Panning for gold at Baile an Or in Northeast Scotland

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Alister and Ian Cruickshanks (UK)

During the year of 1818, a nugget of gold weighing around ten pennyweights was discovered in the river Helmsdale, in Northeast Scotland. The find sparked national interest and the Scottish local newspapers were soon headlining the discovery. It was then in 1968 that Scotland ensured its place in the history books following the discovery of further gold nuggets at Kildonan, in the river Helmsdale by a local man Robert Gilchrist, who had spent 17 years in the gold fields of Australia.

Fig. 1. Gold panning at Baile an Or.

Gilchrist was granted permission from the Duke of Sutherland to pan the gravels of the river Helmsdale. Shortly after, word started to spread into London and, within just six months, over 600 people made their way to Kildonan, creating its own miny gold rush. A whole series of temporary living quarters started to appear along the riverbanks forming the small town, Baile an Or (meaning ‘Village of the Gold’).

Fig. 2. The equipment you will need.

Today, Baile an Or (Grid Reference: NC 91136 21380) continues to provide fun for all for those wishing to try their luck at gold panning. The original nugget from the river was said to have been made into a ring and is in possession of the Sunderland family, but there have been recent stories too of a couple who panned for gold twice every year over a number of years, who had their wedding ring made from the gold of Kildonan and married in the nearby town of Helmsdale.

There are restrictions on panning to avoid commercial collecting, concerning the area in which panning is permitted and the number of times panning is allowed. Full details are provided on the information board at Kildonan.

Fig. 3. The river where you can pan for gold.

The technique of gold panning involves a lot of patience and skill, but is easy to pick up after a few attempts. When panning for gold, not everyone is luckily enough to come away with flakes of gold and nuggets are extremely rare – you are more likely to find very small flakes. However, Baile an Or makes an ideal day out for all the family, whether or not you are lucky enough to find gold.

When gold panning, you should place a mixture of dirt and gravel sediment into the pan, about 1/2 full. This gravel is best collected near the banks of the river where sediment is the lightest. You will first need to remove any large objects, (twigs for instance), and then gently let the river fill your pan with water.

Fig. 4. Heavier sediment starts to collect.

Start to pull the pan backwards and forwards near the surface of the water, shaking it and tapping it against the heel of your other hand. Then tilt the pan furthest from you ensuring that the pan is held so that the ridges are away from you.

Pull and slightly lift the pan towards you at a slight angle and let some sediment spill over the edge. This is a slow and gradual process, so you should try to avoid losing too much sediment in one go. Repeat this process until you have almost no gravel in the pan and swirl it carefully round in a circular pattern. Any gold should sink to the bottom of the pan, while all other sediment separates to the sides.

Fig. 5, Another view of the River Helmsdale.

For gold panning, suitable clothing is required. Wellington boots are essential since panning is done in the river itself. You will also require gold pans and small bottles to place any gold in and a trowel to scoop up sediment. Tweezers are also highly recommended since the gold is mostly in tiny granules and you may wish to consider taking a field lens.

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