Given the crowds that often now swim in the sea off Edinburgh’s Portobello beach, those reporting illness after a dip on the local Wild Ones swimming Facebook group – whose membership is over six thousand - are relatively few.

One bout of sickness, however, is enough to put anyone off, as it did Katy Fisher and her friend, who, after a swim at Portobello, both became “really poorly”.

“I don’t swim there now,” she said. “It could have been coincidence but it was enough to put me off. There really should be rigorous testing in all the locations but especially Porty given its proximity to sewage outlets.”

Across the UK, awareness is growing of the untreated sewage that ends up in our waters and how it might impact not just on humans, but on the ecological life of the waters themselves.

As a designated bathing water site – of which Scotland has 87 - Portobello is monitored at two different locations, and while Portobello Central, has a ‘good’ rating, Portobello West, closer to the Figgate burn, is rated as merely sufficient, an improvement from its pre-2017 rating of 'poor'.

Revealed: All the sewage overflow sites in the Forth area mapped

What, many may wonder, does that 'sufficient' mean?

This weekend a ‘paddle out’ protest against such sewage release, is set to see swimmers, paddleboarders and surfers take to the sea at Portobello, as part of a rising wave of anger over the issue.

Much of the media focus has been on England’s sewage, but the frustration is surging in Scotland too, as more and more people, following the pandemic, use our local waters and witness evidence of sewage on Scotland's shores.

The paddle-out, organised by Surfers Against Sewage representative Charlie Allanson-Oddy, will also see the launch a new group, The Porty Water Collective, which plans to add its own testing of the sea for sewage-related bacteria to that already done by SEPA.

A Surfers Against Sewage Water Quality report published last year contained only one contribution from Scotland – produced by Allanson-Oddy and a fellow SAS rep who tested at two sites along the beach.

While the waters tested at Portobello's Straiton Place, a stretch where many people swim, were good, those collected where the Figgate Burn, which runs through the city, emerges onto the sands, were poor – and the worst of all the UK sites in the entire report.

“I chose the Figgate burn,” says Allanson-Oddy, “because it runs through the nation’s capital. It was the worst of all the areas that were tested because every single test was dangerous and unsafe levels for E Coli. There was no other venue that had these levels with no break.”

Reports of sewage have also reached the media. In November 2021, the sewer at Figgate Burn by Portobello beach collapsed and locals reported a deep whirlpool and sewage leaking into the sea.

According to the European Union Bathing Water Directive (2006/7/EC), the concentration of Escherichia coli in bathing water exceeding 500 cfu/100 mL−1 poses a high risk for bathers’ health and some samples from both sites on the beach well exceeded that – with the highest E coli level being 690 at Portobello Central on August 11.

The Herald: Portobello beach thursday on what was one of the hottest days of the year...Pic Gordon Terris Herald & Times..15/7/21.

Such contamination potentially not only affects swimmers but also paddleboarders, dogs, children paddling and other water users,  who come in their hundreds of thousands over the summer season.

On sunny days the two-mile-long beach has the feel of a bustling resort - its waters teeming with swimmers, paddleboarders and rowers; its promenade backed by busy cafes, outdoor seating and an amusement arcade.

And it’s not only the summer that lures local dippers. Even in the depths of winter, groups of swimmers daily brace themselves against the chill sea – with groups wading in as crowds. Male mental health group, the Edinburgh Blue Balls regularly sees fifty members immerse on a Sunday morning.


Portobello beach is at the edge of a capital city of 550,000 inhabitants, and as such is also where the city and its waste meet the sea. It is part of a continuous stretch of sand, dominated at its western end by Seafield sewage treatment centre, a site which processes sewage from around 800,000 people - but which sends its treated wastewater out along a long pipe, several miles into the sea.

The beach also has sewage overflows at either end.

This is, in other words, both a pleasure beach for the city, and also where the sewage from its homes, hits the sea – and it sees the typical issues that brings.

A bathing water profile for Portobello West on SEPA's website describes its risks to water quality and notes:  "DNA tracing indicates that human sources are contributing to faecal pollution of the bathing water."

During bathing water season, which runs from June till September 15, the water is monitored – 18 times over the period – for faecal bacteria, whose main source would be sewage.

Mr Allanson-Oddy is just one of many currently drawing attention to the limitations of the bathing waters monitoring system, not just at Portobello but elsewhere.

Tests are only done on set days – so there is no element of responsiveness to the weather - and regular water users tend to know that it's after heavy rain that untreated sewage is more likely to have been released from combined sewage overflows into Scotland's waterways and seas.

Most swimmers, therefore, tend to avoid the days after heavy rain or talk of keeping their "heads up" and out of the water.

Even SEPA advises against swimming after heavy rains. The agency’s bathing water profile for Portobello, notes: “There is a risk that water pollution may occur after heavy rainfall. Bathing is not advised during or 1-2 days after heavy rainfall. This is due to the risk to bathers’ health from water pollution.”

Anecdotally, and perhaps as a result of this caution and awareness, reports from swimmers of illness are relatively few. 

More common are those like Kate Hinder who claim that swimming in the sea off Portobello had only brought them wellness. “I've never once had illness while sea swimming," she said. "On the contrary, my baseline health is much improved over the past three years.”