Ten popular bathing waters around the southern Scottish coastline are so badly contaminated with human and animal faeces that they are a danger to public health, according to the Scottish Government’s environment watchdog.

The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa) has rated four beaches in Dumfries and Galloway, three on the Ayrshire coast, and one each in Scottish Borders, East Lothian and Fife as “poor” for pollution in 2019.

This means that the levels of bacteria E Coli and intestinal enterococci detected in the water breach European safety limits. Swimmers, surfers and paddlers are at risk from stomach, ear, nose and throat infections.


Environmentalists have expressed concern, and point out that Scotland compares badly to the rest of the UK. Sepa and the Scottish Government stress that improvements are being made.

Dozens of bathing waters around Scotland have repeatedly breached public safety limits since they were first introduced in 1976. New, tougher standards came into force in 2015, causing more to fail.

Scotland’s most polluted bathing waters

According to Sepa’s latest report on 31 May four bathing waters have now been rated as poor for the last four years in a row. They are Fisherrow Sands, near Musselburgh in East Lothian; Harbour Beach at Kinghorn in Fife; Sandyhills near Dalbeattie in Dumfries and Galloway; and Heads of Ayr on the Ayrshire coast.

If they fail for a fifth year, under the rules they will have to be declared permanently unsafe, and signs erected to warn bathers of the risks.

The contamination comes from overflowing public sewers, private sewage systems and farms. It is worst after heavy rain which can cause sewers to flood and wash animal faeces into the sea.

Other beaches that have been rated “poor” for 2019 include three in Dumfries and Galloway: Brighouse Bay and Dhoon Bay near Kirkcudbright and Rockcliffe near Dalbeattie.

South Beach in Ayr and Eyemouth in Scottish Borders were also assessed as poor. The beach at Irvine in North Ayrshire failed for the first time in four years, having previously been deemed “sufficient”.

Sepa monitors a total of 86 designated bathing waters around Scotland. As well as the ten rated as poor, 13 were sufficient, 35 good and 28 excellent, with most of the cleanest beaches being found in the Highlands, the north east and the south east.

There has been a marginal improvement in the last three years, with one fewer bathing water rated as poor in 2019 and two or three more assessed as excellent. The official bathing season begins on 1 June.

The Scottish Greens called for more investment to tackle the pollution. “It’s extremely disappointing to note that a significant number of beaches have once again been rated as poor because of pollution by sewage,” said the party’s environment spokesperson, Mark Ruskell MSP.

“In the case of Kinghorn significant investment in new infrastructure should ensure that this is the last year that it gets this poor rating, but many other communities are still waiting for investment from Scottish Water and others to turn their poor ratings around.”

The Marine Conservation Society was encouraged by the slight improvement. “But it remains a concern that 10 bathing waters are classified as poor,” said the society’s policy manager, Rachel Wyatt.

“The percentage of beaches meeting the minimum and higher water quality standards in Scotland remains much lower than in other parts of the UK. This may in part be due to variable weather conditions since higher levels of pollution are often caused by heavy rainfall.”

The society’s annual beach cleans have consistently found higher levels of sewage debris in Scotland compared to the rest of UK, Wyatt pointed out. In 2018 there was an average of 70 sewage-related items per 100 metres in Scotland, compared to an average of 37 items per 100 metres in the UK overall.

“More must be done to identify the sources of pollution affecting beaches in Scotland so that beach users, local businesses and coastal tourism can all benefit from improved water quality,” she urged.

It’s extremely disappointing to note that a significant number of beaches have once again been rated as poor because of pollution by sewage. Mark Ruskell, Green MSP

Sepa welcomed the increasing number of bathing waters rated as excellent. “Working with partners we’re continuing our focus on bathing waters rated as poor with tailored improvement plans, prepared by Sepa, well underway,” said the agency’s environmental quality manager, Calum McPhail.

“We are committed to providing real time information on bathing water quality to ensure those heading to Scotland’s beaches can have a great day, and through partnership working we hope to see further improvements in bathing water quality in the coming months and years.”

Mapped: the dirty beaches around Scotland that won awards for cleanliness

The Scottish Government was also pleased. “While a trip to the beach may always be dependent on our unique Scottish summer, beachgoers can have confidence that our bathing waters are being constantly monitored and their quality ensured,” said environment secretary, Roseanna Cunningham.

“Significant progress has been made, in the space of just a few years, to improve standards still further. In cases where a lower rating has been achieved – often due to individual circumstances – Sepa and its partners are working through a comprehensive course of action to drive improvement.”

Scottish Water, the public company that runs Scotland’s sewers, promised to keep working to cut pollution. “Scottish Water has undertaken significant investment in partnership with Sepa in recent years to support bathing water quality,” said a spokeswoman.

“People can help look after our waters by remembering not to put the wrong items down toilets and sinks as these can block drains and sewers and cause pollution on beaches.”

Beaches rated as poor

Bathing water2019201820172016
Fisherrow Sands, Musselburgh, East Lothianpoorpoorpoorpoor
Harbour Beach, Kinghorn, Fifepoorpoorpoorpoor
Brighouse Bay, Kirkcudbright, Dumfries and Gallowaypoorpoorsufficientgood
Dhoon Bay, Kirkcudbright, Dumfries and Gallowaypoorpoorsufficientpoor
Rockcliffe, Dalbeattie, Dumfries and Gallowaypoorpoorsufficientpoor
Sandyhills, Dalbeattie, Dumfries and Gallowaypoorpoorpoorpoor
Eyemouth, Scottish Borderspoorpoorsufficientpoor
South Beach, Ayrpoorpoorpoorsufficient
Heads of Ayr, South Ayrshirepoorpoorpoorpoor
Irvine, North Ayrshirepoorsufficientsufficientsufficient
source: Scottish Environment Protection Agency

Map and chart by Ally Tibbitt. This story was updated at 10.30 on 31 May 2019 to include a link to a statement from the Scottish Environment Protection Agency.


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