X marks the spot: Walter Elliot on his use of ancient art of divination

“I’ve been considered nuts, speaking to two bits of wire and expecting an answer from them,” admitted local historian Walter Elliot as he published his new book on dowsing, called Divining Archaeology, “but I do get an answer from them! I’ve found so much stuff now, they cannae say I’m nuts.”

The amateur archaeologist, who lives in Selkirk, has used divining rods to locate underground objects for more than 50 years, at first hunting for buried field drains and fence posts while working as a fencing contractor.

“If you were unlucky enough to burst a drain while digging a fencepost, water would flood up and you had to bail it,” he remembered. “There would be a lot of bad language, and you lost half a day’s hard work. The divining rods were practical tools, which were able to detect soil disturbances. I just used a couple o’ bits o’ L-shaped fencing wire.

“I’ve always known about divining,” he added. “I was brought up in Ettrick and all the farms up there used divining rods, usually Y-shaped hazel twigs. When you held them over a drain, they pointed back towards your chest. It was just accepted. They didnae ken how it worked: it just worked.

“My grandfather, he had the Y-shaped hazel twigs, which he held very gently in his pinkies, and he had a cushion on his chest, because it came back with such a force it could have broken his ribs. It was phenomenal how fast that thing whipped back, as soon as he went over a drain.”

While Walter was assisting the excavation of the Roman fort of Trimontium, it dawned on him that, “a Roman defensive ditch was only an over-sized drain,” and “a pattern of former postholes could indicate a house.”

“I began to find houses, people, everything more or less – like where there was a male or female in a grave. People think you can only look for water – but you can look for everything. Divining is like x-raying the ground.”

Demonstrating to TheSouthern how he uses his divining rods, Mr Elliot explained: “When I’m looking for things, I just say, for example: ‘Where is the nearest drain?’. And the rods point that way. I’ll go over there, and the rods will cross when I walk over it.

“I can tell what is under here, by asking: ‘Is it a water pipe?’. The wires cross, so yes it is. ‘Is it iron? Is it copper? Is it plastic? The wires crossed again, so it’s plastic.”

Seeing the reporter’s amazement, he added: “I’m no’ kidding. I’m no’ just pulling your leg. I’m holding the rods very lightly and carefully. I just go the way the rods are pointing, and there it is. It’s impressive.

“The difficulty is telling what the object is, and what year it belongs to. It’s a matter of persuading folk that this is one way you can find archaeological stuff, and pinpoint them, without great expense. But archaeologists, being scientists, just simply don’t want to know. I’ve found loads of archeology in the Borders, if only I can get somebody to come to dig it and prove it.” 
Asked how he convinces people to believe him, he responded: “I don’t bother. It’s no’ a case of belief. It’s a case of: it happens. As I fencer I couldnae have cared less, I just knew it happened. And everybody did. It was just something you did. There’s no scientific explanation that I’ve been able to find. And it’s no’ a case of me trying to twiddle anything. Archaeologists, being scientists, simply don’t want to believe something they can’t explain.”

Does he think he perhaps sees external signs, like humps and bumps, and he subconsciously moves the rods?

“Most of the finds in the book, there’s nothing you can see on the ground whatsoever,” he responds. “The only explanation I can give is that, when you have a drain or a post, water comes into it and gets held there because the soil is less dense than the surrounding soil. It’s a change in soil density. I’m finding things they can’t see with aerial photography or geophysics.”

Asked what motivated him to write such a controversial book, Mr Elliot replied: “I’m getting on – I’m 77, I’ll be 78 next month, and I dinnae have much time left. I want to get it all on paper, so that somebody else can run with it. I’ve got a lot of information in my head. If you’ve got information, you’ve got to spread it about, and let others get the benefit of it. I don’t mind being wrong. But I know I’m right.”

Scottish Borders Council’s archaeologist Dr Chris Bowles cautiously supported some of Walter’s claims.

He said: “We’re excavating a bishop’s palace near Ancrum in October, and the guy who told us it was there was a diviner. We tested his claims with geophysics, and it was broadely similar to the plans he got with divining rods. That’s why I say there could be something in it: I’m 50/50 on it. The jury’s definitely out.

“If it works, it detects differences of water retention in the soil. Anything buried in the soil is going to retain water differently, like walls or ditches. The biggest issue is how diviners interpret these findings, because there’s so much buried under the ground: geological features like natural fissures can retain water, and all of that can look like archaeology. It’s great diviners are finding this stuff, but we need to test their claims physically. The problem is archaeology is expensive, so you can’t test every single one.”

Walter Elliot is giving a talk about his new book at the Selkirkshire Antiquarian Society in Selkirk Parish Church Hall at 7.30pm on Wednesday, September 19.