What’s the pull? Magnet fishing proves a catch in pandemic Scotland – a photo essay

It doesn’t take long to see the appeal of casting a high-powered magnet into a canal to find anything from scrap metal and weaponry, to unexploded bombs and historical artefacts.

For 13-year-old Cole Gartshore from Kirkintilloch, the mystery factor is so appealing that he has been out on the water with his dad most weekends since the pandemic began.

“You don’t know what you’ll get. It’s a mystery, it’s like gambling but you don’t spend money,” he says with a gleaming smile.

Although not your average hobby, magnet fishing has seen a surge in interest over the last year. Catchily described as a cross between metal detecting and environmentalism, groups have popped up across the country to partake in this unlikely pastime, whiling away the weekends with ropes, magnets and grappling hooks.

At one event in Clydebank, il Glasgow Magnet Fishing group meets to rid the water of trolleys that have been stolen from the shopping centre and dumped in the Forth and Clyde Canal.

The group’s founder, Mark McGeachin, has found a machete, a samurai sword, a round of ammunition, drug scales and a knife at another canal earlier in the week.

He says: “We hate getting shopping trolleys, there’s no fun in it. We’ve been there and done that. We go out looking for treasure.”

In previous outings they’ve uncovered a 16th-century cannonball, guns, an unexploded artillery shell and a grenade – the latter leading to a bridge closure and requiring a bomb disposal squad to be called in.

But he adds: “Over the past two years I’ve found dead fish in trolleys a dozen times, that doesn’t sit nice with me.”

That day, the group pulled close to 50 trolleys from the water, to be collected through an initiative called Trolleywise or picked up by a scrap removal service (the proceeds are donated to charity).

As important as the environmental aspect is for Mark, his passion goes deeper than that. He says: “I didn’t have any friends before this, I distanced myself from them because I didn’t like the way their lives were going.

“Now, I’ve got this big group of friends, I’ve got my business, my mental health … I wake up in the morning with a smile on my face and I’ve got a reason to live, and it’s all because of flinging a magnet in the water – it’s unbelievable.

“It’s comradeship, I see half of these people as my family, I couldn’t see myself living without them,” he adds.

For Clare Slater, a support worker, the wellbeing and community aspects are instrumental to the activity’s soaring popularity.

She says: “For a lot of people it’s their only opportunity to socialise and get out. It does feel like a bit of a family – everyone is so nice and friendly, everybody’s there for each other and supporting each other.

“A lot of people have been struggling with their mental health during lockdown, so it’s been good to get the opportunity to see other people and get out for some fresh air, and just get away from the four walls.

“It’s good for the environment, it’s good for the local communities, and hopefully we can get a chance to have a bit of fun along the way as well.”

Joy Miller, in her 50s, suffers from severe anxiety, depression and panic attacks. Magnet fishing is a chance for her to do something positive for the planet her grandkids will inherit.

“I love it, it’s so therapeutic. It’s done wonders for me – otherwise I’d just be in my house sitting in the corner crying," lei dice.

“I get therapy knowing I’m cleaning the environment. We used to have great fishing in Scotland on the canals, and it’s not like that now because of all the shopping trolleys, bikes and scooters.”.

It’s a family activity, too – Cole and his dad revel in having a hobby that helps to clean up the water and save wildlife.

On a sunny spring morning under the shadow of the Erskine Bridge on the outskirts of Glasgow, it’s mainly mundane objects that the two have pulled out the water: the end of a shovel; a bracket; an old motor engine; and a road sign. Then, a few hours in, Cole pulls out the slide part from a replica handgun – by far the most exciting find of the day. His dad, Alec, often finds knives.

He says: “I found one last week. It was the last cast in before everyone tidied up their mess – I pulled out a flick knife. I was in utter shock.

“I found a gun at Dalmarnock Bridge once and nearly passed out – I was that excited about it,” he adds – with a face that says he still can’t quite believe it.

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