I read an article in the local newspaper article about a water diviner, Tom Pate, who lived in Angus in the 1950’s. Tom was a local farmer and had been asked to use his divining skills to find an underground water resource for a house that was being built on a remote Scottish hillside.
Seventy years ago knowing a good water diviner in Scotland was as useful as having a good plumber’s mobile number. Nowadays with the advent of pipes, running water and flushing loos, this skill is less in demand but nonetheless intriguing!
My friend Jenny’s father was called Tom Pate and I casually asked if this other Tom was any relation. “Yes” she said, “He was my grand-dad and was a well-respected water diviner in this area.” She then added casually, “My Dad’s a water diviner, and so am I.”
Wow! I knew two water diviners.
I wasn’t quite sure exactly how water diviners operated but it was time to find out.
Jenny’s dad Tom was a ninety-year-old retired farmer. I’d met him on a gardening club trip to a magnificent Scottish castle. The rain had been unremitting and as we peered at flowering gems through curtains of water, we’d needed Tom’s dry sense of humour to keep us going.
Later, as we steamed in front of a log fire in a local hostelry, Tom entertained us with stories of the Glens, his animals and his farming days. But, he never mentioned his water divining skills.
He was thrilled to see the newspaper article about his dad, and offered to show me the ropes or, in this case, the twigs.
I arrived at his cottage to find him waiting with a freshly cut elm tree twig. This was shaped like a letter Y with one central branch that divided into two smaller branches.
Tom explained that water diviners hold the handles lightly in their hands with the single end of the Y pointing ahead as they walk forward. When the twig is directly over a water source this pointer moves upwards of its own accord in what can be a quite dramatic movement. I was ready for anything.
Tom held out the twig and walked slowly and deliberately along the farm track. Suddenly the twig ‘twitched’ and moved in an upward direction. I peered closely. Was he having me on? Was he moving the wood himself? But why would an old farmer try to fool me? The wood jerked sharply and forcefully and almost did a 360 degrees turn in his hands. He smiled “This is the ‘Old Way’ we farmers found water for our animals in the hills.”
There may be no shortage of the ‘wet stuff’ in Scotland but high up in the mountains there were often no water pipes and no visible drinking water for the animals. Faced with these kind of conditions, farmers would use the ‘Old Ways’ to source safe underground water for their thirsty animals. It was also a way of discovering clean drinking water for the home before the days of piped water and taps.
Now it was my turn. Tom handed me the twig which seemed just like any other small branch from a tree. I held the wood lightly and walked slowly and expectantly. There was absoutely no response. The wood was lifeless and my hands began to get cold. I walked to different areas of the track. Nothing. I was disappointed maybe I didn’t have the magic or the genes.
Tom decided that the wood, which had just been cut, could be a little too fresh and I might have better results with metal rods. He went into a barn, came out with two metal stakes like coat hanger wires and bent them at right angles. They were nothing fancy, just old stakes lying around on the farm.
I held the two rods with reverence. It felt as if I was taking part in some religious ceremony and I’d been given the role of carrying the precious relic. I walked slowly holding the rods lightly, my thumbs resting on the top to prevent any unnecessary movement.
Without warning both rods swung inwards, like magnets, pulled towards each other. I watched them cross each other and my mouth fell open in amazement. I stood stock still and then I moved forward. The rods, of their own volition, moved back to their original position. I took a step backwards to check and the rods swung towards each other. I really had located a water source. This was definitely a ‘Wow’ moment.
Tom smiled knowingly from the side of the field.
“Let’s try the wooden ball” he said producing an old one attached to a string – rather like a big conker. “This belonged to my father and it’s a different divining technique”.
He held the string up high in the air and began to swing the ball smoothly and rhythmically backwards and forwards. After half a dozen swings the ball seemed to have a mind of its own, deviated, and began to rotate in a clockwise circle. “There’s a water pipe here” said Tom.
Now it was my turn. The ball swung backwards and forwards, gradually losing height and becoming slower and slower until the movement was almost finished and the ball was about to come to rest. Then, without warning, it gathered momentum. Quietly and mysteriously it began to move in a clockwise direction. I held my breath not wanting to influence any movement. I have never held a string so still in my life. The circles increased in diameter. It seemed I had struck another water source!
I was declared a fully-fledged novice water diviner. This has been noted and I’ve thought of adding it to my CV.
There was one final twist. As we moved back to the farm-house, Tom stopped and asked me to swing the ball again. As I now expected, it ended up rotating in a clockwise direction. He then told me to stop the ball and before re-starting it place my free hand between the ground and the swinging ball. What happened was unexpected and mysterious. The ball now began to rotate in an anti-clockwise direction. I was mystified. Tom explained. “If the ball changes to an anti-clockwise direction when your hand is placed underneath (between the ball and the ground) this indicates that the water isn’t clean or safe for drinking.”
“How can you prove that?” I asked. “You’re standing over the septic tank,” he laughed.