The MV Gardyloo bobbed along, her wind-swept passengers up on deck, happily snapping pictures; her captain expertly negotiating thick haar and rocky outcrops, while in tanks within her underbelly, her cargo sloshed away.
At some point on that pleasant journey – perhaps while passengers’ attention was drawn towards the thriving seabird colonies around Bell Rock, possibly just after they’d enjoyed a tasty lunch or afternoon tea and biscuits – MV Gardyloo gently relieved herself of her cargo.
And beneath the waves, into the waters of the Forth, poured out 2000 tonnes of Edinburgh sewage.
Today it seems almost unbelievable, but up until just 15 years ago MV Gardyloo would make its sewage dumping trip up to three times a week, transporting thousands of tonnes of Edinburgh’s stinking waste on a final journey to the middle of the Forth: the ultimate “nip to the loo”.
In 1998, the tanker flushed sludge from her custom-built tanks for the last time. Then, new European directives on sewage disposal and a new treatment works at Seafield spelled the final journey for a vessel which, oddly enough, had become something of a favourite for many.
She first entered service 35 years ago this spring, a revolutionary method of solving an age-old problem – with the added benefit of offering up to 12 brave souls the chance of joining her on her voyage.
Hard to believe that not so long ago a booming modern city like Edinburgh was dealing with such a basic issue in quite such a strange manner. But then, in 1978, the arrival of MV Gardyloo – a variation of the French “gardez l’eau” which signalled the imminent shower of slops thrown from an Edinburgh tenement window – was a far better option than what was then in use.
Built at a cost of £1.87 million by Ferguson Shipbuilders in Port Glasgow, the 2708 tonnes deadweight of vessel was designed to bring to an end the practice of simply pouring the city’s waste straight into the Forth from a series of eight outlets along the coastline – often for it to wash back up on beaches and rocks.
Instead, MV Gardyloo would transport it to pre-arranged spots in the Forth to be dispersed by the natural movement of the tides.
However, first Lothian Regional Council’s director of drainage, TAC Brownlie, had to work hard to convince critics opposed to the idea of a sludge vessel, that MV Gardyloo posed no threat to wildlife.
“The regional council did not embark on such sea disposal, with the attendant cost of a special sludge vessel, without being certain that the discharge of the sludge would have an infinitesimal effect on marine life,” he wrote at the time.
“The volume of the sea in the area in which the vessel would circle during the discharge was so great, and the current and movements were such that the sludge would be very rapidly dispersed.”
Two locations were selected for the disposal of the tanker’s foul load: from May until October MV Gardyloo would release its cargo at a spot close to the Bell Rock, and from October to May, off St Abb’s.
The quantity for disposal was tightly restricted, no more than 500,000 metric tonnes wet weight containing not more than 25,000 metric tonnes dry solids, to be disposed of “in wake of the vessel while in motion”.
While the Forth Fishermen’s Association and environmentalists grumbled, MV Gardyloo took a trial run in February 1978, having collected sludge delivered to Leith docks from road tankers.
However, sludge would not be its only cargo. MV Gardyloo had a comfortable lounge, dining room and facilities. Soon it became clear that there was an additional benefit to be had.
In May 1978, Mr Brownlie raised the possibility of expanding the Gardyloo experience to the public. “Naturally few people have direct experience of the sludge dumping operation with all that is entailed and hence it is desirable that those who do show an interest should be allowed an opportunity, so far as possible, to see the arrangements for themselves,” he told councillors.
The strangest day trip imaginable was to last from 8am until around 6pm, depending on weather and shipping movements in what was at the time, a very busy Firth of Forth.
While passengers were expected to keep clear of the ship’s operational areas unless invited by the captain, the bridge and engine room were open for viewing. And, if the cargo below didn’t put anyone off, there was the offer of breakfast – coffee and rolls – lunch and tea and biscuits for the journey home.
Celia Baird, 71, who was raised in Leith and now lives in Joppa, recalls the Gardyloo sitting in her berth at Leith docks, the aroma emanating from her a clear sign of what she carried.
“I remember looking at it and being very aware of there being a smell. So, I was horrified when I heard that they were running pleasure trips on board. I couldn’t believe it.”
She didn’t take up the chance of jumping on board, but says she can appreciate how some people might have accepted the slightly nauseating idea of what was down below in order to enjoy a rare opportunity to sail on the Forth.
“You have to remember that it’s really only quite recently that you’ve been able to take pleasure cruises on the Forth.
“If you wanted to see the places like Inchkeith Island or Bass Rock, it was really difficult. So I suppose I can understand why some would do it. But it wasn’t for me,” she cringes.
But thousands, among them nature lovers and pensioners, did enjoy a cheap day trip on the “SS Sewage”. In more than 2600 voyages, the MV Gardyloo carried 6000 passengers and dumped 8.5 million tonnes of sewage.
On board and in command for most of the trips was Captain Ron Leask, who was fiercely proud of the role his vessel played in keeping the city functioning.
“You look a hundred years ago, and three out of five children died before their first birthday,” he said in 1998, as the ship made her final journey. “Advances in sanitation have done more than advances in medicine to change that. The Gardyloo is part of that.”
His regret was that the ship never received a royal warrant for services to the Queen.
“We’ve been taking Holyrood Palace’s sewage all these years,” he added. “I think she’s earned the warrant after 20 years providing a service to Her Majesty,” he said.
It all ended just 15 years ago when a European ban on dumping at sea spelled the end for MV Gardyloo and its weekly cargoes.
And an end, too, for what must have been the most unusual day trip out of the Forth imaginable.
A CAREER THAT WENT THE DISTANCE
FOR sale: one seaworthy vessel capable of carrying several tonnes of sewage.
Not surprisingly, there wasn’t exactly a stampede from potential buyers when the Gardyloo finally went on the market.
Her one-off design – which allowed the contents of her tanks to be discharged directly into the sea from her underside – was ideal for disposing of smelly sewage, but not much else.
At one point it was suggested she might be used to carry fresh water between Greek islands, molasses around the Mediterranean or be converted into a maritime museum.
Then, thoughts turned to whether it would be easier and more viable to simply scrap the vessel entirely, rather than continue trying to sell her.
Eventually, she was sold to Unilink Group in London, just the first stage in a series of deals that would finally take her to, of all places, Azerbaijan.
Owned by Azerbaijan’s State Caspian Shipping, one of 80 vessels on its books, she now sails under the name Shollar, her load no longer the waste products of the citizens of Scotalnd’s capital city, but pure water.
VESSEL’S SWANPONG AND THE SEAFIELD STENCH
FOR 21 years, MV Gardyloo collected and dumped millions of tonnes of Edinburgh waste. However, she was hardly an appropriate means of dealing with such a potentially hazardous job.
Today, the task of dealing with sewage from more than 850,000 residents in Edinburgh and Esk Valley areas falls to Seafield Waste Water Treatment Works. The plant also treats waste from industry and rainwater that pours into drains from buildings and street gulleys.
In total, the plant handles around 300 million litres of waste water every day. Scottish Water says that is the equivalent of 121 Olympic-size swimming pools.
But while MV Gardyloo was considered outmoded, at least it avoided the smell.
Scottish Water has spent £20m since 2008 attempting to decrease unpleasant emissions known as the Seafield Stench.
Measures included fitting an “odour abatement plant” above the sewage tanks to filter out noxious smells, new screening and treatment equipment at the sewer entrance and covering the open channels between the different areas of the plant.
However, in November, the city council, which monitors emissions from the plant, asked for more to be done by the publicly-owned utility firm.
Some estimates suggest Seafield will need £50m of improvements to ensure the stench is adequately dealt with. Threats of legal enforcement action have been put on hold for the time being.