By Marg Greenwood
“You’ll have to go to the toilets,” said the warden of Rothesay hostel. Bute was my second island stopover on my Scottish trip.
“Ah, yes, the toilets,” I said, rather puzzled. He explained there was a Victorian toilet building on the pier, which I had driven past the day before when I came off the ferry from Weemys Bay.
So I went. The notice on the wall of the rather dull-looking building tells you that it is “the most impressive surviving Gents Public Lavatory in Scotland of the late Victorian Era.” Rothesay was a lively seaside resort in those days. The Gents was built in 1898 to accommodate vast numbers of tourists and day-trippers who, eager to go “doon the watter”, arrived on paddle steamers from Glasgow.
I paid 30p to the attendant whose perching stool was just inside the Ladies. She made sure the coast was clear. The Gents’ toilet was built first, she said, because men drank more than women on board the steamers, and their need was greater. The men’s facilities on board the steamers were limited and there may have been lengthy queues. The sale of drink was forbidden in Scotland on Sundays from 1853, but allowed on the paddle steamers; so the concept of the “booze cruise” was born. Thus, “steaming” entered Scottish speech, meaning drunk. The reason why it took so long to build a Ladies lavatory in Rothesay is a mystery. “They just had to hold on,” my guide said.
The facilities in the Rothesay Gents were a sight to behold. “A porcelain palace - a shrine to the urinal,” to quote Paul Murton, in his recent TV documentary. Light flooded in from the pitched roof glass panes. In the main area, high glass-sided cisterns fed water into the wall-based urinals through copper pipes; and tesselated grey and white marble flooring reminded me of Roman mosaics. A dado of brown, blue and gold tiling was a striking feature of the stalls area; and this same tiling pattern was repeated in the hand basin section. Here was a marvellous array of grey marble basins with chunky pedestals, above which hung framed photos of the restoration project.
Stout doors to the roomy stalls opened to reveal broad wooden seats and high cisterns with chains, and the blue dado, less ornate than in the main area, gave continuity to the overall effect.
The piece de resistance was a circular centrepiece of six urinals facing inwards, the marble floor pattern highlighting the circle with its own brown, grey and white pattern. Shining white porcelain bowls, the manufacturer’s name “ADAMANT” clearly visible, contrasted spectacularly with black marble frames, so there was no excuse to mis-aim. The men could pee carrying on a face to face discussion, if they were so inclined. The imposing middle pedestal sported a large drooping potted plant.
The Ladies’ toilets were mundane in comparison, having been built in 1994 by converting storage areas inside the original building. This was also the date of the main restoration of the Gents’ after being under threat of demolition for eight years. Lucinda Lambton opened the newly restored Grade A listed building; her book “Temples of Convenience” includes the story of the Rothesay Lavatory. The restoration project was not without challenges. The year before the opening, the Lavatory committee was involved in a dispute with the European Community; apparently the etched glass-fronted cisterns “flushed too much water”. This issue was fortunately resolved.
The visit whetted my appetite for a comparative tour of other Victorian Gents’ toilets, especially in the North of England; friends tell me of the ornate facilities in the Town Halls of Wakefield, Bradford and Manchester, and the toilets in the Liverpool Philharmonic Pub are a well-known tourist attraction. Lucinda’s book could be of use here; but the issue of female inspection may have to be solved before such a tour is undertaken.
Marg has been writing short stories, travel pieces, memoirs and poems for about 15 years, gaining success in local and national competitions for short stories and poetry. She has travelled widely in Scotland and the Scottish Islands; and subsequent travel pieces have been published in magazines such Scottish Home and Country and The Oldie. She has a musical background, and two of her poems have been professionally set to music and performed (sung) - in one case by herself - on stage at the West Yorkshire Playhouse; and the other at the 2016 Leeds Lieder Festival. Marg is a very keen walker.
Photographs by Anne, CC. 2.0.