Fordyce Maxwell: Questions have been raised about his sanity, but 
I’d back Walter every time

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LIFE can be tough for the self-taught. Usually (make that too often), hard-won experience is trumped by academic credentials and thickets of initials.

That’s why I wasn’t surprised to read that Walter Elliot, who taught himself archaeology and history during more than half a century as a fence-erector on many of the hills and fields in the Borders, has trouble with university-certified, centrally funded, professionals – particularly when he tries to convince them that with two pieces of L-shaped fencing wire as divining rods he can pinpoint as much, or more, of what is hidden underground than they can with modern archaeological technology.

Walter, now heading for 80, has written a number of books including The New Minstrelsy Of The Scottish Border and two not for the faint hearted – Selkirkshire And The Borders From The Beginning Of Time To 1603 and Selkirkshire and the Borders 1603-1815.

Psyching myself up for 1603-1815, which he kindly gave me recently I read his other present, Divining Archaeology, and found it fascinating; Hugh Miller, the self-taught 19th-century geologist who began his working life as a stonemason, kept coming to mind. It must make sense that intelligent, although not formally educated, men with their nose to the grindstone of hard work with natural materials think about what they are doing and draw conclusions.

Walter began to learn the uses of, and his powers with, divining when choosing the best spots to sink holes for the main straining posts on which his fences depend. He admits, putting it mildly, that some are sceptical: “Getting normal people to believe that I could get two pieces of L-shaped fencing wire to indicate what is under the ground stretches belief to near breaking point – and past it in many cases.”

Questions, he agrees, have been raised about his sanity by outraged professional archaeologists. As another great Borders character, the late Bill McLaren, might have described it in one of his commentaries, when Walter and the professionals lock horns there can be “a bit of argy bargy”.

Personally, I’d back Walter for the same reason as one of the professionals he managed to convert during excavations at the Roman fort of Trimontium in the shadow of the Eildons. Towards the end of work there the pro said: “Walter, you’re mad as a hatter – but always worth listening to.”

That was after Walter had convinced him that not only divining, but rabbits and moles, had a useful part to play in archeological digs. They don’t teach them that at university.

Twitter: @FordyceMaxwell