Water Divining.

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.IMG_1971


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.IMG_1978

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. IMG_1976I 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.IMG_1973

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.






A Tale of Forest Music 

My friend’s husband Andrew , a flautist, was on his  way to play in a concert in Dundee. The winter light was fading fast and, as he rounded a bend and drove into an area of thick forest, he caught sight of a young deer at the side of the road. It had been hit by a car and had dragged  itself into the edge of the trees where it appeared to have died. Because of the concert Andrew hadn’t time to stop but made a mental note to check on his way home.

A few hours later, as he drove back, he saw the deer was still there and had moved  further into the forest. He pulled in and, as his headlights flashed over the animal, it moved. The deer was still alive but had little chance of surviving so he  phoned the Wildlife Protection Society who agreed to come out immediately. 

He later explained what he did next.   

“I stayed with the deer because he was still alive and quite distressed. I thought if I talked to him it might calm him. This worked and as he quietened down I had the idea of playing some music to him. I hoped it might help to soothe his pain. 

I went to the car and took my flute out of the case and then I sat down beside him in the forest and, in the darkness, I began to play quietly.  As the flute music filled the night forest it seemed to soothe him. Slowly he  lost consciousness and as I continued to play he drifted peacefully away. It was a very moving and amazing experience “

Scotland’s hidden places


Here I am, living in what was a vibrant fishing town on the wild North Sea coast in Scotland. I’ve been here now over five years and it seems that every day I learn something new about this hidden part of Scotland. People travel through Angus on their way to ‘somewhere else in Scotland’.  If only they knew what a hidden gem they are missing.

I’ve discovered it’s a place that accepts people and welcomes them as it has done over hundreds of years. On wild, wet and windy days, you can sense the history in the red sand stone walls of the houses – stone stolen over the ages by the townspeople from the ruined Abbey on the hillside. The very Abbey where the Declaration of Independence was written almost 600 years ago.

Arbroath is a town that has many unexpected and surprising qualities. Friends make the six hour train journey from London along a magnificent coastline and as they step off the train they visibly relax and start to breathe more gently. They look up at the huge skies and I can see the magic of the place begins to work on them.

It’s a magic that starts with the ever changing ocean. The majestic seas that batter the coast sending spray rattling down the windows of my cottage; crashing waves that pound over the harbour walls making the boats rock violently on their moorings.  DSC05004Without  warning, there are days where the light shimmers on a sea that is like a mill pond but, even then, the silhouette of the Bell Rock Lighthouse on the far horizon continues to flash.

Arbroath has two distinct harbours. The outer one is home to the handful of small inshore fishing boats that still work the crails and bring in the lobsters and crabs. Sadly these days the lively crustaceans are almost all whisked away by air to Spain.  The inner harbour, which fell into disrepair after the demise of the fishing industry, has been transformed with EEC support into an attractive, small marina. Here keen amateur sailors enjoy messing about on their yachts and occasionally setting sail throught the lock gates into the North Sea.

Close by on Old Shore Head, my wee  300 year old cottage with its dark blue door, nestles at the Fit o’ the Toon (Foot of the Town). This area was once a bustling community of fisher folk mending their nets and baiting lines with a thousand live mussels on every line. Now the lifeboat crew and locals still gather at the old Commercial Inn and talk about what’s going on in the town.

A mile away the magic continues with a backdrop of cliffs equal to Australia’s Great Ocean Road. The well maintained cliff path takes you close to the edge where far below you can see local fishermen perched precariously on dangerous outcrops, casting  their lines for haddock and cod.  Tales abound of smugglers, illegal immigrants living in  caves in the cliff face, beached whales, unexploded mines and even a cargo of grapefruit washed up on the rocks after a shipwreck. 

Here you can fly your kites on isolated ‘Chariot of Fire’ beaches whilst gulls swoop down to investigatetthem.  Ot yu can watch the  local wild salmon fishermen drive their small tractors to the nets they have previously ‘pegged out’ on the beaches.  As the tide goes out, these  Herculean fishermen wade into the sea and gather the still-thrashing salmon, caught in the huge anchored nets.

In the town itself the ancient abbey presides on a hillside . The sun filters through its great O shaped window; an O that has guided many storm weary sailors to safety over the years.

If this once bustling fishing town has lost its industry, it still retains a world wide reputation for a local delicacy – the Smokie.  A Smokie is a locally caught haddock, gutted and smoked according to various family recipes in the traditional Smoke House. DSC02065Believe me there is nothing to equal a warm and succulent Smokie after a day out on the cliffs. (And, for  those who enjoy battered fish and chips, there is even a local chip shop that batters the Smokie.)

Arbroath is a town of surprises. Look beyond the fish and chips, ice creams,playgrouds and charity shops and you’ll discover the local art gallery has two original Peter Brueghel paintings hanging on the walls. A reminder of  Arbroath’s former wealthy and philanthropic residents.

it’s an mazing town. Scratch the surface and there’s a wealth of experience available at every turn. Within a year. I’d learned to fly-fish with my grandson and been taught the art of water divining by Tom, a ninety-year old farmer who many years ago regularly used the skill to find water up in the hills for his sheep.

Fisherfolk, farmers and artists, all in different ways have shared their gossip, wisdom, experiences and history. with me.  One day as I cleaned the brass numbers on my blue front door a man walking his dog  greeted me with the surprising line “I was born in your wee cottage”.  It was true. His family had lived in my house for generations. He and his parents had lived on the ground floor and his grandparents on the first floor. He  remembered his grandfather playing the harmonium in the attic whilst his grandmother cooked soup in a big black cauldron over an open fire in what is now my bedroom. He looked at my small walled garden full of herbs and runner beans with a patio and sun loungers in front of the  old smoke house and said “This was a yard with an outside  ‘privy’  Down there by the smoke house is where the women prepared the nets and baited the lines with theb mussels for the men on the boats “. I was hooked.

As the winter weather continues I think about the harsh conditions endured by the families who lived here over the decades. As I close my front door I appreciate the warmth of the central heating, the glow of my living room fire and settle down to enjoy my fish supper.DSC05008


Last year was a frightening time for Charlie, a two week old seal who became separated from his mother as they swam in wild seas off the north east coast of Scotland. Finally he was washed up on the beach at Arbroathand and became stranded.

A local Arbroath artist, John Burness, was out for an early morning walk when he spotted a white ball of fur on the rocks.  At first he thought it was a small dog and, as he  cautiously approached it, the baby animal growled and then rolled over and waved a small flipper at him.  John saw it was actually a distressed baby seal.  He immediately phoned the SPCA and stayed with the pup, making sure it was safe and no marauding dogs could attack it.

He described how, while he was waiting for the rescue team to arrive, he began talking to the baby seal, reassuring it that help was on the way and that he’d soon be safe. “That’s when I gave him his name  – I decided to call him Charlie ” John said with a huge smile.

The SPCA identified Charlie as a grey seal, his white fluffy fur indicated that he was less than three weeks old because after that the white fur disappears. His mother will have become separated from him and then swum on with the other seals, leaving Charlie  behind to fend for himself in the cold waters of the North Sea.

Charlie was gathered up by an SPCA officer and driven off to their headquarters in Clackmannanshire where he was cared for in their wildlife sanctuary. Meanwhile John went back to his pottery studio in Arbroath.

2016  Update.

Charlie recovered well despite his ordeal in the treacherous North Sea and was re-united with the other seals who frequent this part of the North east coastline.