Diane Kerr is a beachcomber from the town of Dunbar in East Lothian, Scotland. She’s been collecting since childhood and now searches for sea glass, sea pottery, sea buttons, and any interesting objects from time gone by.
Diane doesn’t have a favorite beach; she says she’s more excited to visit new beaches, as she never knows what she might find. She would love to one day find a cobalt blue bottle stopper or a glass die.
Earlier this year, Diane found a sea glass spectacle lens, something she’s hoped to discover for a long time. She says she often finds things she cannot identify: strange little glass discs and other oddly-shaped glass items. “I guess our ancestors had more uses for glass items than we do today,” she says.
Many years ago, Diane’s father found a strange item on their local beach, striated and laminated, and stone-like in density. Neither of them knew exactly what it was, but they knew it was something. Years later, Diane took it to Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, where a bemused Curator of Mammals informed her that it was a piece of Hippopotamus canine. “I was left wondering just how the tooth of a giant animal from Africa washed up on a freezing North Sea beach.”
Diane used to beachcomb with her trusty partner, an old lab collie cross named Blue. He’s now almost 18 and has lost a lot of his mobility. She misses his company on her beach walks quite a bit.
Diane has been a working artist since 2017. Her work came about as a silver lining of a very bad bout of anxiety and depression. Diane’s general practitioner told her that she should get outside and walk every day, no matter the weather. She did, and though the weather was sometimes horrible (hail, torrential rain, gale force winds), Diane says the walking did help, even if it was just the relief of coming home out of the awful weather. But something else happened: Diane started to find bits and pieces of sea glass and sea pottery on her reluctant walks, and as she recovered, those reluctant walks turned into enthusiastic hunts.
Diane had started an Etsy store a year or two prior, selling handmade sewn items, purses, and cushions, some with her own artwork. After she started hunting for sea treasures, she started drilling sea glass and sea pottery into sets of buttons and putting them on her Etsy store. But as her collection of sea finds kept growing and growing, she decided to open a second Etsy store just for her beachcombing finds, saying “It’s a real pleasure to be able to supply my finds to jewelry makers and crafters all around the world.” Recently, Diane even started a third Etsy store, selling vintage china, glass, and rare collectibles.
Diane says her artistic process is inspired by old Victorian bookplates, intricately painted with butterflies, beetles, and birds. It occurred to Diane that she could make similar art using sea glass, bottlenecks, and ceramics. She paints in oils, as she finds it easier to make tiny details and loves the richness of the colors. Diane says she is most inspired by the drama of the wild sea, saying, “It is strong and ferocious, yet it has the ability to smooth and sculpt the rubbish of our ancestors into dainty frosted fragments, fragile glimpses into past lives.”
Diane says she used to be a bit of a frustrated artist—she was good at it in school but prioritized academics, studying biology at university. She felt that she’d missed her chance, and that her work now as an adult wouldn’t be good enough to sell. She says now that “It’s such a joy to be proved wrong whenever a customer buys a card, art print, or cushion. It spurs me on to create more art and encourages me to believe in myself.”
Diane says East Lothian is a fascinating place to beachcomb, as it was once a highly volcanic region millions of years ago—these ancient volcanoes still exist today as offshore islands and rocky outcrops along the coastline. Along with the interesting range of rocks and minerals dating back 350 million years, among the gravelly beaches are fossils of crinoids, carboniferous tree bark, and corals.
Human activity in Dunbar, East Lothian dates back to the Bronze Age. In medieval times, the castle in the town’s harbor was defended by “Black Agnes,” the Countess of Dunbar, who brazenly dusted the marks of English cannonball strikes from the walls. This same castle hosted Mary Queen of Scots and her second husband the Earl of Bothwell on their honeymoon night. The castle met its demise under an attack from Oliver Cromwell, as he reduced the castle walls to the beautiful ruins that we can see today. Diane says “Such a dramatic and tempestuous history means beachcombing finds in and around Dunbar can range from fossils, agates, jasper, metal dandy buttons, old lead toys, coins, musket balls, cannon balls, sea glass, and pottery sherds.”
Because of the area’s industrial heritage (glassworks and pottery works), there are many good sea glass and sea pottery beaches throughout East Lothian. Diane says Prestonpans, a small fishing town east of Edinburgh, is a wonderful spot to hunt for fragments of the past.
If you’re in the area, Diane recommends visiting the nearby city of Edinburgh with all its shops, history, and attractions. She also recommends visiting the museum in Dunbar’s High Street dedicated to John Muir, early environmentalist and founder of the U.S. National Parks, who was born in Dunbar. In Belhaven Beach, you can now visit a newly built Surf Center and Surf School. Lastly, the annual European Stone Stacking Championship takes place in Dunbar each year. Before you leave, make sure to take a stroll on Dunbar’s clifftop promenade to see stunning coves from one of the most dramatic sandstone cliffs in Scotland. Diane says it’s spectacular in rough weather, when the sea is crashing on the rocks below.
Diane is mother to four grown-up sons and has a degree in Biological Sciences. She never imagined her career would be so creative, inspired by East Lothian’s beaches, a never-ending source of objects ranging from lovely pieces of vintage sea glass to agates and fossils. See more of Diane’s art and beachcombing finds at NautilusButNice.etsy.com.
All images © Diane Kerr. All rights reserved.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine March/April 2023 issue.