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Issue 36 - Scotland's very own gold rush

History & Heritage

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Scotland Magazine Issue 36
December 2007


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Scotland's very own gold rush

Nick Todd reveals the history of Scotland's gold, and where to find it today.

“There’s gold in them there hills,” was the cry in 1868 when Robert Gilchrist discovered gold at Kildonan, in the north of Scotland. He was not the first to find gold in Sutherland, though. In 1818, 50 years before, the very first discovery of a nugget of gold as heavy as 10 pennies was found. The nugget was made into a ring for the then Duke of Sutherland.

To this day, this ring is still owned by the Sutherland family.

It was, however, as early as 1239 that gold was first found in Scotland. Since then it has been regularly mined at Leadhills in Lanarkshire, and also at Wanlockhead in Dumfries and Galloway, 1531 feet above sea level, making it the highest village in Scotland.

Throughout the 16th century Scottish gold was found in abundance. Bevis Beaver, one of the most famous gold prospectors of the second half of that century, made a massive £100,000 fortune, in today’s terms amounting to several million pounds, with some of his nuggets weighing in at five to six ounces. Scottish gold was used in the crowns of James V and his second wife, Mary de Guise. It was also used for many Royal gifts and for most of the gold coins used throughout his reign and that of Mary Queen of Scots.

Royal gifts of Scottish gold have continued to this very day. Upon the opening of Scottish Parliament in 1999, the queen gifted a mace, within which is a ring of Scottish gold. Even though all gold is technically the property of the Crown, the gold itself was donated by the individual panners who had found it.

Robert Gilchrist made his discovery at Kildonan after returning home from 17 years of gold prospecting in Australia, and it was his find at Kildonan and the subsequent newspaper publicity this generated which led to the Helmsdale gold rush.

This was not, however, the first gold rush of the 19th century. Gold was found at Tyndrum, 64 miles north west of Glasgow in Perthshire. Tyndrum, famous for its unique position as a resting place and parting of the ways where the west meets the north of Scotland, was used by cattle drovers and their beasts on their way down from the Highlands to the markets in the south.

Today it remains famous as a resting place for walkers on their way to the West Highland Way.

In 1984, the precious metal was again found in abundance at Tyndrum, but up until now has not been mined. It is believed that there could be as much as 191,000 ounces of gold and 998,000 ounces of silver to be claimed by those who know what they are looking for. History, it seems, is about to repeat itself.

In Sutherland, 10 miles north west of Helmsdale, it is still possible for anybody to experience some of the frisson the panners of old must have experienced as they set off hoping to find their fortune. Lorna Sangster, owner of The Strath Ullie craft and gift shop, will supply any visitor with a taste for gold with the requisite equipment. She has been in the business for 35 years.

Explaining the possibilities, she said: “It’s a good family day out, and it’s not expensive: £3 to hire the equipment for one person for a day. The water levels are safe. It’s safe for kids to have a splash in a river with the added reason of getting a bit of gold panning.

It’s nice, clean and healthy and doesn’t hurt anybody.” Visitors can go up the Kildonan Burn, pan in the permitted areas and camp free of charge for up to two weeks per year.

Some six months after the initial find of gold at Kildonan in 1868, 600 prospectors had made the journey. No mean feat in those days as the railway went only as far as Golspie, 30 miles short of their destination. Gold fever driving them on, the last 30 miles had to be travelled on foot.

Soon the 19th century gold rush had led to two shanty towns of prospectors, the first at Baile an Or – ‘place of gold’ on the Kildonan Burn, and its sister shanty town Carn na Buth – ‘place of tents,’ a settlement of tents on the Suisgill Burn. Both of these tributaries flow into the River Helmsdale. It was not uncommon for the weekly find to be in the region of two ounces. In some cases, however, it was worth as much as 40 to 50 pennies per day, a reasonable sum at the time.

Eager to cash in on the gold finds, licences to prospect were issued at £1 per month for 40 square feet, plus a 10 per cent royalty on all finds. Put in the context of the average wage being £25, however, the cost of a licence was something to be considered seriously, and, because of this, the number of panners dropped to 200.

In June 1869, a drought led to prospectors being able to plunder the riverbed gravel, and the price of gold, which at its height had been £4.50 an ounce, dropped to £3.50. This, and coastal employment during the herring season, meant that by September 1869, the number of miners dropped back to a mere 50.

Increasingly, panners went off to sea to plunder the riches of the deep.

At midnight on 30th December 1869, all gold licences expired by decree of the Duke of Sutherland. It was all over. The two year long gold rush had seen £12,000 worth of gold meticulously picked from the rivers round the Helmsdale area.

However, alternative employment was available. Seafaring was in the blood of the folk of the Helmsdale area. The name Helmsdale itself comes from the Norse Hjalmundal or ‘Dale of the Helmet,’ evidence of the Viking marauders who made their homes up and down Scotland’s east coast.

And the history of the sea did not stop there. There was a strong herring fishing history with boats like the Zulu, Fifie and Skaffie being used up and down the east coast as inshore herring boats. Today, moored up in Helmsdale Harbour, visitors are treated to the sight of a rigged up Stroma Yole, a smaller boat of similar design, which was used for taking animals and cargo from the mainland to Stroma, as well as inshore fishing.

Moored at Helmsdale, there is soon to be an 18 foot Orkney Yole and a renovated Skaffie, testimony to the seafaring courage of the fishermen of the east coast and their hard working women, who baited the lines and carried the men down the beach to the boats to prevent their oilskins from becoming wet.

No more than a couple of hours from Inverness by car, prospective gold panners today do not have to travel the last 30 miles to the gold fields on foot.

However this is no get-rich-quick scheme, the discovery of a few small flakes of gold, a prize well worth finding because of its rarity, can mean sifting through anything up to 80lbs of gravel.

Helmsdale, famous for both gold and the silver darlings of the sea can still attract those with a spirit of adventure and a glint of gold in the corner of their eye.