Platinum found on `forbidden isle' of Hebrides

GEOLOGISTS HAVE found what may be the biggest thing to turn up in the Scottish Isles since the wartime boatload of liquor immortalised as Whisky Galore! It's platinum.

Deposits of one of the world's most precious metals have been discovered on Rum in the Inner Hebrides.

With platinum fetching pounds 200 an ounce - considerably more than gold - the finding could have commercial implications elsewhere in northwest Scotland, but panhandlers are advised not to rush for the ferry to Rum.

The size of the deposits detected by geologists from the Camborne School of Mines is small - in fact, invisible to the naked eye - and would not be viable to mine. However, it is an indicator of other possible deposits around the islands of Skye, Mull and far away to the west to Greenland.

Significant quantities of other platinum-related elements, including ruthenium and iridium, with gold, silver, chromium and nickel, were also discovered by the Camborne team, part of the University of Exeter. In a paper published today in the Journal of the Geological Society, the team says its observations have "exciting implications" for mineral exploration within the Inner Hebrides.

Dr Duncan Pirrie, who led the research, said Rum was an ideal laboratory. "The importance of the find from a mining point of view is that the rocks where the platinum occurs are very well exposed so it is easy to study them."

Until quite recently, Rum was known as the "forbidden isle" - first because of the exclusivity of the Bullough family who ran it as a sporting estate, and then because it was run under the former Nature Conservancy Council, whose concern was its rare plants, eagles and an indigenous breed of field mouse. Its successor, Scottish Natural Heritage (SNH), is more welcoming, and the island gets about 10,000 visitors a year.

Though only four miles across, it has mountainous pinnacles reaching more than 2,000 feet. Rum began the 19th century with a population of 400 but most were shipped to Nova Scotia to make way for sheep. Today it is home to 23 people, nearly all linked to SNH, and has just three pupils in its tiny primary school. Over the next 10 years, SNH would like to see the community grow to about 50 but there are few houses or facilities. Platinum or gold prospectors, other than scientists, would not be welcome and, anyway, there is no pub.

Mining companies will study the findings with interest but are not falling over themselves to work in the area. The seams where the platinum was found are less than 1cm thick whereas in rocks where it is commercially mined, mainly in South Africa, the seams are 10cm thick.

Graham Smith, the British Geological Survey's principal minerals geologist in Scotland, said even if richer deposits were found, companies werewary of working in environmentally sensitive areas. "The only commercial interest might be if there were offshore deposits. If there is a chance development might be opposed, they would hesitate to go in."

Scotland's only commercial gold mine, in the central Highlands, is on a "care and maintenance" basis, waiting for an increase in the gold price - currently less than pounds 170 an ounce. There is also considerable interest in gemstone prospects in the northwest, particularly diamonds and sapphires.