IT is 10.30am on a Sunday and in a newly-turned potato field, somewhere in East Lothian – exact co-ordinates are prohibited from being made public – a handful of middle-aged folk, dressed in camouflage jackets, tough outdoor anoraks and thick-soled boots, are patiently trudging up and down the ploughed earth.
Their heads are bowed, scanning the ground.
As they carry on their plodding dance across clods of earth, they hold in one hand a short-handled spade, in the other a peculiar instrument which is swept across the ground all the while emitting strange whistles and buzzes, burbles and squeaks.
Metal detecting is like a bizarre elemental courting ritual between human and earth, but one which can pay off handsomely if a particular buzz signifies something more interesting than a ringpull buried in the mud.
Detectorists have been with us for a long time. Yet while their hobby has been regarded as the preserve of geeks or history boffins, it has of late been getting a fillip. Comic actor Mackenzie Crook poked gentle fun at the obsession that a hoard of treasure could be just round the corner or in the next field in BBC show Detectorists, while in real life, a haul of Viking artefacts was found by detectorist Derek McLennan in Dumfries and Galloway last month. They could be worth a seven-figure sum.
Such treasure, though, is rare, admits Alastair Hacket of the Scottish Detector Club, which goes out every two weeks and meets in Edinburgh once a month. The retired local government official was gripped by detectoring 20 years ago even though, he laughs, “you’re more likely to find rubbish than anything else.
“Rusty nails, old cans, anything iron which is the most common contaminant in the ground . . . 99 per cent of what you dig up is worthless, but it’s the thought that the next time there might be something interesting, a medieval silver coin, a Roman brooch, that keeps you going.
“Primarily we search places which have a history of occupation or settlement. The field we’re in today, the club has been coming here for 30 years and we’re still finding things.”
He adds: “I think a lot of people come into it with treasure on their minds, but if you’re looking for gold you’re going to be sorely disappointed. Statistically you have more chance of winning the Lottery.”
Despite that, Alastair has had some significant finds. In England he discovered rare first century Romano-British brooches. Then there was a “small hoard” of late Bronze Age axe heads. “That was on an archaeological dig where we’d been asked to help out,” he says. “I was the first person to touch them in nearly 3000 years. It sent a chill down my spine.”
If detecting is a solitary pursuit while the headphones are on, it is, says Alastair, very sociable. “We have meetings where we discuss our finds and some people are incredibly knowledgeable about certain periods of history. And we get together to go detectoring once a fortnight, though members will do it themselves in between. It is mostly men, though we have some women members. I don’t know why that it is. Something about it must just appeal to men more.”
Perhaps it’s the gadgetry. A detector is the ultimate in bells and whistles technology. Prices can range from £100 and up – and the more sophisticated the detector (think GPS, pinpoint accuracy, depth measures, digital read-outs) the more costly. “Not that it means you find more,” laughs Martin Loftus, who’s been searching for treasure for five years. “You’ve still got to put in the legwork and know which noises actually might mean something. But it’s a bit like cars, you always covet the next thing.”
The retired BT electrical expert got into the game with cousin James McGuire – who later discovers an 1836 silver groat with William IV’s head, barely damaged by age. Turns out that’s because silver doesn’t degrade in the acidic soil in the same way as copper.
“I’ve always been interested in history,” says Martin. “I used to go fossil hunting, so it was an obvious thing. But for me the biggest pleasure is the research. Finding out what happened in the places we search. I know much more about Scottish history now, battles, where people used to live, that sort of thing.
“It once took me three days to find out about a coin I found. It was Polish from 1794. Not worth anything, but fascinating.”
One of the few women members is Maureen Bruce. She is ploughing her own furrow when she stops to dig. Another button. “That’s what it’s all about,” she shrugs. “We do really all want to find something great, and although we’re supportive of each other, when someone does find something, part of you is kicking yourself that it’s not you.”
She laughs loudly, the sound breaking the studied silence. Maureen got into detectoring four years ago after buying her husband a metal detector. He took it out once, found 10p and retired. But she was bitten by the bug.
Maureen’s best find to date has been a William Lyon half coin – one which was split as whoever owned it had run out of change. “There’s only been about two of them found, it’s extremely rare,” she beams.
She admits that a lot of the time she’s busy “watching the sky and the birds, enjoying nature”, but detectoring has got her hooked.
“I don’t know why it is – maybe it’s the camouflage gear,” she laughs.
Then her headphones are put back in place and the sweeping begins again.
•For more information on the club visit www.scottishdetectorclub.com
It’s not always finders keepers
ANYTHING found in the ground legally belongs to the Crown, though in practice it’s only finds of archaeological or historical importance which are usually claimed by Treasure Trove Scotland on the Crown’s behalf.
However, even if it is just “another Roman brooch” or medieval penny, every find might be important in terms of what it can tell historians, given where it was found and how old it is. So with the exception of modern objects and coins which date after 1707 – unless they’re part of a larger hoard – it’s important to record every artefact taken from the ground.
If it’s a coin find, once they’re recorded by Treasure Trove they are returned to the finder – unless they are particularly rare.
With any finds deemed important to the nation, the Treasure Trove Unit looks at recent sales and auctions of similar objects to determine a market value. Any reward is then based on the sum it would cost to buy an equivalent object in the antiquities market.