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Heritage for the Nation.

Hobbyist metal detecting in Scotland: Understanding the extent, its character and opportunities for engagement

May 20, 2020

This blog highlights results from a recent collaborative project initiated and directed by the Treasure Trove Unit and Historic Environment Scotland, with the research conducted by GUARD Archaeology Ltd.

1. About The Project

Hobbyist metal detecting as a recreational activity has the potential to make a positive contribution to our knowledge of Scotland’s past if carried out responsibly and with an awareness of laws and guidelines designed to protect and preserve our shared archaeological heritage. In recent years it has become clear that our current understanding of hobbyist metal detecting in Scotland has primarily been limited to a small number of data sources, together with more subjective anecdotal accounts prone to bias and assumption. The fundamental aim of this innovative project has been to better understand the extent and character of hobbyist metal detecting in Scotland by gathering consistent and high quality data from both the metal detecting community and heritage practitioners in Scotland to highlight current modes of practice and viewpoints. This better understanding of hobbyist metal detecting in Scotland will inform the future development of reflective and sustainable guidance and engagement strategies for both non-professionals and professionals interacting with the historic environment.

This project was commissioned and directed as a collaborative project by Historic Environment Scotland and the Treasure Trove Unit. The project and report was conducted by GUARD Archaeology Limited. A reference group composed of representatives from the metal detecting community, heritage sector and academia were involved at each stage of the process to review project methodologies and results.


Caption: Hobbyist Metal Detectors surveying Killiecrankie Battlefield under supervision from GUARD Archaeology
Copyright: GUARD Archaeology Ltd


2. Aims Of The Project

This aim of this project has been to:

  • Establish high quality data on the extent and character of hobbyist metal detecting in Scotland which does not rely on anecdotal accounts
  • Inform the future development of reflective and sustainable guidance and engagement strategies for
  • Enhance our understanding of the nature and extent of hobbyist metal detecting as a recreational activity in Scotland.
  • Engage with both non-professionals and professionals involved with hobbyist metal detecting to gather a diverse range of views and to understand better levels of cross-community engagement.
  • Promote responsible practice when interacting with the historic environment
  • Encourage positive and productive engagement between the hobbyist metal detecting community and heritage sector.


3. Brief Summary Of The Project

The project successfully engaged 166 respondents in an online anonymous questionnaire with a range of questions covering topics such as personal detail i.e. age, gender, etc., metal detecting practice, preferences and viewpoints. Furthermore 11 hobbyist metal detectorists and 20 heritage practitioners took part in a more detailed interview with the researcher which was an opportunity to discuss responses more thoroughly and enhance them with examples or experience. Data was also sourced from the Treasure Trove Unit archive and an extensive literature review to establish historical background and context.

The results produced a range of data on hobbyist metal detecting practices including population, modes of practice, geographical extent, awareness of heritage law, accessibility of information, together with viewpoints on current metal detecting and engagement with the heritage sector.

The report presents the research results in full but highlights include:

  • Establishing the number of active hobbyist metal detectorists across Scotland at approximately 520.
  • The metal detecting community is composed of approximately 87% men with a predominant age range of 45-55.
  • The average length of time participating in the hobby is 9 years with the majority of individuals metal detecting once a week.
  • Metal detecting ‘digs’ or ‘outings’ are the most common group event lasting one day and involving 20 – 40 attendees. Metal detecting rallies are larger in scale and less common covering 2 – 3 days. The largest number of people attending a rally is typically 80 – 100 people, with the largest event to date involving approx. 120 people which took in September 2015 at Kingsbarns, Fife.
  • Geographically the areas identified as having the most intensive metal detecting activity are Dumfries & Galloway, Scottish Borders, Perth & Kinross and Fife. The peak in activity in the latter two areas has been attributed to rally events rather than relating to a higher number of active individuals. High metal detecting activity in the Highlands is restricted to arable land around coastal fringes.
  • 55.4% of respondents used a hand-held GPS or GPS software to accurately record findspots.
  • The results indicate a high level of awareness of the relevant heritage legislation with ‘an interest in the past’ being cited as they main inspiration for taking up metal detecting as a hobby.
  • The results indicated willingness to work closer with the heritage sector with a high number of respondents looking to contact heritage practitioners for advice or engagement.
  • The results also raised concerns regarding issues of trust between hobbyist metal detectorists and heritage practitioners, as well as a mutual underlying misunderstanding of each group’s own aims and motivations.
  • The results also raised concerns regarding response times within the heritage sector and opportunities for interaction with heritage practitioners.


Diverse assemblage of artefacts discovered by hobbyist metal detectorists and reported during a Treasure Trove Finds Day in the Kelvingrove Museum. Copyright: Crown Office


4. Recommendations For The Future

The report has highlighted a number of recommendations for future approaches to further engagement and understanding of hobbyist metal detecting in Scotland. These recommendations include:

  • Working with partners across the heritage sector and metal detecting community to develop guidance to promote best practice and responsible hobbyist metal detecting activity when interacting with the historic environment.
  • Promote best practice for metal detecting digs and rallies with mutually approved guidance for site selection, methodologies, and reporting.
  • Encourage positive and active engagement between the heritage sector and hobbyist metal detectorists to broaden links and promote mutual respect and understanding.
  • Encourage the provision of hands-on participatory workshops for both professionals and non-professionals to promote knowledge exchange on metal detecting and archaeological practice.
  • Engage with UK-wide and European partners in research and the promotion of best practice for non-professional interactions with the historic environment.


Archaeologists from the Centre for Battlefield Archaeology discussing survey strategy with a team of local metal detectorists volunteering on the Battle of Philiphaugh Community Archaeology Project. Copyright: Centre for Battlefield Archaeology


5. Where Do We Go Now?

It is envisaged the report will only be the first step in a longer-term project to promote best practice in hobbyist metal detecting activity and to encourage positive and active engagement between the heritage sector with the aim of building stronger links and developing a secure basis of mutual respect and understanding.

The project will continue to be directed by HES and TTU and they will work, together with a reference group of key stakeholders, to realise the overall aims of this research as outlined above. The first stage will be to formulate mutually agreed draft guidance and to develop ideas for devising hands-on participatory workshops for both professionals and non-professionals to promote knowledge exchange on metal detecting and archaeological practice. A working time table is to be agreed but with an aim of draft guidance being made available for consultation in Spring 2017.

To realise the full potential of this report it will remain accessible online to encourage further research in this area. Similar projects are happening across Europe with key developments in metal detecting engagement and research. Data from this report and the project as a whole will look to contribute and draw inspiration from this exciting and innovative pan-European research network.

We would be interested to know if you are using this data for research, heritage policy or general interest. The full report can be downloaded below:

The project directors would like to thank Warren Bailie, GUARD Archaeology Ltd for his hard work and dedication to the project. Thanks also to our reference group for giving up their time and providing much appreciated comment and advice. We would also like to thank those who participated in the project and wish to share in our aspiration for engagement and ensuring the protection of our shared historic environment

Dr Natasha Ferguson, Treasure Trove Unit Officer

Kevin Munro, Historic Environment Scotland

Warren Bailie, GUARD Archaeology Ltd

January 2017