Carn á Mhaim and the Wondrous Eco-Friendly Toilet

Corrour bothy sits at the feet of the Devil’s Point and Cairn Toul

TODAY I intend to talk about toilets – or lavatories, as we souls in the world of journalism are instructed to call them. The impressive Cairngorm ridge of Carn á Mhaim might appear to be a somewhat oblique setting for this colourful topic, but it’s as good a place as any and better than most . . .

First let me describe my precise location. I’ve cycled from Linn of Dee along a rough track to Derry Lodge at the foot of Glen Derry, tethered the bike to a fallen Scots pine, trudged the pleasant couple of miles up Gleann Laoigh Bheag to the foot of Carn á Mhaim, have ascended a zigzagging path – paved in places – to its sunny summit (1,037m, 3,402ft) and am now prostrate in scented grass, gazing out across one of the finest views in the world.

Carn á Mhaim pokes above the trees in the distance

To the south-west, with a cap of fluffy white cloud linking their summits, stand Beinn Bhrotain and Monadh Mòr. To the west, and immediately across the great sculpted glen of Lairig Ghru, the Devil’s Point rises in impressive slabs of wet rock. To the north-west stand the craggy masses of Cairn Toul and Braeriach, Scotland’s fourth and third-highest mountains respectively. To the immediate north, and rising from Carn á Mhaim’s umbilical ridge, looms Ben Macdui – Scotland’s second-highest mountain. I’m among impressive company, and no amount of adjectives and digital pictures will come anywhere close to doing it justice.

In this huge, vast, totally unspoilt mountain panorama there is one – and only one – sign of man’s presence on the planet, and that’s Corrour bothy. It sits among the toes of the Devil’s Point and Cairn Toul like a tiny Wendy House. In fact, tiny Wendy House is too grand a description. It’s a matchbox, a very small and seemingly very distant matchbox, tucked beneath the crags of some serious mountains.

In keeping with it being the only sign of man’s (and woman’s) presence, the bothy has been equipped with one of the world’s most environmentally-friendly lavatories. Now there are people out there who have used bothies for years who will be thinking: “Just a wee minute – all bothies have environmentally-friendly toilet facilities. It’s a spade. You take the spade downstream of the bothy, you dig a hole, you do the business, you replace the divot. Job sorted. Nae bother.”

The Mountain Bothies Association, however, took a monumental decision to install an ingenious loo at Corrour. Whether this was because Corrour is an extremely popular bothy and expensive spades were wearing out at an alarming rate, or the bothy’s location on an open slope meant the all-important “downstream” proviso put desperate people in full view of absolutely everyone else in the bothy – as well as walkers on the Lairig Ghru track – and had led to a series of embarrassing encounters, I know not. What I do know is that Corrour’s loo is so environmentally friendly it could quite easily become a lonely person’s best mate. Let me tell you how it works, because this is science and low-key technology at its finest.

You open the door and what you see is a plank of wood with two toilet seats on it. Sorry. I’m going to have to digress here and tell you a tale from a potholing book I read twenty years ago. Toilets can be funny things and they can be disturbing things. Why disturbing? Because if I walked into a toilet and saw a plank of wood with two holes cut in it I’d think “communal toilet” and that would disturb me. Communal toilets are what they had in the old days and in foreign countries.

So I read this book, which was written by (if I remember correctly) Jim Eyre, a founder member of the Red Rose Cave and Pothole Club, an organisation I have had every intention of joining since 1975 but have never actually got round to. I forget the name of the book, but Jim tells this tale about being on a caving expedition in southern France during the 1960s, and going to the toilet on a rural campsite early one morning.

The toilet is a plank of wood with two holes cut in it, but modesty is preserved by a flimsy curtain positioned between the holes. He’s sitting there contemplating what to make for breakfast when someone else enters the shed and sits on the hole on the other side of the curtain. Shortly, a slender hand slips under the curtain and touches his leg, while a young woman’s voice begins making amorous noises in French. Jim realises that the hand belongs to a young woman who is camping with her husband on the other side of the field, and she has mistakenly assumed she is touching her husband’s leg, not the leg of a hairy-arsed potholer from Lancashire.

Unperturbed, though eager to resolve the situation before it becomes embarrassing, he takes the young woman’s hand in his, squeezes it gently and whispers through the curtain: “Hey-up love, can yer pass t’paper?”

Corrour bothy. The eco-friendly double toilet is in the timber extension

So you open the loo door at Corrour bothy and you see two toilet seats on a plank of wood. Communal toilet – panic, panic, panic. Ah, but one of the lids is padlocked. And this is the secret to the loo’s success.

A geo-textile bag hangs beneath the seat, into which human waste drops. Liquids pass through the bag and are channelled into a soak-away outside the bothy. The solids remain in the bag. When the bag has reached its full capacity (yes, I know it doesn’t sound very nice) the toilet lid is closed and padlocked and the adjoining toilet put into use. When the second bag has reached capacity, the first toilet is unlocked, the geo-textile bag and contents (which have by this time composted down) are removed by a dedicated volunteer and buried outside, and the bag is replaced. The process has gone full cycle. The geo-textile bags rot down in the environment and the composted human waste adds richness and nutrition to the Cairngorm plant life. Apparently, the local billberries are second to none.

Really, we should all be doing this sort of stuff in our homes to conserve water supplies and recycle waste. There’s also the added advantage, for we men at least, that wives wouldn’t be able to shout “I wish you men wouldn’t leave the toilet seat up” half so much when one is padlocked down and there’s a compost heap festering under the other.

So I’m lying here in the sun, with sweet air stirring the grass, chewing over whether to slog up a horrendous slope to the summit of Ben Macdui and return over Derry Cairngorm (both of which I have climbed before) or drop down another horrendous slope into the deep, glacial trough of the Lairig Ghru for a leisurely walk back to the bike. There’s no choice really, because basically I’m a lazy person. And tomorrow, if the weather holds, I’ve got a date with three very big, very rocky and very distant mountains behind the bothy. And for that expedition I’ll need all my strength. So down I go.

Back at the Invercauld Caravan Club campsite in Braemar, where my tent sits on an immaculate lawn encircled by ducks, I spend a leisurely half-hour in the heated and spotlessly clean toilet block, blasting dust and grime from my body with steaming water while hairdryers and hand-dryers scream intermittently and fluorescent lights reflect from every tiled and mirrored surface.

And I think, yeh, this is all very nice and all very comfortable. But isn’t it just a little bit over the top? Isn’t there scope here for a few planks with holes in, some geo-textile bags and mountain water heated by the power of the sun? Shouldn’t we, as outdoor people who delight in being close to the earth, be taking some sort of lead?

Hey-up. Have a think about it. And while you’re at it, can yer pass t’recycled paper?

MORE pictures below in the high-resolution gallery. Just click on an image:

Links:

  • For a full technological breakdown of how the Corrour eco-friendly lavatory was installed and operates, click here.
  • Fancy a trip underground? Take a look at the Red Rose Cave and Pothole Club website.
  • Jim Eyre died in 2008. This obituary appeared in The Guardian.

About McEff

Alen McFadzean. Journalist. Recently made redundant from The Northern Echo when my job was transferred to Wales to be done by people on lower wages. Former shipyard electrician. Former quarryman and tunneller. Climb mountains and run long distances to make life harder. Gravitate to the left in politics just to make life harder still.
This entry was posted in Camping, Caving, Climbing, Environment, Hiking, Life, Mountains, Potholing, Walking and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to Carn á Mhaim and the Wondrous Eco-Friendly Toilet

  1. Laura says:

    Fantastic post! A really good read and especially as this is in my neck of the woods. Looking forward to more …………..

  2. David says:

    Ha ha – a great read and I love that story about Jim Alen. I have got Jim’s book “The Cave Explorers” and it is a cracking read. One of his funniest stories is where his light goes out part way down a shaft he is down climbing and he is left clinging on for grim death. Eventually over many minutes he manages to work a small pebble out of a crack and listening carefully drops it to see how far he has to go to get to the bottom. Turns out he was hanging on for grim death six inches above the ground.

    I like the idea of much more environmentally friendly campsites and would choose them, especially if they were open year round. The only trouble is in places like Braemar you have no choice as well located sites close to the hills are few and far between. The other thing that bothers me nowadays is the prices some sites now charge because they are blinged up in the toilet department. To address these problems I ended building a campervan and when in Scotland either park up somewhere quiet for a few days, or use the increasing number of basic 5 van sites that simply offer an emptying point for the toilet.

    • McEff says:

      Glad you liked that one, David. I can’t remember which book it was so I was thinking of ordering his complete works off Amazon. I like the story about the pebble.
      Yes, campsites. I’ve just stayed on one on the west of the Cairngorms that charged £17.50 a night for me, a small tent and a small car. That is absolutely scandalous. The toilets were a palace of light and space, though, with air scented with the fragrance of summer flowers and pine woods. I shall be reporting on it in due course.
      What was wrong with those rough fields that had standpipes and a tin shed with a six-gallon oil drum inside that had a seat on? Take me back . . .
      Cheers, Alen

  3. jcmurray1 says:

    Great entertainment Alen, a good story well told and a really good laugh! Sounds like you’re enjoying your time up here in the wilds so keep up the good work……..J

    • McEff says:

      Hi John. It’s hard work but I manage to keep myself amused. I like the Cairngorms and Braemar. Great chip shop.
      All the best, Alen

  4. beatingthebounds says:

    Simple campsites still exist – but they tend to be nearly as exorbitantly priced as the flash ones. Love the Derry Lodge area – plenty of scope for a wild camp or bothy overnight if you’re after the simple life.
    Here in Silverdale we have no sewers (I believe the largest UK mainland community without). We all have a septic tank in our gardens, which works on a very similar principle to what you describe. Generally works really well. Bit distressing though when it doesn’t. It’s probably no bad thing however to be reminded now again about the waste we all produce!

    • McEff says:

      Hi Mark. My favourite simple campsite is at Newtonmore, down by the river. A fiver a night the last time I was there. I’ve never wild camped at Derry Lodge, but you’re right, it is an ideal place.
      Everywhere has a claim to fame and Silverdale appears to be no exception. No wonder the Morecambe Bay shrimps are so plump. I’ve been through Silverdale hundreds of times on the train but never actually visited the place. I keep meaning to go because my friend’s parents, Tom and Eileen Frith, live there and I’ve been telling him I’ll drop in for donkey’s years. I’ll get there one day.
      Cheers, Alen

  5. Alen,playing catch up and furiously reading (and perhaps posting some new stuff) all my subscribed blogs on a family holiday on the tip of Cornwall. Great post. I like the caving story ! After our walk along the S.West Coastal path I am going to luxuriant in the cam psite’s toilet facilities – not a wooden plank with a hole in it in sight :) Expect more comments on your blog once I have attended to my ablutions.

  6. Judith says:

    Hi Alen, interesting read. I had the pleasure of seeing the workings of the Corrour Bothy toilet in May 2011. Two MBA guys were changing the bag and they let me go underneath and see how it all works. I’m sure they said that the full, almost-drained bags were taken to Marr Lodge where they were hung for a little longer . . . but I can’t remember what they said happened to them then. They’re certainly not buried in the vicinity of the bothy. Like you, I was appalled to see the two seats, until I realised that they weren’t for simultaneous use! I also believe that the toilet was installed as there was a risk of the bothy being closed down as there was rather a lot of poo in the surrounding area.

    • McEff says:

      Hi Judith. Thanks very much for that extra information regarding the bothy toilet. I’m glad it’s not just me who seems to be fascinated by the subject.
      Cheers, Alen

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s