AS youngsters, most of us will have collected shells or stones from a beach to proudly display at home.

But for one artist from Fife, beachcombing has become a full-time job – 44-year-old Katie Fowlie can be found most days wandering up and down the beaches near her home in Lundin Links in the East Neuk of Fife. While it might appear she is simply enjoying the bracing sea air, there is a careful method at work; a skill that’s been honed over decades.

“I try to time it for when the tide is going out,” she explains, “and then walk back and forth along the tide line to see new things being revealed. You need to walk slowly, and let your eyes adjust to it because you start noticing things. Shapes that don’t appear in nature will stand out and light will make certain colours come out as well.”

It’s sea glass that Katie is searching for: tiny fragments of coloured glass that have been worn down by the sea into pebble-sized shapes. She sells them online under her "Scottish Beach Finds" page on Etsy, where they are bought by jewellers or collectors – though some particularly special pieces she keeps for herself.

Blue and green sea glass is commonplace, with orange the most valuable colour to find due to its rarity. Red and purple are sought-after too, along with multicoloured pieces (known as multis).

Katie says: “Not much orange and red glass was produced. They were almost the Rolex of glass back in the day! If you were wealthy, you might have a red hat pin or brooch but it was definitely rare.

"It used 24-carat gold in the ingredients, so it was really expensive to make, meaning less of it was created.

"We are lucky in the East Neuk because there was an old railway line along the coast, and red was used for rail lamps which would eventually end up dumped. So sometimes we will find bits of red glass, which you can tell are from old lenses or car headlights, and they are extremely sought-after, even tiny bits.

"I've been lucky enough to find some whole lenses in their original shapes. Those pieces can go for several hundred pounds.”

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The appeal for beachcombers such as Katie, however, is the historical significance of the items, as much as any monetary value. 

“The hunt doesn’t stop on the beach," she explains. "Often I’ll go home and try to figure out what the original might have been or try to date the item. Sometimes you're stumped by something and that’s why the online community is great – it’s an exchange of knowledge.”

She tries to target her searches near where old potteries or glassworks were located, and even near bridges where items would have been thrown off in lieu of using litter bins.

“They tell such stories,” Katie says, “and give you an insight into what was going on at that time.

"Black glass, which is actually a very dark purple, is really rare. It became popular after Queen Victoria wore black while in mourning. Other people then started doing the same, so hatpins, buttons, everything was black. 

“Sea glass generally gets more valuable as the years go on, as glass isn’t being made like that anymore. As the years go on, the tide makes the pieces smaller and smaller, and eventually they will wear away to nothing. If there weren’t combers rescuing these things from the sea, they would just disappear, and we wouldn’t get the insight into this particular bit of history.” 

While Katie is an expert, beachcombing is a hugely democratic hobby that is open to anyone.

“I would always say to people to give beachcombing a try,” she says. “It’s free, you are outdoors, so many of your senses are being used at the same time. It’s great to do with kids and get them in the outdoors. I would recommend it to anyone.”

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A beginner's guide to beachcombing 

Aim for stonier beaches

Not so stony that you can’t walk on it, the sweet spot is where there is "shingle" – loose pebbles that will help churn up different items from the sea.

Head out in the winter months

The tide is stronger, which brings more in from the sea, and fewer people head to the beach, giving combers more to choose from.

Only take ‘manmade’ items

Katie follows an exclusively "manmade" policy, where she only takes items that didn’t originate on the beach. It is technically illegal, under the Coastal Protection Act (1949), to take materials like pebbles and shells from public beaches.

Bring the family along

Turn it into a competition with kids to challenge them on how much they can find. Just advise them not to pick up anything that’s sharp or that they don’t recognise.

Be thorough

Walk back and forth over the same patch and approach it from different angles. Be patient: it takes time!

Pick up litter

“You find a lot of plastic on beaches,” explains Katie, “and I'd encourage everyone to bring a bag and lift some rubbish while you're there.”

If at first you don’t succeed, try again

Return to a beach at different tides to see when it is most fertile. And don’t be disheartened if you don’t find much on your first go!