughout his life. He was bullied for being the fat kid in school and even in his seemingly safe space of rugby he commonly heard shouts of "tackle fatty!".
“So I've got a lot of like, um, self-confidence issues and body esteem issues, and whatnot.”
Helping others tackle their problems can be mentally and emotionally draining. Colin felt he needed to try something different as part of his self-care regimen. Finding the group on social media, it was chatting with Millar online that convinced him to give it a try.
Despite his concerns, Colin grabbed a rugby mate for moral support and got himself to the next dip. Upon arrival, he was greeted by 10-15 friendly, semi-nude men. As soon as he jumped into the sea, the burning cold melted away his social anxiety.
Colin describes the experience, "It's really weird trying to explain it to people. You literally just walk in and then if you want to dunk under, you'll dunk under." He goes on to say "[you] just stand and chat to people whilst you're in the water."
Meeting with the group has helped Colin become more body confident. Marc asked him to take part in a photo shoot. There was one catch, he would need to be wearing branded budgy smugglers.
“You’ve got all these average Joes and then John Hardy, [with] an eight pack, like absolutely shredded. You could grate cheese off of it, and you’re just, what [am I] doing here?"
Colin pushed away the negative thoughts and is now proudly featured on the group’s website.
“Edinburgh Blue Balls gave me the confidence to do it. And ever since then, I was like, look, nobody gives a shit [about my appearance]."
Image source: Edinburgh Blue Balls
Johnnie McMillan, another rugby player, has "struggled with poor mental health" for all of his life. Family trauma and childhood bullying have been weighing McMillan down for as long as he can remember.
For years he “refused to actually acknowledge that [trauma] was having a huge impact" on his life. To cope, Johnnie would frequently go out and get “stupidly drunk and really upset."
He'd tried doctors, therapists and medication–it simply didn’t stick! Feeling desperate, he attempted to take his own life on a couple of occasions.
Isolation from his social groups during COVID only made things worse. Things came to a low point when he was pulled down from a ledge in Edinburgh City Centre by a complete stranger.
Johnnie knew he needed a new channel for support. Luckily, he found EBB on social media and showed it to his wife. It would take some not-so-gentle nudging from Johnnie's partner to get him out the door for his first Sunday dip.
"So I parked the top and I sat in the car. I looked at myself in the mirror and I was just like, you're here now. Like, just get this over and done with."
Thinking he would never be back, Johnnie was willing to prove to himself how much he would hate the experience. His heavy post-match legs fought him every step inched towards his icey doom.
Afterwards, Johnnie headed out to lunch with his wife. She saw a change in his countenance. She said, “you're like a different person".
His partner pointed out that he’s normally worn down from work and rugby on a Sunday. He's “like an old man, half walking" or he’s “complaining about his knee and back pain” but not today.
She was right though! John had found something special.
Now, Johnnie has about 10 pairs of custom "budgies". He attends dips regularly and takes advantage of the WhatsApp, Facebook, and Discord chat groups available to all Blue Ballers.
These days, regular dips have ballooned to 40-50 people per session. According to Colin the group "runs itself." Many organise smaller dips in reservoirs or simply go for a hike. Millar has also added a weekly 5k run/walk for those that like to move.
Men like Colin and Johnnie attend because they find fellow Ballers to be non-judgemental. It's a safe setting that encourages openness and support.
“People forget that distraction [from daily life] makes a difference, and just knowing that someone is there for you is helpful,” Colin points out.
“Sometimes you don't need to say anything, just say you’re ‘not okay’. And then everybody can help."
Here at Sheep in Wolf's Clothing, promoting mental health is at the top of our list. When we saw what Marc, Colin, John and other Blue Ballers were doing, we knew we had to get involved!
So we got together with the heads at EBB and came up with a crisp lager that is refreshing as a nippy dip in the North Sea! At 2.8% ABV, Blue Balls lager won't knock your head off so you can keep chatting away with your mates all night.
At the end of the day, sharing a beer (even if it's non-alcoholic) is all about spending time with the ones we love.You can also support EBB directly by heading over to their online website for some merch. We recommend you grab a pair of buddy smugglers for yourself or your mate!