Highland Gold Rush: Striking a balance between cash and conservation

Highland gold rush

mine tunnel

The River Orchy is high, foaming and boiling through the rocks. It sprays rainbows across the rusty bracken and dark green grass of the banks.

On surrounding slopes lies the ragged lace of winter snow. Low, bright afternoon sun lights the hills of the southern Highlands. Eagles and pine martens have been seen here, and other birds of prey are common. In summer skylarks sing above the rough fields where deer roam.

On a bend in the river, half-way down the glen, holes have been drilled into the land close to a spot where a flash of quartz can sometimes be seen through the water.

Less than five miles away near Tyndrum lies the country’s first commercial gold mine for 500 years, where a shaft and spoil-heap already scar the Cononish valley.

A bitter battle was fought against the mine by some conservationists, and the next gold mine could be here in Glen Orchy.

It would be based on what mine company Scotgold call the River Vein, and, according to company boss Chris Sangster, gold mining could have a gleaming future in Scotland in a belt of rocks running through many of our most scenic areas.

The recent unexpected discovery of promising quantities of platinum in the area by Scotgold has also boosted the prospects of mine development.

Supporters believe hard-rock mining could boost the economy of the whole country and provide vital employment where steady, non-seasonal work is needed to stabilise communities and help them grow.

For people who live near the River Vein such benefits have to be weighed against the loss of their quiet Highland idyll.

Those who opposed the Cononish mine fear the attraction of jobs and money in an economic downturn could lead to permission for mines without the needs of wildlife and conservation being taken into account.

Glen Orchy is just one possibility of many, but if a gold rush happens, striking a balance in such scenic areas will be a considerable challenge.

Booted and helmeted, Sangster leads off down the adit, a level shaft with a rusting iron railway running into the side of 880m Beinn Chuirn for a kilometre above Cononish Farm. The floor is up to six inches deep in water and there are occasional showers from above. It is a constant 5C all year.

The shaft runs along a vein of quartz. The 53-year-old mining engineer and Scotgold chief executive explains this rock, produced when solid matter condensed from superheated steam from below the earth’s crust, contains the gold, and quantities of silver too.

There’s a third of an ounce of gold to every tonne of rock in the vein, and 500,000 tonnes will be dug out to provide the 150,000-200,000 ounces of gold the mine will produce.

Sangster points his torch at golden crystals in the mine roof. It’s iron pyrites, or fool’s gold. Despite the name, it is linked to the presence of gold, and often contains it.

“These dark areas are those with interesting material and probably gold in them,” says Sangster.

“The whiter the quartz, like the very white stuff on Beinn Oss just across the valley, the less gold there is. We are looking for the dirty stuff.”

We halt about 800m in and inspect the rock. There’s nothing to tell me this is anything special: the gold particles are invisible, less than a twentieth of a millimetre across.

The shaft, dug by former mine owners Fynegold in the 1990s, will be widened in the next year, and eight to ten men at a time will work here, in shifts, with about 26 underground workers in total.

In addition, Sangster tells me as we trudge back out, there will be processing staff on the surface and an administration team: 53 jobs in all, many expected to go to local people who have learned truck driving and machinery operating in quarries and forestry.

Those jobs lay at the heart of two controversial planning applications to revive the mine.

Fynegold abandoned the mine before it ever went into production as the price of gold fell in 2001 – it sank to $250 an ounce. The mining idea was revived in 2007 by Scotgold, headed by Sangster, who had moved to Comrie with his family in 1996 to work for Fynegold.

He came back to the idea as the price of gold went up – it’s now around $1600 – but he faced the fresh obstacle that it now lay within the Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, created in 2001.

Opposed by environmental and outdoor groups but heavily backed by the local community, the mine was given planning permission on his second application, with major modifications to the size and shape of the proposed tailings dam, in October last year.

Just getting it into operation will cost £20m, raised from investors including Sangster himself, with a 3% share in the Australian-based company.

The mine will start producing gold towards the end of next year (2013), with around a quarter of it produced by crushing the rocks on site and using gravity – a giant gold-panning system.

The remaining rock will be treated with chemicals in water to produce a concentrated ore to be sold for processing abroad. The chemicals used will break down and the rock powder will settle out in the tailings pond before clean water is released into the River Cononish.

Sangster plans for the gold produced on site to be sold at a premium as Scottish, for wedding rings, but there’s no romance in it for him, and he quietly crushes any ideas about excitement, prospecting, and coming up with nuggets.

It’s a business: if the numbers stack up, the resource can be extracted and sold. While he hopes the mine makes him a good living, he doesn’t expect it will make him rich.

“I am the director of a public company; my aim is to create value for my shareholders: If I couldn’t do that I wouldn’t be here,” he says.

“I am a mining engineer, I break rocks for money. Gold has no particular attraction for me at all. Gold attracts people’s imagination and their imagination is so wild that it stilts any rational view of what you are there for. It’s just a commodity.”

Outside the mine shaft when I first visit, the ground is blanketed white. Two Nissen-hut style buildings stand close by, electric light spraying out into the winter gloom.

They are filled with thousands of carefully recorded cores of rock, extracted with hollow drills from the seam the mine lies on and other potentially auriferous sites in the area.

The cores are beautiful, their polished surfaces showing the layers in the quartz and its speckles of minerals.

The place itself has romance – it conjures up a cross between the Klondike and a fairytale. It’s a work camp in winter, rough buildings, and a whipping cold wind. Welshman Jeff Smith, the head geologist, with grizzled beard, peers over his glasses by lamplight, like the chief dwarf at some Tolkien mine.

Smith, a veteran of the South African gold industry, explains how the gold-bearing rock lies in a broad band from the southern edge of the Highlands to the Great Glen in the north, with Scotgold having licences to explore from Kintyre to Pitlochry.

He says: “There could be stuff all over this area – there is lots of gold in these hills. The Dalradian gold-bearing rocks run right over to Ireland, and extend north, but beyond Pitlochy they have been destroyed by the granite.”

Also on site is Andy Riley, a local man who worked in a range of jobs before becoming a mine worker.

He believes the planned ten-year life of the mine is an underestimate: “There might be all sorts in there, it could be a lot bigger than that. We just don’t know until we dig in.”

Back at the Scotgold offices – in the former railway buildings at Tyndrum Upper Station – the unemotional Sangster, 53, does suggest something to quicken the pulse: that Scotland could now enjoy a gold rush.

He tells me gold was mined around Leadhills in the 15th century, but then richer sources of gold were found in Canada, Australia, South America and Africa. Gold mines became established in those places, along with mining skills and the processing industry.

When richer resources ran out, poorer veins – with less gold than Cononish – were exploited while the Scottish gold remained untapped.

“The old adage is that if you find gold the best place to look for more is next to it, so the discovery of these much larger deposits elsewhere meant the focus was lost in the UK. That doesn’t mean it’s not prospective for minerals.”

Sangster never uses words like chance, possible, or – heaven forefend – lucky: it’s prospective, and then assessed in numerical data.

“If you look at this belt of the same rocks in Canada you have mines, if you look in Norway you have mines, if you look in the Appalachians – you have mines.”

With some trepidation, given his dislike of the dramatic, I ask, could we get a gold rush here?

Pointing to a map of gold finds in the area, he says: “If I put that map in Tanzania and put Lake Victoria at the top of it – because there’s a big gold field at the bottom of Lake Victoria – and I produced those results, you would probably have ten companies banging on this door trying to get in, and the work would be conducted because it’s a fashionable geological address. It’s in a gold field.

“Three firms are exploring for gold in Northern Ireland in the same trend, and there is a producing gold mine there. They go to Northern Ireland because five or six years ago the Northern Ireland Geological Survey spent £6m on a survey; but now it’s the right address, it’s become more fashionable.”

“I would be surprised if we didn’t find something similar to Cononish or a number similar to Cononish in the area. There’s enough evidence to say that there is a lot of gold around here because you can find it on every damned hill.”

The exploration is continuing, with a scattering of test sites across the area, including the one at Sron Garbh, three miles north-east of the Cononish mine which found the platinum. More drilling is expected at this site, and Sangster calls it “a significant target”. Platinum is currently worth about the same per ounce as gold, but its price is much more volatile.


John Riley hopes there is a gold rush – or a platinum one, for that matter. Now in his mid-70s, he chairs the local Strathfillan Community Council and campaigned for the mine. His efforts, and those of Sangster, were documented in one of three BBC films, Tales from the National Parks, broadcast last year.

A former industrial metallurgist who latterly ran hotels, Riley says the gold mine where his son Andy works is the best possible thing for the area, bringing all-year-round jobs.

He also hopes tourism can benefit, with the community council mooting plans for a multi-million pound gold centre, showing visitors how gold is won, in Tyndrum.

If the mine’s work can be extended, if more gold or other metals can be dug in the area, and if the mining industry can take off, he’s all for it.

“It’s a way of driving the economy, they do it in Australia,” he says. “There has got to be compromise. It’s an incredible place in the Cononish glen but you only have a tiny bit of it there that’s going to be ruined for ten years and it’s going to be put back better than it was before. Who’s going to see it?

“It could happen in dozens of places across the Highlands but there are only minute in comparison to the amount of scenery we have.

“And it’s going to create great wealth for the whole country.

“Once they have established the principal of mining in this area and once they have the shares and the cash flow then they can open out in the whole area with gold and silver, and don’t forget copper which is running at an incredible price.

“If you could open that up it could drive the whole Scottish economy.”


The Glen Orchy site, just outside the national park, is Scotgold’s next best prospect. That doesn’t mean it will go ahead, or even that Scotgold will apply to mine there, but, if Sangster and Riley are correct, there will be more applications for mines in the Highlands, in much-loved landscapes like this one.

For any application from Scotgold to extend Cononish or mine elsewhere, there will be one obvious lever on planners: 50-odd jobs that could be lost if the company doesn’t have somewhere to dig.

In Glen Orchy tests have shown ores richer than Cononish, and despite the vein running under the river, Sangster, a mining engineer by trade, is confident underground mining here could be practical.

The glen, threaded by the winding single-track B8074, currently sees little other than tourist traffic.

Erica and John Kerr moved there 17 years ago, taking the chance to live in a beautiful spot while running a mail-order business, restoring an old lodge at Arichastlich, and building a house next to it. They now let out the lodge to anglers pursuing the River Orchy’s salmon.

In her light-filled kitchen with views over the hills behind to a tumbling waterfall, Erica Kerr tells me: “People come here for the wildness. It’s only an hour and a half from Glasgow and an hour and a half from the airport, yet it still has the feeling of wild country.The wildlife is superb.”

When I first suggest to her that a mine could come here, she says: “The noise of the test drilling for the past four months, with just little drills, has been quite an intrusion.

“A mine with digging would be much noisier, I think.”

On reflection, however, she says, provided Cononish boosts the economy, and environmental targets are met, she would support a mine here, even though her holiday business could be affected: “I wouldn’t stand against it because I would prefer there was local regeneration.”

Conservation body The John Muir Trust was one group which opposed the first application for a gold mine at Cononish. Policy officer Steve Turnbull says it is only “borderline happy” with the approved scheme.

The trust is concerned about further mining: “There is a heritage of mining at Cononish using existing sites and facilities.

“Anything they go for now will have greater impact if the site doesn’t have that heritage. It comes down to the location of the site, and we would see what lessons they have learned from Cononish, and see if they take a greater level of environmental responsibility.

“If they develop one site at a time there is an element of sustainability. If there were two or three developments in close proximity that would be another matter.

“The planning system is weaker outside the national park. Outside the park it might be a difficult case for us to argue against because they don’t have to be as careful to balance the environmental and economic impact.”

But Gordon Watson, director of planning for the national park, hopes the compromise plan for the Cononish mine will benefit planners everywhere, and says the fact that the first successful gold-mine application was in the park will mean further mines are likely to be environmentally friendly.

The park turned down one application on landscape grounds, and could do so because planning rules in the park say the environment comes first.

Watson says: “We have put down a marker on what is possible. Other authorities may not have the powers but hopefully we have a demonstration project that shows how it’s done in an environmentally sensitive way, and the next mine would have to follow that – Argyll and Bute, for instance would benefit, if a mine came to their area.”

Argyll and Bute planners, who have already met Sangster over prospects in their area, back this view.

The Cononish mine should start producing gold next year. As well as being sold as Scottish, Scotgold hope gold extracted by gravity at the mine – more common methods using toxic chemicals – can be sold as environmentally friendly.

Watson hopes that if nothing else such commercial factors will mean mines are keen to ensure their operations area clean and green.

He adds: “If the miners want to sell the gold as environmentally-friendly, then they should be motivated to make sure it is just that.”


Gold mines in Britain

An hour and a half west of Belfast near Omagh in County Tyrone lies the UK’s only working goldmine, in the same Dalradian rocks the Cononish mine lies in.

Mine firm Galantas digs ore from an open-cast pit, and produces a gold concentrate similar to that which will be made at Cononish. It is then sold to a gold smelter.

Galantas also produces gold on site by a giant panning system: Irish gold wedding rings sell well on the Irish-American market.

The richest seam in the British Isles has been found at Clontibret just over the border in County Monaghan, with a possible million ounces of gold. The same firm has been exploring north of the Irish border.

In Wales gold was mined in at Gwynfynydd in southern Snowdonia on a small scale from the 1830s until 1917.

The mine was reopened in1981 but production ceased in 2005. Welsh gold sells at a high premium because of its scarcity. Gold has been found at Dolaucothi in South Wales and was mined by the Romans.

Gold was found at North Molton in Devon in the 18th century but little of commercial value came from it. In Victorian times schemes were floated to mine it but, based on exaggerated findings, they collapsed.

Gold is panned for by amateurs in many areas of the Highlands, and Tyndrum’s Green Wellie store sells gold panning kits for searching local rivers, but yields are low.


Scotland’s first gold rush

Scotland first gold rush was sparked in 1868 by a report in a local newspaper that Robert Gilchrist had found gold in the strath of Kildonan in the far north east.

Gilchrist was a veteran of the Australian goldfields, given permission to pan for gold by the Duke of Sutherland.

Reports were picked up by national newspapers, and a year later 600 people were in the area seeking their fortunes.

The duke charged prospectors £12 a year per claim, and took 10% of the gold they found.

Two tented villages sprang up with a pub and other facilities in the summer of 1869
But the rush was short lived, and as pay-dirt got scarcer, the winter weather worsened and work such as the herring fisheries beckoned, prospectors headed home. As 1869 ended so did Sutherland’s gold rush.