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.
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?”
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?
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