Travel: Great Scot - it's gold!

If you're looking for Scotland's elusive nuggets, head for Dumfries and ask a London policeman, says Kevin Pilley
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The Independent Travel
A former Royal bodyguard struck gold when he retired to Dumfriesshire. He struck it in the river at the bottom of his garden. Galloway may seem an unusual place to have a gold rush but that is what happened nine years ago when Charlie Smart gave up his job in royal protection and personal escort and moved up to Scotland. "We were on holiday and passed this cottage with a 'For Sale' sign outside and we just knew it was meant to be," said Charlie, who worked for 20 years as a police motorcyclist before joining the Royal household security team. He watched me struggle into a pair of wellies.

"Within a few days of getting everything sorted out I was paddling down the river which the cottage backs on to - I kicked up a stone and saw these tiny sparkling flickers. I went back to the house, found a kitchen colander and improvised a sieve. I then took the little splinters to a local jeweller and he confirmed they were solid gold. And a nice supplement to my pension."

Charlie has now discovered enough gold to make an anniversary ring for his wife. It has also given him an unusual retirement hobby. He has become one of the country's few full-time gold prospectors as well as the headmaster of the country's first, and so far only, gold panning school. The Lead- Mining Museum at Wanlockhead in Dumfriesshire has also become the headquarters of the British Gold-panning Association. On 29 and 30 May it will be staging the Hunter Wellies British and Scottish Gold-panning championships.

Charlie held out the armholes of an all-in-one waterproof jump suit. "I get enquiries from all over the place," he told me. Charlie was born in Bow in London's East End, the son of an engineer and French polisher. He discovered Scotland when competing in the police pistol championships in Hamilton and set his heart on retiring there. "People come up particularly to go panning. I'm a sort of gold ghillie!"

Charlie takes it in turns to teach panning with his friends Ray Hood, Mick Gossage and Vince Thirkettle. He charges pounds 60 a day for tuition, including equipment and a lunch, or pounds 35 for a half-day. There is also an additional pounds 3.50 charge for a gold-panning licence. Without this, taking gold from the water would be stealing - gold dust is worth about pounds 6.50 a gram. The stream and surrounding hills from which the gold is washed down is owned by the Duke of Buccleuch and Queensbury who lives nearby in the 330-year- old Drumlanrig Castle.

Gold panning pupils stay at the Blackaddie Hotel, a former rectory dating back to the fifteenth century when it was the home of Provost Johnson immortalised by Burns as "Auld Clackleith".

"I provide the wellies or waders and all the kit and off we go. We usually find something. But no more than a pipette full. But searching for gold gets in the bloodstream quick enough. You always feel that under the next rock or at the bottom of the next mountain of silt you will find that nugget that will make your fortune. It's addictive. Business hasn't been affected by the National Lottery. People are still keen to have a bash. But you've got to put your back into it. It's not a holiday!"

There has always been plenty of gold in Britain. King James IV's crown contains gold found in Scotland. The Romans dug complex systems of aqueducts and reservoir tanks to separate gold particles from the quartz laden ore. British gold was sent to Lyon to mint coins for the Roman Empire. Gold deposits have also been found regularly at the Pope's Nose site in Truro, Cornwall.

The Galloway and Dumfriesshire area has many claims to fame. Charlie filled me in as I shook my griddle. "It boasts Britain's highest village in Wanlockhead at 1,409ft (429m) - so we have the best views in the country. The world's first savings bank was founded by the Rev Henry Duncan at Ruthwell in 1810; the world's first steam boat set sail on Dalswinton Loch in 1788 with Burns on board. Burns also lived and wrote Tam o' Shanter and Auld Lang Syne in the area. Unusual things have always happened here."

Dumfries and Galloway also claims to be the birthplace of the first pedal bicycle ("Macmillan, the devil on wheels" rode a bike in 1840) and the first-ever milking machine. Sanquhar has the oldest working post office in the country and Scotland's first Christian church, Candida Casa, is at Whithorn. The area has one of the country's few Buddhist temples at Eskdalemuir; the oldest working theatre and saw the first operation performed under anaesthetic in 1876 as well as the last public execution in Scotland. Upper Nithsdale also has Scotland's oldest curling team (of which Charlie is a member). All in all Charlie is a mine of tourism-related trivia.

I continued my back-breaking panning. The history lesson continued in mid-stream.

"The region has had plenty of firsts. So why not the first outbreak of gold fever! John Buchan, Carlyle, The Admirable Crichton, Scott, J M Barrie, Gavin Maxwell , Hugh MacDiarmid, Thomas Telford, Neil Armstrong and even the lookout on the Titanic - they all have connections with the area. But I've made it famous for its gold! Previously all the area had been responsible for providing was the granite used in the Thames Embankment and the Thames Barrier."

Meanwhile, I was still sieving away like a madman. The secret of gold panning is in the wrist action and the leg splay. First-timers learn the basics with a piece of lead shot and an ordinary plastic kitchen colander. "It's not very high tech," says Charlie, who uses a long tube with a door handle rivetted to its top to suck up the bottom of the riverbed. "The only drawback is that once you have mastered the knack of gold panning there's no excuse to get out of the washing up. Gold panners are natural washers up. Panning is a fairly unusual hobby for anyone any age. When I ask people if they fancy doing a spot of gold prospecting back at my house they think I am leading them up the garden path."

"Gold! Gold!" I screamed as two tiny golden nuggets twinkled amid the sludgy silt in my colander. "I'm rich! Rich, d'you hear!" My jubilation echoed around the hills. Charlie smiled. "Hardly," said the former Royal bodyguard. "But it's a start."

GOLD PANNING

WHERE TO STAY

Blackaddie House Hotel, Sanquhar, Dumfriesshire DG4 6JJ (tel/fax: 01659 50270).

FURTHER INFORMATION

Contact the Gold-panning Association (tel: 01659 74387).

Dumfries and Galloway Tourist Board is based at Campbell House, Bankhead Road, Dumfries DG1 4TH (tel: 01387 245550).

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