IT is an ancient practice which has been derided by some as “witchcraft” but praised by others as a green and sustainable technology.

For centuries, dowsers have used twigs or L-shaped metal rods to search for underground water. The idea is that the rods move in response to hidden objects.

And despite the huge range of modern techniques on offer, it has emerged that major utility companies, including Scottish Water, are still using the practice as part of their work to locate pipes and underground water.

Some say Scottish Water's stance on using the 'debunked' art of dowsing to find underground pipes is defending the indefensible.

The Herald:

Sally Le Page, an evolutionary biologist at Oxford University, says the water company's use of rods and divination to establish the presence of water and pipes is "unjustified" because "it doesn't work".

But dowsers are claim they have been the victim of a “modern day witch-hunt” – and companies should actually make more use of the skill.

Fay Palmer, of the British Society of Dowsers, said: “I think water companies should be applauded for using dowsers, because it is a green cheap sustainable technology.

"Dowsing in the right hands can be very accurate. You can walk along the pipe and find the leak in seconds. It should be used more.

“Because of the connotations, coming out of the 1700s and the Witchcraft Act, dowsing was seen as agnostic practice and it was decreed to be heretical. After that you couldn’t do it.  Before that there were big manuals on how to detect mines. 

“After a church decree you could only do it if you were an unlettered man, so you had to be thick, ignorant or poor. You couldn’t write down how to do it, you couldn’t teach people how to do it. You could only do it for water and god forbid if you did it if you were a woman.

“So that reputation of it being heretical witchcraft is what you are now hearing again, like a modern day witch-hunt, it’s that dogma.

"It’s now about getting over people’s dogma that there is something here. It should be more used.”

The Herald:

The practice of dowsing dates from medieval times, with people holding the rods as they walk over land. Any movement in the rods is said to signal water underground. 

Most sceptics believe the explanation of William Carpenter, who in 1852 said that the rod moves due to involuntary motor behaviour, described as ideomotor action. 

His view was that muscle movements caused by subconscious brain activity make anything handheld move, although it looks and feels as if the movements are involuntary.

The same phenomenon is said to lie behind movements of objects on a Ouija board.

A double-blind test of dowsers’ skills in the late 1980s concluded that 37 out of 43 could not find a hidden pipe.

The results from the successful six were said to be better than chance, resulting in the experimenters’ conclusion that some dowsers “in particular tasks, showed an extraordinarily high rate of success”. 

But they further pointed out that the six “good” dowsers did not perform any better than chance in separate tests.

Sally Le Page, an evolutionary biologist at Oxford University, discovered which companies were still dowsing after an engineer used the technique at her parents' house.

She asked the water companies if they used dowsing after her parents told her they had seen an engineer from Severn Trent “walking around holding two bent tent pegs to locate a pipe” in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Several major water firms across the UK said they still used the practice. Only Wessex Water and Northern Ireland Water said they did not use divining rods.

“You could just laugh this off,” Mr Le Page said. “Except if they get it wrong, that could mean the difference between an entire town having safe drinking water or not.

“If they use divining rods to decide that there isn’t a pipe underneath and it’s safe to dig there, they could rupture the mains water supply for thousands of people.”

The Herald:

Scottish Water has defended its use of dowsing, even although it is understood that new technology is used the vast majority of the time.

A spokesman said:  “Some of our water operatives use this as one way of establishing the presence of water and pipes. However, it is a very small part of the range of equipment we use for this purpose and would never be the only method.

“We use modern technology such as ground microphones, correlators, metal detectors and other devices to pinpoint the exact location of underground assets and leaks.”

Ms Palmer insisted it was an effective technique.

“I nearly died when it was described as witchcraft. It does work," she said.

The Herald:

Ms Palmer said dowsing “appears to use the “subliminal subconscious mind, not the conscious”.

“What trained dowsers are able to do is pick up on clues, changes to partly electromagnetic fields, and partly mindfields that extend beyond the body,” she said. 

“Because your subliminal subconscious mind does not use language, the only thing it can do is to give you a small muscular twitch, to tell you you are over it and hence the dowsing tool moves to tell you your body has picked up the presence of the leak.”

But the Humanist Society Scotland criticised Scottish Water for continuing to use the technique, saying it had been completely debunked by scientific research.

Campaigns Manager Fraser Sutherland said: “Scottish Water’s bill-payers will be completely mystified as to the company being spellbound to medieval magic when diagnosing faults in the water network."

“Despite scientific testing showing that dowsing is completely and unequivocally no better than pure chance, Scottish Water are deploying it in serious work situations.

“Scotland’s biggest and publicly owned utility provider being enthralled to bunkum is utterly depressing.

"The fact bill-payer funded time on jobs is being spent waving a stick about aimlessly will do nothing for its reputation from customers who want a well-maintained and working service.”