Why Do the Scots Have Such Terrible Bathrooms?

CC BY 2.0. Bathroom in Castle Duart, Isle of Mull/ Lloyd Alter

They were better in 1904 than they are today.

In 1912 Sir Fitzroy Donald Maclean began restoring Duart Castle on the Isle of Mull, and installed a modern bathroom. The remarkable thing about it is how little Scottish bathrooms have changed since then; about the only difference is that, today, bathtubs are shorter and less comfortable.

bathroom in Hill House

Bathroom in Hill House/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Much the same thing can be said about the bathroom designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh at the Hill House, completed in 1904. It had a long comfy tub, a wall mount sink with two taps, and even an elaborate towel warming radiator. It also had a separate stall shower with the toilet in a separate water closet. These are both obviously bathrooms of the very rich, but in most of North America, these features have trickled down, so to speak.


The Guardian/Screen capture

A few years ago, when I contributed to the Guardian, I asked Why the modern bathroom is a wasteful, unhealthy design. It was hugely popular, getting hundreds of comments and thousands of links. Having just returned from 10 days in Scotland, I have a new insight into why it was such a success; I have complained for years about how bad North American washrooms are, but I was just shocked at how badly designed and outfitted they were in Scotland. They seem to have gone backward, not forward.

First, there is the question of the sinks and the fact that so many, including brand new bathrooms, still have separate hot and cold water supply taps. Historically, there is some logic to them; people used to use washstands with basins without drains, cold water came first, so it made sense to plug the basin and fill it with water.

Sink in Botanical Gardens

Sink in Botanical Gardens/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

But many of the sinks I have seen do not even have drain plugs, just two taps over a sink like this relatively new one at the Edinburgh Botanical Gardens. How am I supposed to wash my hands in that?

It turns out that it isn't just random stubbornness that leads to the separate taps; there was some concern that the tanks storing water used for heating and domestic hot water might not be entirely safe. According my new favourite website, The Privy Counsel, and to Tom Scott, quoted in Buzzfeed (thanks for the tip, 42four):

It goes back to how British houses were constructed after World War II. Most of them have a cold water storage tank in the attic – it feeds a hot water tank that's for central heating and hot water in the bathroom and kitchen. The water from the hot tank may not be entirely safe. That cold water storage tank in houses that weren't properly maintained might have been open to the elements, or silted up, or covered with iron rust or – in one particular case you can read about – have a couple of dead rats floating in it.

In the video Tom Scott admits to still being nervous about drinking water out of a mixing faucet, always letting the cold water run for a few seconds to ensure that it is not cross-contaminated with hot water. After all of my complaining about Legionnaires Disease growing in hot water tanks that are set too low, I am thinking that he might have a point.

toilet in granite

Toilet under granite and drywall/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Then there are the toilets; most North American toilets have accessible cisterns, although many people are picking up the trend toward concealed installations like Geberit makes. But I also saw a few like in our fancy AirBnB in Edinburgh where the cistern is buried behind drywall and granite. How much water is wasted when the flapper valve starts leaking, but it takes four trades to open up the thing to repair? How silly is this? And there has to be a brush beside every toilet in the country because they have long drops to small water surfaces. You have to do the dirty work because the toilet can't.

Bathtub and sink

Going for the cute Edwardian look, but totally impractical/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Finally, there are the showers; in the five places we stayed there was not a decent shower among them. They rarely had full enclosures so water tended to go everywhere. In one, going for the full Edwardian experience, we had to sit in the tub and try and not soak the room with the hand shower. It was cute, but practical? Not.


Shower in Edinburgh/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

But this was the worst, in the fanciest and most expensive AirBnB we stayed in. They didn't have much space in their renovation, so put in this funny base that had a seat or a step in it. Except that the shower door cannot open out because it hits the granite toilet top. So you have to gingerly step up and around on that seat. The door doesn't stop water from getting all over the painted back wall; the telephone shower is so high that I could barely reach it. You had to be a gymnast to get out without slipping and killing yourself.

Old cistern

Ancient cistern still working at Portrait gallery/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

Of course, this is all anecdotal. I have not done a thorough survey of all the bathrooms in Scotland, and I am sure there are some talented designers doing safe, modern bathrooms. And I used some wonderful old ones, the best being in the Scottish National Portrait Gallery that is still original equipment in a glorious corner room with tall windows. But generally, the main reason I am happy to be home is to have access to a decent bathroom.