Want to make your fortune? Wade in

All that glitters might be gold in the hills of Dumfriesshire. Mark Stratton stakes his claim in the Mennock river
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The Independent Travel

The spirit of the Klondike gripped our household. On the eve of my departure to Dumfriesshire to try my hand at gold-panning, our imaginations ran amok. "We can pay off the mortgage if you strike it lucky," ventured my partner. "Perhaps I'll return with the keys to some old Scottish country pile." "What about a yacht?" And so on.

The spirit of the Klondike gripped our household. On the eve of my departure to Dumfriesshire to try my hand at gold-panning, our imaginations ran amok. "We can pay off the mortgage if you strike it lucky," ventured my partner. "Perhaps I'll return with the keys to some old Scottish country pile." "What about a yacht?" And so on.

Yet just 24 hours later, half a day spent in thigh-length waders sifting through sediment in the river Mennock's chilly flow had doused my gold fever from raging influenza to a slight snuffle. I had learnt the first rule of gold prospecting: those seeking get-rich-quick solutions need not apply. Yet I had arrived for my gold-panning day course - organised by the Museum of Lead Mining in Wanlockhead, 50 miles south of Glasgow - on the back of two fairly gilded years for Scottish gold prospecting.

In 2002, George Paterson found a 6.1g nugget in the Lowther Hills around Wanlockhead, the biggest find locally for 60 years. Last summer a prospector sold £25,000 worth of Scottish gold - panned over a number of years - to an astonished Edinburgh jeweller.

"It's 22.8 carat gold round here, one of the purest in the world," said my instructor John Whitworth, part-time prospector and full-time 24-carat character. "The jewellers like it because it's so soft and yellow." The local gold was even purer than Klondike gold, John explained as we parked by the side of the river Mennock, a few miles outside of Wanlockhead. Wedding rings made of Scottish gold are now sought after, although providing a golden hoop for your loved one used to be a strictly DIY affair here. "Some of the old duckies in the village still wear rings their husbands panned from local gold," John said.

Enough to smelt a wedding ring? That would do nicely. After all, how hard can it be to swish a bit of sediment around a pan? I soon got my answer as John provided a small test. Theoretically, once the river sediments are in your pan you winnow out the unwanted bits by employing a back-and-forth wrist movement until only the heavy minerals - such as cherry-red hematite, galena (lead ore) and alluvial gold - remain in the pan. As gold is the densest mineral in the river, any flakes of it (and that is the form in which it mostly occurs) are the last to go.

I sloshed around my pan of wet sediments with all the control of a staggering drunk. Then they appeared. One, two - no, three glimmering specks in my pan. "John, I've struck gold first time!" "Actually, Mark, I popped four of my own gold flakes in the sediment so you could see how it worked," he said. "Four?" I said. "So you mean I've lost one?"

"Aye, but don't worry, you'll get the hang of it," he replied unconcerned. Five minutes' panning and I had already slid into negative equity.

It didn't take long before I realised I wasn't going to make my fortune. Gold-panning is hard graft. John showed me how to set up a sluice box (a kind of elongated washboard) allowing the Mennock's current to whisk away unwanted particles. The sluice was fed with alluvial deposits as we dug down to the bedrock. Then, taking the sluice to the bank, we would empty the sluice contents carefully into the pan.

As soon as I began recovering my own flecks of gold, I was hooked. It's like salmon fishing: you stand around in waders waiting for the big one and drink in the scenery. And the Mennock pass, blooming with pink and purple strands of heather, was certainly special. Either side of the valley, two rounded hills gave the Freudian impression of standing amid a giant cleavage.

John, a Yorkshireman by birth, arrived here 15 years ago after reading accounts of gold-panning in a 19th-century book about the area's mineral richness - God's Treasure House in Scotland, by the Reverend Moir-Porteous. "Can you really make a living at this, John?" I asked.

"Oh aye, if you work hard enough," he said, explaining that prospectors might expect to collect a few grams of flecks (fetching around £30 per gram) per day from a "good spot".

After lunch, John showed me his cherished collection of gold, tucked away in a wooden case - glittering vials of flakes and small nuggets. Would he ever sell them? "Never," he replied. And that's why his largest ever find - a 4.8g nugget worth £600 to £700 - resides in the museum. Prospecting is all about dreams. How could he possibly sell what might turn out to be a once-in-a-lifetime find?

Contact the Museum of Lead Mining (01659 74387; www.leadminingmuseum.co.uk) about gold-panning courses which run between April and October. Full day courses, including lunch, cost £75. Half-day courses cost £35. Mark Stratton stayed in nearby Sanquhar at Blackaddie House Hotel (01659 50270), which offers b&b in a double from £35 per person. For information go to www.visitscotland.com.

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