They left their humble homes armed with frying pans and hearts full of hope, to pursue a dream that there really was gold in them there hills.

And for an incredible year, gold prospectors from all walks of life beat a path to a makeshift shanty town of spartan wooden huts in a windswept and wild Highland valley in search of a glittering prize.

Their settlement, named Baile an Or – Gaelic for Town of Gold – had become Scotland’s Klondike, smaller in scale than the great gold rush of the Yukon perhaps, but for those panning for nuggets in the trickling Kildonan Burn, the dream was every bit as big.

Scotland’s great gold rush, which saw more than 600 gold prospectors make the fevered dash to the Strath of Kildonan in Sutherland, has just been remembered by locals in an event coinciding with the 155th anniversary of how it all began.

And even though the prospectors’ wooden huts and panning gear are long gone with little other than a sign to show they were ever there, even now anyone with a dream of finding a small fortune and equipped with a licence to pan, can hunt for gold in the shallow waters of the burn.

The gold rush was sparked by local man Robert Nelson Gilchrist in the closing weeks of 1868. Within weeks, it had evolved into a frantic dash to the hills from amateurs seeking their first shot at panning, fishermen fed up with pitiful catches, fishwives bearing frying pans and kitchen utensils to sift through grit for gold, and hardened prospectors whose lives revolved around hunting for treasure.

But having erupted in a blaze of excitement – and fuelled by the discovery of two nuggets weighing 36.8g and 57.8g - the gold dream fizzled out, as prospectors found fewer glittering treasures in the pans than hoped, and the 3rd Duke of Sutherland – the aristocrat who had allowed the search on his land – withdrew his support.

Events of 155 years ago were recalled by researcher Jacquie Aitken, at an event held by Timespan Heritage & Arts Society in Helmsdale.

She says the presence of gold in the area had been well-known for many years before the rush began.

It took events on the other side of the world and Gilchrist, son of a fish curer from Gartymore, near Helmsdale, to kickstart the frenzied dash.

California was in the grip of its gold rush in the late 1840s and gold fields were emerging in Australia, when he packed his bags and headed Down Under to seek his fortune.

“He would have known as a boy of the gold nuggets found in Kildonan at the start of the 19th century, so he already knew there was some gold in the area,” says Jacquie.

“When he came back to Helmsdale, he noticed the similarity in geology here with gold bearing rocks in Australia.”

Gilchrist received permission from the 3rd Duke of Sutherland to search rivers and burns on his estates for gold and the precious ‘mother lode’, the principal vein which could open up a real gold mine.

Within days, he had found a haul of gold flakes and small nuggets.

“Things spiralled,” she adds. “This was November 1868, and within a few weeks the locals hear about it, and then local newspapers carry stories.

“By mid-January 1869, the story of gold in Sutherland has made it into the London Illustrated News and is spreading around the country.”

Gold had been mined in Scotland for centuries: gold from the hills around Wanlockhead and Leadhills in the Southern Uplands had been used to make some of the Scottish crown jewels.

Gilchrist’s nuggets encouraged the Duke to issue licences for £1 a month – at a time when the average annual wage was just £25 -  and the floodgates opened. 

Prospectors travelled on foot and by horse and cart to reach the remote area, at first sheltering alongside their animals in a ruined church, before building huts to create Baile an Or, on Kildonan Burn and Carn na Buth - 'Hill of Tents' - at Suisgill Burn.

“At the start, everyone was enthusiastic,” says Jacquie. “The year before, the herring fishing had been a disaster and things were on an economic downturn, another reason why this gold rush got into people’s minds.

“They thought it could be the answer to their prayers, and a lot of people working in the fishing industry, servants and farm labourers and even farmers joined the gold rush.

“There was also an influx of old colonial gold panners who had spent time in Australia, working alongside people who had no idea of what they were doing.”

While the ‘professionals’ used specially-made pans and machines to make the task easier, locals – including, noted one newspaper report from the time, women dressed in petticoats, used simpler kitchen utensils like frying pans.

“Before long, tinsmiths arrived to set up workshops at the site, and made gold pans to order.

“Then shops began to arrive; ironmongers and a branch of the Scottish Linen Bank appeared in this shanty town of wooden huts and bunkhouses.

“Then came a jeweller: PJ Wilson from Union Street in Inverness, who had a royal warrant and made jewellery for Queen Victoria and the Prince of Wales, arrived to buy gold and set up agents.

“Within a month or two he has big adverts in the Inverness courier saying ‘gold jewellery, made to order’.

“He is mentioned in a song, Off to Kildonan, which is still sung today: ‘Off to Kildonan, our fortune for to try…’.”

Some did strike lucky, with small gold nuggets turning up at locations around the area. But the hunt for the precious mother lode was in vain.

And as the hut community grew restless, behaviour became an issue. Before long, the gold rush has lost its shine.

“At first, the Duke was keen to support it,” adds Jacquie.

“But the gold rush didn’t prove successful in any great quantity, and by June 1869, the estate was receiving complaints from some farmers that the gold panners were ruining sheep pasture and destroying the landscape.”

Within a few months, the Duke removed the licences and effectively brought the gold rush to a halt.

Having left homes and jobs to spend money on licences, equipment and accommodation, many prospectors faced ruin.

“Around 600 people had set out full of hope but at the end they were starving, destitute and had not made money,” adds Jacquie.

“For some gold panners, this was a way of life, and they just packed up to go looking for another nugget somewhere else.

“But some were left destitute and had to return home to grovel for their jobs.

“This was Scotland’s only gold rush in history,” adds Jacquie, “But the dream was bigger than the reality.”


Tie piece

Gold is lurking in Scotland’s hills – if you know where to look.

The Suisgill Estate allows recreation gold panning at certain times of the year at the Kildonan Burn, scene of the 19th century Sutherland Gold Rush.

Anyone looking to pan for gold has to purchase a permit and can hire a gold panning kit of pan, riddle and hand trowel from Timespan Museum in Helmsdale.

The Lowther Hills has been a destination for gold hunters for centuries: gold was first recorded in the Wanlockhead area during the reign of King James IV of Scotland,in the early 16th century. While gold from Crawford Muir was incorporated into the King James V’s crown, and gold coins minted in Edinburgh during his and Mary Queen of Scots’ reigns.

The Museum of Lead Mining at Wanlockhead, and the Queensberry Estate Office at Drumlanrig Castle provide licences for anyone looking to try their hand at gold panning in the area.

Gold is also to be found in Glendevon, near Dollar – the British Geological survey found gold in the area in the 1970s – and across the Perthshire hills.

And gold has turned up at dozens of sites near Ben Inverveigh in Argyll, at locations spanning the area between Bridge of Orchy and Tyndrum.

While Cononish mine, near Tyndrum, is the setting for Scotland's only gold mine. Operated since 2007 by Scotgold Resources, the firm says it plans to be extracting around 2,000 ounces (57kg) of gold monthly, worth more than £3m, by the end of this year.

There can be rich pickings for some gold hunters: in 2019, the  UK’s largest gold nugget, weighing 121.3g (4.2 oz) with an estimated value of £80,000, was found in a secret location.

The previous largest find, in 2016, was the 85.7g (3oz) Douglas Nugget, found in a Perthshire river.

Attractive as panning for gold might sound, almost all gold and silver found naturally in the UK belongs to the Crown Estate – which means panners could be liable for prosecution for removing any without appropriate licences and rights of access from landowners.