A ROW has broken out after the wealthy owners of a Sutherland estate introduced charges for gold panning with claims that the precious ore is being sold on Ebay.

The Suisgill Estate in Helmsdale was at the centre of Scotland’s 19th-century gold rush and people have panned its burns for years in search of the metal.

The almost 16,000-acre estate was bought in November 2016 by Diana and Alexander Darwall, who farm on the edge of Dartmoor, after it had gone on the market for £5 million. Mr Darwall is also a leading fund manager in the city.

But now the couple have introduced a controversial £10-a-day permit for gold panning at the famous Kildonan Burn and also brought in other restrictions.

The estate, which employs four full-time staff, has a sixth share of the River Helmsdale, which was fished by Prince Charles and his new bride Diana in 1981 during their three-month honeymoon tour.

But it is most famous for being the location of the 1868 Scottish gold rush after a local discovered the precious metal in the burn.

Some 600 prospectors flooded to the area to pan for gold in scenes more reminiscent of the American wild west than the windswept Highlands.

The gold rush began after Robert Gilchrist, a local man who had made his fortune prospecting gold in Australia, found gold in the Suisgill Burn.

Scenes from the day show wooden shacks pitched up in the area – closer to the gold rush towns of America’s west than the towns or cities of Scotland.

Within weeks locals were pulling enough gold from the river for local jewellers to make pieces from the finds.

By the end of 1869 the rush was over – as the practice of panning began to be regulated, and the returns from the river began to diminish. In 1870 the shanty town built by prospectors was burnt to the ground.

The Scottish gold rush may have literally proven to be a flash in the pan, but the area is still known to this day “Baile-an-or” - Gaelic for Place of Gold.

In more recent years, visiting amateur panners and locals have been a familiar sight in the Kildonan Burn in particular.

But the plans to charge for the experience have infuriated keen panner Colin Stark, 52, a self-employed decorator who lives in Swindon, but comes to Helmsdale six months of the year to pan for gold. Over the past four years he has collected about an ounce, which he gifted to his daughter Teresa to celebrate her 21st birthday.

He has started a petition against the charges, which states: ”I am a recreational gold panner who has panned for gold on the Kildonan burn for the last four years without any restrictions, but since the Suisgill Estate has been sold, the new owners are wanting to charge £10 per day to pan for gold, where as before it has always been free of charge,” said Mr Stark.

“They will only allow two weeks per year per person. I think this is totally outrageous that a land owner can get away with this sort of behaviour. I thought Scotland was a free country with rights to roam. This is entirely draconian.

“I’ve never had any problems in the past, but restricting panning to that short stretch between the bridge and the falls will also see people cheek by jowl.

But Mrs Darwall said the move was about regulation and not to make money – all proceeds from the sale of permits will go to Kildonan Church.

“Panning needs regulating – one or two bad apples are spoiling it for everybody. The staff do not have the time to monitor it,” she said.

“There have been people selling the gold on Ebay – they should not be doing that for a profit. People were taking the mickey. I know it’s only one or two who spoil it, but something had to be done, though I recognise there’s always some resistance to change.

“We looked at things in our first year to see how it was working. I don’t want to upset people - I want to make it more enjoyable for people. I’ve had a go and I can see it is exciting. Other estates also charge for panning.

“We are within our rights – we don’t have to allow panning, but we are keen to encourage responsible and regulated use given the heritage of the place. Permits will be on sale in the village.”

The Scottish Parliament Mace, gifted by the Queen to mark its opening, contains an embedded ring formed from Scottish gold donated by panners.