As a late afternoon mist rolls in over hills carpeted with purple heather, Alan Popovich stands knee-deep in a fast-flowing river, weary but undaunted despite searching all day in the water without success.
“I guarantee there is gold here,” Popovich says as he uses a hand pump to siphon water and gravel from a ditch in the riverbed, sift it in a sluice, and then pan for a metal that has been sought in Scotland for more than 4,000 years.
A few minutes later, in a green pan tilted slightly to one side, a few shiny specks of gold glint in the fading sunlight from a mix of drab fragments of rock. “There’s gold, you can see it, right there,” he exclaims with a mixture of elation and relief.
In this beautiful and remote valley about an hour south of Glasgow, a sprawling medley of tents, trailer vehicles and campfires is testament to a surge in interest in the age-old quest for gold. Not only do many Britons have more free time because they are on furlough, the coronavirus pandemic has also made outdoor pastimes more attractive.
At the same time, the price of gold has surged close to £1530 an ounce, and interest in it has also been propelled by the news that Scotland’s first commercial gold mine plans to start production in November.
“I never thought in a million years I would be in a river in Scotland panning for gold,” says Popovich, who works for a pharmaceutical distribution company. He is originally from Detroit but has lived for 19 years in Scotland. But now on furlough and with time on his hands, it seemed the obvious thing to do.
“What else am I going to do? Go to the pub? I don’t think so. I don’t even want to go to a restaurant because of Covid,” he says, as he reflects on how he came to pitch a small tent in a stretch of countryside where getting phone signal requires climbing to the top of a hill.
Along the riverbank, Suzie McGraw, who is from Glasgow and who has been a regular visitor to the area since childhood, says she has never seen as many people there as she has this year. Sitting next to her around a campfire, Mat White, from Leeds in England, says 33 people joined a Facebook page about gold panning in one evening. “There’s a gold rush,” he says. “It’s crazy.”
If so, it wouldn’t be the first. Scotland experienced at least two documented 19th-century gold rushes after news of discoveries in California caused a global sensation. But rather than riches, those bursts of interest mostly delivered disappointment.
One, the Sutherland rush in 1868 and 1869 in the Scottish Highlands, yielded modest quantities of gold. But during a stampede to Kinnesswood, in eastern Scotland, from May to July 1852, around 2,000 people hoping to find a life-changing fortune discovered only “fool’s gold” – valueless iron pyrites.
“It shows you the power back then, as sometimes today, of gold fever and that people will throw caution to the wind where there is a possibility of easy profit,” says Douglas Speirs, archaeologist for Fife County, near Kinnesswood.
Nobody in the hills near Wanlockhead is expecting to get rich, however. While 1 gram of gold is worth around £50, that would be a good find for a day. The ambition of most is to collect enough tiny fragments — or “pickers”, in panning jargon — to create a ring for a loved one.
Serious money may well be made around 100 miles to the north, near the village of Tyndrum, where there really is gold in the imposing hills – or braes, as they are called in Scottish. The metal comes from the Dalradian rock formation that runs east from Scandinavia beneath Scotland and Northern Ireland and on to Newfoundland.
“People have been out panning in the streams and burns and glens for centuries, and there have always been nuggets found, and every year or two, someone pops up with a massive nugget of gold,” says Richard Gray, chief executive of Scotgold Resources, which is developing the Cononish mine near Tyndrum. “But it’s down to the likes of us to get this particular deposit well defined.”
Although by international standards this is a tiny mine, Gray, who has worked in much bigger ventures around the world, still thinks he has, literally, struck gold. He says his aim is to produce small quantities 12,000 ounces a year initially, then double that – but of a very high grade. And because it is Scottish, and so in short supply, it sells at a premium.
“We are a niche player, and we are going to make very good money out of it,” he says, adding that, after he produced a small quantity as a prototype in 2016, jewellers lined up to take more.
To reach the mine, visitors have to dodge grazing cattle and navigate a narrow road that cuts through an imposing glen skirting a lively river. A processing facility is being built near a tunnel that has been drilled and blasted almost 2,300ft into the hillside.
The mine manager, Marshall Badza, who has worked on many bigger mines, including in his native Zimbabwe, leads the way through the mine, wading through muddy puddles, the pitch dark illuminated by torches and the lights of mine vehicles ferrying rock to the exit.
The mine, which is in a national park, won approval only after a tussle with environmental groups. The upshot is that production of gold here will not involve cyanide, which is widely used elsewhere in processing but still raises environmental concerns.
Instead, the gold will be extracted through a technology known as gravity separation, but this technique will work on only around one-quarter of the gold mined from Cononish, while the rest will be processed outside Scotland.
After their work is done, the engineers must leave the national park in pretty much the same environmental condition in which they found it. Badza points his torch to an area that will eventually be turned into a bat colony.
“It’s not just a gold project. It is breaking ground in many ways. It’s actually making history,” he says. “If we don’t get it right, it could be the end of gold mining in Scotland, the first and last commercial gold mine.”
The hope, however, is that it will instead prompt other mining ventures, bolstering the economy. Back in Wanlockhead, the amateur gold panners have almost no technology. They rely on instinct and on old-fashioned techniques.
Standing in the river sipping a cup of tea, Dougie Brown, who lives near Edinburgh, describes the joy of suddenly seeing “a wee bit of gold hitting the top of a sluice”. But, he adds, patience is crucial. “If you are really looking for it, you never find it,” he says. “But it will come to you.
“You are never going to be a millionaire,” admits Brown, a data engineer who makes a hobby of prospecting. “I think a lot of people romanticise this and think they are going to come and find ounces of gold, but that’s not the reality.”
The limit of his ambition is to recover enough gold to make two rings, including one for his granddaughter, he says, because although panning “is not my retirement fund, it will definitely be my retirement activity”.
And while digging in the river all day is wonderful for building upper body strength, it has other benefits, too. “It’s good for the soul,” Brown says.
© The New York Times
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