Portobello beach, Monifieth, the River Tay at Stanley Mills, an area around the Craigie Burn in Perth. These are just a few of the sites we know have had sewage-related problems over the last month.

Comedian, Phill Jupitus, in the picturesque fishing village of Pittenweem, even filmed the cover of an overflow being forced off, describing how on previous occasions, leaving the shore path “covered in shreds of toilet paper”.

There is no doubt that Scotland has a sewage release and spillage problem. Systems designed for another era are groaning with the strain of a growing urban population, sewer-blocking plastic wipes, fat and other debris.

Much of the attention has recently focused on whether Scotland, with its publicly owned Scottish Water, is worse or better than England, with its private companies. Comparisons, however, are difficult because the monitoring approach is so different.

As the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) pointed out in an analysis this week, only 3.4% of Scotland’s storm overflows are monitored and reported on, compared to 96% in Wales and 91% in England. Even in Central Scotland, the area in Scotland with the highest level of monitoring, just 6.9% of overflows are monitored.

It's also worth noting the particularly high levels of sewage-related litter on Scotland's beaches. Marine Conservation Society said: "Our volunteer data from 2022 shows that 75% of beach litter surveys across the UK in 2022 found at least one sewage-related item, such as wet wipes or sanitary products. Scotland's beaches were polluted with the most flushed litter."

"Over 30,000 wet wipes," it noted, "were found mainly around the Firth of Forth and Firth of Clyde, and a total of 58,030 sewage-related litter items found across the UK."

MCS analysis of their surveys also found that Lothian parliamentary region showed the highest levels, with 19,590 sewage-related litter items collected and recorded over the year – yet has the fewest storm overflows monitored at only 1.4%.

The Herald: Conservation volunteers at the Marine Conservation Society and Garnock Connections beach clean 2019 at Stevenston Beach, North Ayrshire. Flags mark the beginning and end of the 100 metre section to be cleaned, so that statistics can be gathered about the

A Marine Conservation Society beach clean in North Ayrshire 

The worst beach of all was in Central Scotland, home to the greatest density over a single 100-metre stretch, with an average of 358 items per hundred metres.

We can tell the story of Scotland’s failure to get to grips with sewage waste and its monitoring through figures – for instance the 26,000 reported hours of discharge from the mere 7% of Central Scotland's overflows that are monitored, or these surveys of sewage-related litter found on Scotland’s beaches.

But we can also tell this story through sewage and water-quality-related incidents that have occurred over the last month, and in particular those weeks of July in which Scotland was hit by heavy rainfall.

Portobello beach: closed for swimming due to a pollution incident

Over six days in mid July, swimmers were urged not to go into the water at Portobello Beach, a designated bathing water and popular swimming spot at the edge of our capital city, due to pollution. One local swimmer, Dorothy Burns-Brown said: “Myself and a few others swim every day and we feel we rely on our swims/dips for our physical and mental well-being.”

The group felt, she said, "very let down not only that it happened but that it took so long to be resolved.”

What also troubled Ms Burns-Brown was that the status information changed several times. On one occasion, when she looked it up on July 14, it appeared to be ‘good’, so she and her friends swam, only later to discover that it had been returned to ‘incident’ status.

“Fortunately none of us had our heads in but it was still a bit worrying as there were quite a few people in the water on Saturday morning. On two other days, I arranged swims but then had to cancel as the report changed from 'good' to 'incident' over a few hours.”

Whilst this pollution incident wasn’t due to the deliberate release of sewage through storm overflows, as happens during heavy rain to prevent sewage backing-up into homes, this was an example of part of the system failing – in this case, a pump malfunction.

The Herald: Charlie Allanson-Oddy (foreground) Surfers Against Sewage, day of action in Edinburgh, c Mike Guest

Charlie Allanson-Oddy at a Surfers Against Sewage protest at Portobello Beach

Charlie Allanson-Oddy, regional Surfers Against Sewage rep and member of the recently formed Porty Water Collective said: “We were concerned, along with many others to see the change in signage by SEPA, prompted by Scottish Water’s statement about issues at the McDonald pumping station. This further highlights the fragility of the system currently in place and how many people can be affected when things go wrong.

"I note from Scottish Water that they have tried to change the function here, ‘increase resilience during the bathing season’ however that should do little to calm fears of potential further difficulties throughout the year, with the acknowledgement that people are using the water every single day at Portobello.”

Systems are always imperfect. Things do go wrong – and this may be an example of that. But how much going wrong, and for how long, is acceptable?

READ MORE Sewage anger. The campaigners driven to test waters for themselves

Gardens and walkway near the Craigie Burn, Perth, flooded

The weekend of July 9 a public walkway running under the railway and alongside Craigie Burn was flooded following heavy rainfall. This was not an isolated incident. As Janice Haig, who lives in Croft Park, told STV news, it was an issue she had been trying to draw attention to for 12 years. On this occasion, her garden was swept with dirty brown water, as had happened yearly for over a decade.

River Tay, overflow blocked with wipes and gushing

Stanley Mills, on the River Tay, is an otherwise idyllic and historic spot. Still, every time there are heavy rains, said local Brooke Labagh, untreated sewage gushes out into the river, along with wipes and other debris. This, she noted, was carried downstream to “where the otters and the beavers live and the osprey like to fish”.

During recent such floods, she tweeted regular videos of the overflow, including one declaring, "Beautiful view, shame about the sewage."

“This," she said, "has been happening regularly. Last summer, there were tidelines of wipes and sanitary products just beyond the overflow, because there was a huge amount of rain. It was really quite bad and I filled in a complaint online. Every time it rains heavily it just is gushing out.”


Labagh was initially shocked to learn that the discharge of untreated sewage during heavy rains was a normal practice in the system.

“We walk there every day, since we’ve moved there. It’s so beautiful. It’s so peaceful. There are usually fishermen there and kayakers that go by. People go down with their dogs and kids during the holidays. And it’s just such a shame when you see all these adorable animals wandering around on sewage, and people in that river fishing.”

Scottish Water, she said, had done work at the overflow’s manhole since her most recent complaint earlier this month. “They cleared up the wipes blocking the grate – though some sanitary products are still there. With them cleared it's possible to see a big rock right in the middle of the grate which means that the water coming will be pushed out and up, and that’s probably how all of those wipes got there. It’s the fact that the water rather than going straight out into the Tay, is being pushed up, with all those wipes. Then when the pressure was getting too much the manhole cover was coming off.”

She said: “The problem is only about 3% of Scotland’s overflows are monitored. Before I started to look into this I had no idea about the lack of monitoring and the lack of public access to that information.”

Monifieth beach, temporarily closed to bathers and paddlers

In the first week of July, the Scottish Environment Protection Agency warned people and pets not to bathe or paddle in the water near Monifieth beach. High levels of E coli contamination, which are often indicative of a sewage leak, had been detected in the area – though the source was not identified.

Pittenweem gushing overflow, exposed by comedian Phill Jupitus

“The sewage network in East Fife is not fit for purpose,” wrote comedian Phill Jupitus in an Instagram post that went viral. “Improvements proposed are cosmetic at best.”

The comedian was drawing attention to a flooding event that takes place regularly in his home village of Pittenweem when there are heavy rains.

“This pumping station on West Shore Pittenweem,” he wrote, “was put in to cope with what Scottish Water described as a ‘Once every thirty years rainfall event’. This cover the overflow is gushing out of was actually forced off by the pressure on June 19 this year, and has been a few times over the six years I’ve lived here, and the shore path was covered in shreds of toilet paper. Because yes, this ‘overflow’ also contains raw sewage.”

He added: “To quote the Scottish Water rep at a meeting three years ago when a neighbour with young children asked him what the score was with sewage outflow. ‘After heavy rainfall, I wouldn’t swim for two days.’”

Jupitus’s first post, was followed by another, filmed ten minutes later, the water is gushing down the slipway in Pittenweem. “There are seven of these outflow pipes along this stretch of coast which when it rains,” he wrote, “discharge the rain overspill WITH untreated sewage, which is then SIEVED before flowing into the sea.”

Sewage-related bacteria at Eyemouth

The waters at Eyemouth, a designated bathing water of only 'sufficient status', which featured in a list I did of worst polluted beaches in Scotland last year,  hasn't hit the headlines. But on July 4, samples taken at Eyemouth measured over 1000 cfu/100ml Escherichia Coli, and 2100 Intestinal enterococci. Such levels of these sewage-related bacteria are deemed, according to the 2006 EU Bathing Water Directive, high risk to bathers.

The Herald: Eyemouth beach. Photo: Google Maps

This sample, however, has been one of only a few that have revealed very high levels of bacteria in Scotland’s bathing waters in this year’s season, with many sites performing well.

Samples taken at Luss Bay in June also yielded unsafe levels - at 6700 cfu/100ml Escherichia coli.

READ MORE 10 of the dirtiest beaches (with bathing waters status) in Scotland

READ MORE: SNP urged to act as Scotland behind England in sewage monitoring

Call for more monitoring

A list of reported events like this, however, is hardly a replacement for data and monitoring, nor are the numerous complaints and citizen social media posts that are drawing attention to this issue.

Catherine Gemmell, Scotland Conservation Officer at the Marine Conservation Society, said, “Monitoring of storm overflows is crucial to improving the sewage situation in Scotland. Without data on the problem, the Scottish Government cannot hold those responsible accountable, and we cannot see where the worst affected areas are.”

MCS also noted in its recent analysis that despite Scottish Water having an Improving Urban Waters Routemap, just 3% across Scotland have been identified as high-priority discharges for improvement by 2027.

Responding to the charity's call for more monitoring, in the Herald last week, a Scottish Government spokesperson said: “Comprehensive monitoring of our water environment is already undertaken by SEPA to assess water quality, water quantity (flows and levels), physical condition and ecology which are combined to produce an overall classification. The results of those assessments are high and we continue to strive for further improvement.

“Increasing the monitoring of sewage outflow pipes would not change the classification of the water environment by SEPA. 66% of Scotland’s water environment as a whole is assessed as having ‘good’ status. 87% of Scotland’s entire water environment is assessed by SEPA as having a ‘high’ or ‘good’ classification for water quality, up from 82% six years ago. 99% of Scottish coastal waterbodies are currently assessed as being in good or better overall condition. It is also important to stress that discharges are not always sewage, but rainwater."