THOUSANDS of protestors have signed petitions calling on Highland Council not to close public toilets in north and west Sutherland.
Kinlochbervie Community Council launched a paper and online petitions after the authority signalled its intention at a budget meeting to shut down nine public toilets in the area on August 31, in a bid to save just £67,000.
A total of 3528 objectors signed the online petition and 889 put their names to the paper petition, which was placed in local shops and at Smoo Cave toilets, one of the conveniences in line for closure.
The two petitions have now closed.
Sixty per cent of the 850 strong adult population of the Scourie, Kinlochbervie and Durness community council areas signed the paper petition.
Fifteen per cent of the signatures on paper petition posted at Smoo Cave were from outside the UK and represented 11 different countries ranging from Australia to the Czech Republic, France and the USA.
Community council member Margaret Meek, who is organising the protest, said it was an amazing response which showed the strength of feeling there was against the move.
She said: "Our focus was on Sutherland but there was widespread strength of feeling throughout the Highlands and islands and beyond about the necessity of keeping – and even increasing – public toilets."
She added: "There was space on the petition for short comments and these conveyed a feeling of outrage. People are shocked – they cannot believe that the council would close something as basic as public toilets.
"Three main themes emerged – the necessity of having public toilets to support tourism, particularly in light of recent increases in visitors due to NC500; concerns about environmental pollution, which is already happening; and recognition of the needs of local people who often have to travel long distances for simple things like medical appointments."
She and fellow community councillors are now organising a date to travel to Inverness in person to symbolically hand over the petitions.
Meanwhile the closures were discussed at the April 20 meeting at Lairg of Sutherland Community Partnership – the multi-agency group tasked to "empower community bodies by strengthening their voices in local decision-making".
North, west and central Sutherland councillor Linda Munro is understood to have indicated at the meeting that, unless a solution could be found, the toilets will close at the end of the summer season.
Her fellow ward councillor Kirsteen Currie has already indicated her support of the campaign.
In an email last month to Ms Meek, she wrote: "This is an issue which I raised with the administration during the deliberations on the budget, unfortunately they chose to press on ahead with their plans anyway. I’m very worried about the complete disregard for any kind of democratic process here. I note that I did not support this in the chamber."
Following the meeting East Sutherland and Edderton ward councillor Jim McGillivray said public toilets were not a statutory local authority responsibility and therefore fell under the umbrella of either Westminster or Holyrood.
He said: "I have contacted relevant MPs and MSPs to seek clarification on this point."
Cllr McGillivary is also suggesting that a Scottish Charitable Incorporated Organisation (SCIO) should be set up to take on public toilets and playparks, which are also under threat, in Sutherland. The SCIO would be able to seek grant funding to operate the facilities.
The public conveniences earmarked for closure are at Achmelvich, Kinlochbervie, Rhiconich, Scourie, Smoo Cave, Lairg, Kylesku, Talmine and Tarbet.
Highland Council has suggested communities could take over the running of the conveniences themselves or that local businesses or public halls could provide "comfort stops" in exchange for a small payment.
At present a search of the comfort stops listed in the Highland Council website reveals that none are in Sutherland.
But Ms Meek said: "It doesn’t appear that Highland Council is doing very much to achieve the alternative delivery model. Even if they were working very hard, it would be impossible within the time frame.
"It would seem that their intention is to go ahead with the closures itemised in the budget."