Scotland’s bathing waters start 2021 season with 94% achieving strict environmental standards

SEPA said improvement projects have had a positive impact at beaches with historically poor classifications, including Sandyhills beach in Dumfries and Galloway (image credit: James Johnstone, CC BY 2.0 license).
  • 94% of Scotland’s designated bathing waters have been rated sufficient or better by SEPA for the 2021 season.
  • More bathing waters (34%) have been rated as ‘excellent’ since tighter standards first came into force in 2015.
  • Half as many bathing waters rated as ‘poor’ than in 2019.
  • Partnership projects are currently underway to maintain progress and further improve bathing waters including the 5 rated as ‘poor.’

Scotland’s bathing water season officially begins today (1 June) in what is shaping up to be a busy year for the country’s beaches.

With 2021 the year of the staycation more people will be visiting the country’s shorelines, said the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA), which is encouraging everyone to know where they can find information on their favourite bathing location – and what they can do to help protect the water environment while they are there.

This season Scotland has more bathing waters rated as excellent, good or sufficient than at any point since tighter standards first came into force in 2015, said the group – with 94% achieving one of the three grades. There are also half as many bathing waters rated poor as there were in 2019 – down to five from the 10 two years ago.

Scotland currently has 85 designated bathing waters, where SEPA monitors water quality during the season, which runs until 15 September. Sampling results are published online, and SEPA also has daily water quality predictions for 28 beaches which are available on its website by 10am daily. This enables visitors to decide whether their activities will include bathing, or if they will just enjoy on-shore activities.

One of the biggest impacts on the water quality at bathing waters is the weather, especially heavy rain. Because of this swimming is not advised at any bathing water during, or one to two days after, heavy rainfall as there is always a risk that water pollution may occur. This can be as a result of urban and agricultural run-off and sewerage sources.

Due to SEPA’s ongoing recovery from a complex and sophisticated cyber-attack in December 2020, the agency’s network of 29 electronic beach signs will not be fully operational for the start of season. Work is ongoing to re-introduce these over the next few weeks, and the same information is currently available on SEPA’s website.

Samples taken across the season are also used to calculate the general water quality classification for display at the start of the following season. Classifications are excellent, good, sufficient and poor, and are based on four years of monitoring data.

Due to a shortened bathing water season in 2020 because of the Covid-19 pandemic, it was not possible to collect the required number of samples to provide a classification. As a result each bathing water will retain the classification set at the end of 2019 – 29 Excellent; 31 good; 20 sufficient; 5 poor.

Terry A’Hearn, SEPA Chief Executive, said:

“Protecting and improving our bathing waters is crucial for our environment, local economies and communities. We hope Scotland’s weather will enable both residents and visitors to enjoy our seaside resorts and beaches over the summer months, and with 94% of our beaches already meeting strict environmental standards, it’s great to see that there has been a continued general improvement in Scotland’s classifications over the last few years.

“While this is good progress, we understand that some local communities will be disappointed, as we are, that there are five bathing waters which have been rated as poor. Although it is important to remember that a ‘poor’ classification does not mean that water quality is poor every day – and these are still fantastic beaches to visit – SEPA is committed to the challenge of building on the progress Scotland has made and bringing all of our bathing waters up to ‘sufficient’ or better. We encourage you to look at our daily bathing water predictions.

“We continue to work with Scottish Government and our key partner organisations to help all of Scotland’s bathing waters improve in future years. Work is progressing through further investment and infrastructure improvements, along with managing pressures from rural and diffuse pollution and by engaging with communities.”

Improving water quality
SEPA says it seeks to protect watercourses in Scotland through licensing, inspection and regulation of discharges, advice and guidance to the public, industry, developers and local authorities, and pollution incident response.

The agency said its officers had undertaken a series of pre-season inspections at key assets and locations across the country and will continue to monitor key locations throughout the season.

Unfortunately wet weather can have a negative impact on bathing waters. This is due to combined sewer overflows (CSOs) – which are designed to discharge diluted but minimally treated sewage to watercourses and coastal waters to prevent flooding – and run off from rural and urban environments (known as diffuse pollution). As a result SEPA advises against bathing for up to two days after heavy rain due to the risk of poor water quality.

SEPA’s stateement said it continues to work closely with Scottish Government and Scottish Water “to ensure that planned capital investment programmes aimed at upgrading sewerage infrastructure throughout the country are prioritised to maximise environmental benefits.” It went on: “In addition, partnership with NFUS and Farming and Water Scotland allows us to work closely with farmers and land managers to provide advice and guidance so they can continue to minimise the impact land run-off can have on the rivers that flow into our bathing waters.”

Help improve Scotland’s beaches and coastlines
Visitors to Scotland’s beaches can also help to protect our water environment. SEPA supports Keep Scotland Beautiful’s (KSB) My Beach, Your Beach campaign. Waste from animals or litter isn’t just unsightly but can have a negative impact on the water quality so we encourage the public to follow KSB’s advice to take litter home, to clean up after their dogs and to avoid feeding the gulls, ensuring a good beach experience for everyone who visits. Find out more at

It’s also important that people understand the impacts what they flush away can have on the environment. Blockages can be caused by inappropriate items being flushed down toilets and poured down sinks – including fats, oils, greases and wipes. Whether you’re at home or on holiday, Scottish Water provides advice on how to protect the internal sewer network and Scotland’s water environment at

More work underway
While there has been a positive upwards trend in Scotland’s bathing water quality due to focussed improvement plans and strong partnership working, there are a small number of beaches where poor water quality has been an issue for several years.

We have seen before how improvement projects have had a positive impact at beaches with historically poor classifications being rated as excellent, good or sufficient for the first time since 2015:

  • 2019: Heads of Ayr (2021 excellent), Sandyhills (2021 good), Kinghorn (Harbour) (2021 sufficient) and Cruden Bay (2021 good)
  • 2018: Portobello (West) (2021 sufficient)
  • 2017: Nairn (East) (2021 sufficient) Nairn (Central) (2021 good)

Fisherrow Sands
As in 2020, Fisherrow Sands is not a designated bathing water this season. Despite making progress in the area to improve bathing water quality, Fisherrow Sands ended the 2019 bathing water season with a fifth ‘poor’ water quality classification.

Whilst this does not mean the beach is closed, it does mean general advice against bathing still applies at this location. Beach users may continue to make their own decisions as to whether they wish to swim.

SEPA will continue to engage with local community representatives about our monitoring work and all other actions focussing on improving the water quality in this location so that the advice against bathing may be withdrawn in future.

Ayr (South Beach)
Ayr (South Beach) currently has four poor classifications. If a poor classification is given after the 2021 season it would not be listed as a designated Bathing Water in 2022 and would have general advice against bathing displayed at the beach.

Work is currently ongoing to improve water quality and all partners are making every effort to ensure that Ayr (South Beach) meets the standard in 2021.

Since 2019, SEPA has had a targeted priority improvement plan in place at Ayr (South Beach), working with partners and regulated operators to focus efforts to protect and improve the bathing water status. Our combined resources and actions with key partners are designed to tackle all the issues which contribute to poor bathing water quality and ensure that the identified improvements are delivered and de-designation is not required.

Poorer water quality is mainly driven by rainfall and so water quality is often good – particularly during dry sunny periods. Although Ayr (South Beach) was classified ‘Poor’ overall in 2019, over 60% of the sample days showed acceptable levels.