Gold panning at Wanlockhead, Scotland

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Charlie Smart (Scotland)

Today, the villages of Wanlockhead and Leadhills (the highest in Scotland) are probably best known for the centuries of toil that gave them the most productive lead mines in Scotland. However, it was the search for gold during the sixteenth century that revealed the abundance and richness of the lead veins.

At the marriage of James V to Magdalene of France in 1537, cups filled with bonnet-pieces made with gold from Crawford Muir were presented as specimens of ‘Scotch fruit’. From the same district, gold was supplied to refashion an older crown for the King. This Crown of Scotland, last worn at the coronation of Charles II at Scone in 1651, is now on display in Edinburgh Castle and forms part of the ‘Honours of Scotland’.

Earlier, in 1578, Sir Beavis Bulmer headed north across the Border. Having obtained letters of recommendation from Elizabeth I and, with his strong family connections to mining operations in the north of England, he was granted a patent by the Scottish Government ‘to adventure and search for gold and silver mines in the Leadhills’. Due to harsh climatic conditions, prospecting was confined to the summer months only. Nonetheless, over a period of three years, Bulmer amassed £100,000 worth of gold (in tutor values). He eventually returned to England where he presented Queen Elizabeth with a porringer (a small soup dish) made from Scottish gold. On the lintel of the house he left behind were inscribed the words, ‘In Wanlock, Elvan & Glengonar, I won my riches and my honour’.

From the earliest time, men have searched for gold, one of the world’s most precious metals. Its scarcity means that, if you find it, you have found something not just of great beauty but also of great value. Gold will keep its shine, colour and lustre no matter what, and it is for this reason that people have treasured it and will take risks to find it.

The Wanlockhead and Leadhills area of the Lowther Hills in South West Scotland was known as ‘God’s Treasure House in Scotland’ due to the abundance of minerals found in the area. Much of the gold used to form the ring around the shaft of the Scottish parliamentary mace came from this area. The ring signifies the marriage of the land, parliament and the people of Scotland. In addition, there were 26g of gold panned from Scotland’s waters and donated for use in the decoration of the mace.

The allure of gold continues today and the beautiful Mennock Pass, in the Lowther Hills of South West Scotland, provides one of the best areas in the UK to learn to pan. All the burns in the in the area contain abundant amounts of small flakes of gold and even the odd nugget. The Wanlockhead Lead Mining Museum provides gold panning on site and also runs day courses where tuition is given by experienced panners. There are various other areas of Scotland where excellent tuition is available.

There are two types of gold panning. These are recreational panning (prospecting in the rivers and burns) and competition panning. The annual British & Scottish National Gold Panning Championships are held at the Lead Mining Museum and are attended by panners from many parts of Europe. Spectators and visitors are always welcome and it’s free!

So, what do you need to pan for gold? First and foremost, you need permission from the landowner and then you need a pan, a plastic sieve and a shovel or pump to get the gravel from the riverbed into the pan.

Gold is normally found in beautiful rural areas and panning for gold on a lovely summer’s day must be one of the most relaxing and stress-free pastimes anyone can experience. Imagine standing knee-deep in a burbling stream, the sun shining above you, surrounded by trees with birds singing and adding to your collection of that magic material – GOLD. However, panning can be hazardous. When you find your first gleaming flake of gold, there is a strong possibility you will contract ‘Gold Fever’, which is incurable, although panning on a cold wet day can definitely provide a temporary cure.

Fig. 1. Panning for gold.

Perhaps the best way of explaining what panning is all about is by reproducing an edited version of an article which was written (but was never published) by Nev Elson, a retired police officer from Cambridgeshire.



… up to my ankles in a Dumfriesshire burn. Not only that, I was bent forward, holding something under the water. I had been like this for some time. My thighs were aching and my back was none too happy either. But I didn’t care. Fever had gripped me. I was going to be rich, you see – RICH! For the fever was brought on by gold.

I was panning for the stuff in the Mennock Water, a river in the Lowther Hills. Beside me stood Charlie, a gold panner and he was teaching me the basics. In my hands, I held a blue plastic pan and I was swirling it about under the water. It contained a pile of sand and gravel. I was shaking it so that, if it contained any gold, it would sink to the bottom. Later, I would bring the pan near the surface and gently rock it backwards and forwards, letting the water carry away the lighter particles. Eventually, when they were all washed away, I was left with just the gold. At least, that was the theory!

To pan for gold you, must first have a pan. Charlie handed me a Klondyke, made from plastic. This was 14 inches in diameter, had a flat bottom and gently sloping sides with riffles half way round it. Charlie told me that when you are panning, you shake the pan two ways – from side to side and backwards and forwards. Gold is roughly twenty times heavier than water and about six times as heavy as most material in the gravel, so it sinks to the bottom. The riffles are to stop any possibility of gold escaping. The Klondyke is probably the best pan in the world for hobby panning.

It was now time to head for the river and try panning for myself. Charlie gave me a pair of waders and away we went. I asked how metal pans were preserved. Was oil rubbed on them to prevent rust? Charlie grimaced. He told me that one taboo in panning is oil. Oil forms a tension on the water surface causing the gold to float and wash out of the pan. Some panners carry a small bottle of washing up liquid and put a small drop in each pan to prevent surface tension.

Behind Charlie’s cottage, the Mennock Water was only a few inches deep. He informed me the first thing was to get the gravel into the pan and, to do this, he used a suction pump made from a piece of plastic drainpipe, an old tennis ball and various nuts and washers. He demonstrated its power by holding it against my hand and pulled the handle. It nearly lifted my skin off.

He then placed the pump in a likely location on the riverbed, pulled the handle and emptied the gravel into the pan through a sieve, which removed the large stones.

But where was a likely location? Charlie explained that there is always an element of luck in panning, but gold will be found where the speed of the water changes. Gold can be washed downstream in fast water, but as soon as it reaches slow water, it drops to the bed of the river. The riverbed is constantly moving, so the gold slowly sinks through gravel until it reaches bedrock. So, to find the best gold, you need to find a spot where the speed of the water changes and then work down to the bedrock. The insides of bends and around large rocks are good spots.

Charlie then let me have a go. After ten minutes or so of vigorous pumping, shaking and washing the gravel out of the pan, I was down to a tiny bit of gravel and hopefully half a pound of gold. Now for the exciting part! Holding the pan at about 45o, I gently rocked it back and forth to wash away the last bits of gravel leaving the gold at the top of the pan. AND THERE THEY WERE! Three gleaming specks of gold about the size of a grain of salt and they were all mine. Charlie beamed. I did an ungainly dance in my waders. My elation soon turned to dismay. How could they be removed from the pan? They were too small to pick up and if I lifted them with a wet finger I would surely lose them. However, simply by dabbing a finger on the gold, I was able to transfer it to a small glass phial full of water simply by touching the water in the phial with the gold.

After a few hours panning, I had enough gold just to cover the base of my phial. I decided to quit while I was ahead. I had had enough excitement for one day. Besides, with all the gold that I had found, I was probably a rich man. Charlie laughed and told me the gold was worth a few pence and said that if I wanted to get rich quick, I should do the lottery. But, if I wanted a great hobby where I could build up a stock of gold over time, then I should carry on panning.

Before I left, Charlie presented me with the phial of gold I had found. It sits on the shelf in my living room, and is a reminder of the great day I’d had. It is possible to make quite large sums of money gold panning, but only if you are prepared to work hard for long hours and, even then, you could be working for less than the minimum wage. However, if you are lucky, it is still possible to find some quite large pieces of gold in Scotland.

If you want to pan for gold, there are a few basic rules:

  • Get permission from the landowner.
  • Only take gravel from the bed of the river.
  • Never dig into the banks, as this will cause serious damage the next time the river is in spate.
  • Follow the country code.

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