An expert guide to gold mining in Scotland
Dr Neil Clark explores the history of gold mining in Scotland, from prehistory through to the Fife gold rush of 1852.
In 2014 Scotland’s oldest public museum, The Hunterian at the University of Glasgow, held an exhibition celebrating one of Scotland’s valuable natural resources: gold. The exhibition examined everything from the natural history of gold, its prehistory in Scotland, medieval history, the two Scottish gold rushes, as well as the more recent commercial and leisure exploitation in the rolling hills of the Southern Uplands, the Trossachs and the Northern Highlands.
Gold has been an important part of Scottish heritage for millennia and the wide-ranging exhibition took a comprehensive look at gold in Scotland and included many glittering objects from major public museums and private collections around Britain. From prehistoric ornaments, including the largest known ancient hoard of torcs from the Iron Age re-assembled for the first time since its discovery 150 years ago, to treasures associated with Robert the Bruce, Mary Queen of Scots, Charles I and Queen Victoria, the story of Scotland’s developing wealth was told through these alluring objects.
The medieval mace of the University of Glasgow accompanies the collar of the Deacon of the Incorporation of Goldsmiths and forms links to the goldsmiths working in Scotland today.
Medieval gold mines of Crawford Muir
Lead, and not gold, was what brought people to mine in Crawford Muir, South Lanarkshire. Although they were mining for lead, it is inconceivable that they would not be aware of the existence of gold as a by-product of their mining.
According to the Scottish philosopher, Hector Boece (1465–1536), gold mines, diamonds, rubies and ‘hyacinths’ (sapphires) were discovered in Clydesdale during the reign of King James IV.
This claim cannot be substantiated as, although rubies and sapphires have since been found elsewhere in Scotland, and perhaps soon diamonds, only gold is known to have been found in Clydesdale.
In 1502, a nugget reputed to be 2lbs 3oz (about 840g) was found in the area close to Crawford and mining began in earnest. There may have been over 300 miners washing the gold in Crawford Muir during the reign of James IV. After the death of King James IV at the battle of Flodden in 1513, the search for gold ceased, but it soon resumed in 1515. It was recorded in that year that 100 crowns in weight of gold was mined (340 grams).
Abraham Grey, a Dutchman, went to Scotland seeking his fortune in the goldfields of Wanlockhead. Nicknamed ‘Grey Beard’ due to his unusual beard that was long enough to wrap around his waist, Abraham Grey found enough gold to make a basin that could hold 4.5 litres. This basin was later used during a royal reception for the king of France, filled to the brim with Scottish gold coins to represent the “fruits” of the nation.
The mining was eventually taken over by James V (1512-1542) who granted a lease to work the mines of Crawford Muir to German miners, who had greater skills and more experience, in 1526.
It has been said that the Germans extracted over £100,000 (about £65 million today) worth of gold in English money and in some places found nuggets weighing over 30oz (0.933 kg).
In the late 1500s Cornelius Devosse, a German lapidary and artist was granted permission, on the recommendation of Queen Elizabeth I of England, to search for a gold vein at the village of Crawfordjohn. Devosse was appointed the Superior of his Majesties gold mines, with the authority to punish anyone misappropriating gold in Scotland. He was bound to deliver all gold and silver found by him to King James VI’s mint in Edinburgh. After thirty days he was able to deliver 3.6 kgs of gold which was turned into coins.
An experienced mineral prospector, George Bowes, later obtained a grant from James VI to mine gold in Scotland. He did not care for his workmen very well. They lived in flimsy tents and suffered greatly from unusually bad weather and scurvy. Bowes discovered a small vein rich in gold in the Wanlockhead area, but he swore his men to secrecy and covered it up before a visit south. He told Queen Elizabeth of his discovery but died, without divulging its location, whilst visiting a mine in northern England.
George Bowes’s workmen came in contact with workers from Beavis Bulmer’s mining crew who were working in the same area, so it is perhaps not surprising that Bowes wished his discovery kept secret. Bulmer was a skilled mining engineer who arrived in Scotland in 1578 and made a fortune digging the gold from the Leadhills. It has been said that he made over £100,000 from his prospecting, but died in poverty. His hospitality and good nature, giving his wealth to all who asked, is what is thought to have contributed to his impoverished state at the end of his life.
Gold rush fever
Britain’s only, but short-lived, gold rushes in the 19th century were in Scotland, one in Fife and the other in Sutherland. In 1852, the discovery of gold in Fife sparked a rush on home territory. With gold valued at £4 an ounce and a skilled worker earning less than £50 a year, the prospect of making a year’s wages in less than a month inspired thousands of labourers to head for the hills around Auchtermuchty and Kinnesswood. Unfortunately, most had no clue how to extract gold nor what natural gold looked like. Their sacks full of gold glinting minerals mostly turned out to be pyrite (fools gold – also known as 'fairy balls' by local quarrymen). The Fife episode became known as the 'Fools’ gold rush' and was soon forgotten. Ironically, gold has been found in the area by more experienced prospectors since the 1990s.
In 1868, when Robert Gilchrist had returned from prospecting in Australia and New Zealand to his native Sutherlandshire, he looked for gold in the hills near Helmsdale. Granted permission by the Duke of Sutherland, he found it around the Kildonan Burn. As a result 180 people petitioned the Duke asking permission for the local community to prospect in the hills around the Kildonan. Soon, prospectors from all over the world started arriving in Helmsdale to visit the more famous gold diggings of Kildonan, walking the nine miles from Helmsdale each day.
Two townships were eventually erected for the prospectors: Baile an Or (Town of Gold) at the foot of the Kildonan and Carn nam Buth (the Rock Shop) at the foot of the Suisgiull. The Kildonan gold rush was certainly more successful than its counterpart in Fife but the cold, wet weather, the licence fee and the cost of tools and accommodation resulted in such hardship that gold diggings ceased after a year on 1 January, 1870. It is unclear exactly how much gold the prospectors recovered as not all their finds were declared, but it has been estimated that over 400kg of gold was taken during the year – a tiny fraction of the much bigger Australian and American rushes.
Today, if you feel inspired, it is still possible to emulate past prospectors by gold panning in the Kildonan burn, thanks to the Sutherland Estates, who allow panning for a few days at a time. Panning is also possible on the Mennock Water in the Leadhills, with a Buccleuch Estate licence that can be purchased from the Museum of Lead Mining at Wanlockhead.