Magnet fishers recover underwater treasures from Scotland’s past

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Magnet fishers around the UK dredge up the good, the, bad, and the ugly from the bottom of canals and rivers. Looking at their finds, we can pull together a tangible timeline of history, and look at Britain’s interaction with world events. Two Scottish magnet fishers talk about their experience of the hobby.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure. It’s an old cliché, but one which could not ring truer in the murky world of magnet fishing.

Consecutive lockdowns over the last couple of years have forced people to get creative and find new ways to pass the time. So, it’s not surprising that the unique hobby of magnet fishing has recently come into its own, becoming more and more popular all the time.

The Edinburgh Magnet Fishing Facebook group was founded in 2019 by 20-year-old local man Calum Black and a couple of friends. It now has 11.6k members, making it one of the largest groups in the UK.

The sport is what it sounds like – fishers throw high-powered magnets into bodies of water and see what they can pull from the bed.

In Edinburgh, the Union Canal is a particularly popular spot. The loot there ranges from the predictable – trolleys, bikes, keys – to the unexpected.

Bullets, safes, swords, guns, and a number of other unlikely items are often pulled from the depths.

Union Canal, Edinburgh. Credit: author.

A lot of things are thrown into the canal as a way of disposing of them, in the hope that they won’t be found. But there is also a lot of history embedded deeply in the silt.

James Pearson, 45, has been magnet fishing for three years after discovering the pastime on YouTube. He is a member of the Edinburgh Magnet Fishing group and has also founded his own Musselburgh faction.

“I’m more into history, into the historic stuff than guns, knives, grenades, things like that,” he explains.

“In Edinburgh, I mean I pulled out a WWII M1 Garand rifle about six weeks ago.”

James Pearson with the M1 Garand Rifle. The semi-automatic assault rifle is originally American, used as the United States’ service rifle during WWII Credit: James Pearson.

At Fountainbridge in Edinburgh, James unearthed another unusual piece of local history from the canal.

“There used to be a rubber factory there [at Fountainbridge] that made, like, Wellington boots for the armed forces in the world wars.

“And I actually found one of the moulds they used for making the wellington boots in the canal, still with a wooden leg attached to it for holding the boot.

“That now sits in the canal museum in Linlithgow. I donated it to them.”

Not all finds are so lucky. James describes coming across a body while magnet fishing in Manchester last October:

“It’s a bit we’d never fished before… there were a few of us there, I was fishing on basically just at the side of a bridge and one of my colleagues moved along a bit.

“And unfortunately, he was the gentleman who found the poor guy.

“Yeah, it wisnae very nice, it kinda put a damper on the whole day. But it was obviously, you know, even worse for the poor gentleman who was in the water.”

The investigation into the death of the man is ongoing.

Further west, Mark McGeachin, 40, set up the Glasgow Magnet Fishing group on Facebook in 2019. The group now hosts nearly six thousand members.

“It just grabbed me, it just hooked me. It was like a magnetic pull.

I know it’s cheesy, but that was it,” he laughs.

In the video below, he explains how beneficial the group and hobby have been.


Mark is also no stranger to the perils of trawling through the city’s hidden depths.

“I’ve found ten grenades,” he says.

“Magnet fishing on Dalmarnock Bridge is now banned by Police Scotland because of me. Because the stuff we’re pulling out is kinda… it’s kinda dangerous for us and the public.

“I’ve shut down the busiest road in Glasgow ten times. They pulled me into the police station and said ‘right Mark, enough’s enough’.”

The power station at Dalmarnock was taken over by the British military during WW2. Credit: Mark McGeachin

Some of Mark’s other finds have fortunately brought him more glory than reprimand.

An Armstrong cannonball dating from 1810 takes pride of place on his windowsill. Mark estimates its worth is around £5000 because there are so few of them left.

“They were designed to sink pirate ships back in the day, and then they were used in the American Civil War. And then it ended up in the River Clyde at Dalmarnock Bridge somehow.

“That’s my trophy. I’m not being big headed, but all the magnet fishers would say that’s the find that’s been found in Scotland.”

Mark plans to donate the cannonball to a museum.

The Armstrong Cannonball. Credit: Mark Mc Geachin

So, magnet fishing is often a game of potluck, but that seems to be the draw for many.

Mark feels the hobby is a good fit for anyone who likes to get their hands dirty. One of the most important things, he stresses, is cleaning up after yourself.

“My main thing is clean your mess!

“We’ve got a group set up in the UK called Dippers and Scrappers. It lets you put on your location, where your metal is and the scrap man comes and picks it up, free of charge.”

James Pearson encourages anyone who’s interested to get involved.

“You meet a lot of good people. I’ve met a lot of good friends through the hobby. The most important things are be safe, be cautious of your surroundings. If you’re going out, preferably go out with someone else, so you’ve got a couple of people there.

“And go out and enjoy yourself. That’s basically what magnet fishing is all about.”

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