Gardyloo: The grim story of unsanitary Edinburgh

EDINBURGH in the first half of 1700s was an overcrowded, unsanitary place - a medieval jumble of narrow wynds and towering tenement dwellings, running from the foot of the Castle to Holyrood Place.

In Edinburgh's Old Town today, the phrase has not been forgotten

More than 50,000 people were crammed within the city walls, livestock wandered freely down the streets and a holler of “gardyloo” gave passersby the message to move away - sharpish.

Coming from the French expression, “Prenez garde a l’eau!” - meaning literally ‘beware of the water’ - gardyloo was the phrase shouted from the upper floors of tenement buildings by residents as they emptied their chamber pots from the windows above.

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“I believe that in no city in the world so many people have so little room,” so wrote Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe after a visit to Edinburgh - and indeed, the overcrowded nature of the narrow alleyways in Edinburgh made the task of emptying a chamber pot even more tricky.

People living in 18th century Edinburgh knew to watch out when they heard the phrase "Gardyloo" hollered from above.

Tenements in Scotland’s capital during the 18th century could be as tall as 14 stories high and had no electricity, running water and or lavatories (inside or out).

Toilets at that time were simply a bucket filled up during the day and it was the job - usually of the women and children - to empty them out.

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People living on the bottom floor of dwellings could walk outside and empty the contents onto the close, but for those ten, eleven, twelve floors up, opening the window and emptying chamber pots was a common occurrence, with a splash back reaching as far as the second floor.

An ancient chamber pot.

In 1749, the ‘Nastiness Act’ was passed, which decreed waste could only be tossed out between 10 pm, when the bells struck at the St.Giles High Kirk, and 7am the next morning,

The person tossing the waste was also supposed to call out “Gardez l’eau!” meaning ‘watch the water,’ which later became corrupted to “Gardyloo!”

An unfortunate passerby could shout “hold you hand” if they heard the warning cry from above - and if the bucket thrower heard in time they may have been saved from a most repulsive fate.

The French term regardez l’eau, was also a warning to people that toilet water was about to be emptied onto the street.

Tenenments in 18th century Edinburgh could be as high as 14 stories

Legend has it that the 12th century French King Phillipe Auguste was covered in the contents of a chamber pot, and decreed that all upstairs residents were obliged to warn pedestrians before throwing out waste water.

Proper sewage systems in Edinburgh meant that by the 1930s the term became obsolete, but the word is far from forgotten.

In fact, the Nastiness Act to this day has never been repealed, so technically throwing your waste out of the window is still legal - but passersby these days may be a little less forgiving.

The Cowgate in Edinburgh's Old Town.
People living in 18th century Edinburgh knew to watch out when they heard the phrase "Gardyloo" hollered from above.
An ancient chamber pot.
Tenenments in 18th century Edinburgh could be as high as 14 stories
The Cowgate in Edinburgh's Old Town.