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Panning for gold in Kildonan. (slains-castle) Alluvial gold from Kildonan Burn, Helmsdale, Suth-erland.

A Highland Gold Rush: The Scottish Search for Semen of the Sun


Gold was referred to by the Pre-Columbian ancient South American cultures as ‘Semen of the Sun’ and ‘Sweat of the Sun’ but in that continent, where it was so abundantly available, it held no intrinsic material value. It did have, however, great spiritual significance because its malleable but indestructible properties were perceived as being ‘from’ the Sun. As such, gold was regarded as a conduit with the Sun god. After being melted and blended with other metals to alter its color for various rituals, it was crafted into ornate offerings, masks, statues, and jewelry, then hurled into sacred lakes and lagoons, in vast tonnages.

On the flip side, in western materialistic cultures, where the attainment of riches in this life is deemed more important that assuring safe passage into the next, gold is sought after more than any other substance - but it is given no spiritual value whatsoever. These fundamentally different outlooks on gold led to global upheaval in the 16th century, when Spanish warmongers, flying the flag of God, arrived in South America and unfolded a brutal gold collection operation which was fronted by waves of continent-wide genocide. Tens of millions of indigenous people were slaughtered.

Muisca raft, representation of the initiation of the new Zipa in the lake of Guatavita, possible source of the legend of El Dorado.

Muisca raft, representation of the initiation of the new Zipa in the lake of Guatavita, possible source of the legend of El Dorado. (Andrew Bertram/CC BY SA 1.0)


Rushing to Find Gold

Two and a half centuries later, gold-hungry Europeans were still running around the Americas slavering at the idea of finding gold. And it happened! The famous California Gold Rush began on January 24, 1848, when James W. Marshall discovered gold at Sutter's Mill in Coloma, California. The news attracted over 300,000 prospectors to the state. At the beginning of the Gold Rush it really was the wild, wild west, as no laws existed regarding property rights in the goldfields. Therefore, entire indigenous societies with heritage going back 13,000 years were attacked and driven off their ancestral lands by money hungry gold-seekers, called "forty-niners" (referring to 1849), who extracted gold worth tens of billions of today’s dollars, which led to immense wealth, for a few.

Panning for gold during the California Gold Rush.

Panning for gold during the California Gold Rush. (Public Domain)

On the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, on the far northeast coast of Scotland, the magical Strath Kildonan embraces the Helmsdale River as it courses southeast through remote uplands towards the North Sea. The Kildonan Burn is a small tributary of the Helmsdale River which flows from the foot of the "Hill of the Irishman" and under the single-track road for about 10 miles ( km) along the A897 from the village of Helmsdale. In 1818, a large nugget of gold weighing ‘about ten pennyweights’ was found in the Helmsdale River. It is said to have been made into a ring which is currently in the possession of the Sutherland family.

Scotland’s ‘Town of Gold’

Fifty years later, in 1868, an ambitious prospector by the name of Robert Gilchrist returned to Helmsdale from the Australian goldfields and obtained permission from the Duke of Sutherland to prospect for gold in the River Helmsdale. He went on ‘to discover gold in many places’, but the greatest concentrations were in the Suisgill and Kildonan burns. News of Gilchrist’s finds soon reached the broadsheets, sparking national interest. By April 1869, over 600 prospectors had found their way to the remote Strath Kildonan in the hope of making their fortunes, which required an arduous 30-mile ( km) overland hike from Golspie railway station. Two temporary settlements were established - a shanty town on the edge of the Kildonan Burn at Baile an Or: Gaelic for  Town of Gold, and Carn na Buth, or  Hill of the Tents, on the edge of the Suisgill Burn.

Baile an Or: Gaelic for Town of Gold.

Baile an Or: Gaelic for Town of Gold. (Upper: Author. Lower: Free Share)

Gold laden gravel was extracted from the banks of the burns and sifted in wooden griddles. Then, it was repeatedly swirled in pans to separate the gravel from the gold. Because gold panning wasn’t a particularly skilled activity, the Scottish gold rush attracted a mixture of both skilled miners from the fields of California and Australia and opportunistic adventurers armed with picks and a heart full of hope. A June 1869 edition of  The Inverness Courier reported: “Mr Wilson, a jeweller from Inverness, bought £30, 5s 8d worth of gold early in March and a further £193 worth at the end of the month.” In June, a drought led to prospectors being able to attack the exposed riverbed gravel and ironically the price of gold, which at its height had been £4.5 ($ ) an ounce, plummeted to £3.5oz ($ ).

By the end of the summer, the Duke of Sutherland had started charging “£1 per month” ($ ) for prospecting licenses, plus a royalty of 10% on all (declared) gold found. This caused the numbers of gold miners to diminish to around 200, however, the falling price of gold coupled with diminishing levels of finds and better opportunities in the local herring fishery, meant numbers fell to around 50 by the autumn. Further squeezing the gold prospectors, the Duke was losing potential income from salmon fishermen and deer stalkers, so in December he announced that “all exploration for gold would cease with effect from 1 January 1870." The Strath Kildonan gold rush was brought to an end and Baile an Or was abandoned, remaining today, largely how it was when the prospectors left.


Photo of Baile an Or taken by Alexander Johnston in 1869.

Photo of Baile an Or taken by Alexander Johnston in 1869. (Suisgill)

You Can Give Gold Panning a Try

If you find yourself in the Highlands of Scotland and want a really ‘out there’ experience, then you simply have to visit the Helmsdale river valley and especially Baile-An-0r Gold Rush village. The uncontaminated, deep-purple, peat-tainted river is the hunting ground for air-cutting hawks and the playground for litters of cobalt blue dragonflies. Here, nature exists at a mostly untouched level, no wardens, campground attendants, or hooligans - just you and the great out-doors. You can camp with tents, dormobiles, or caravans free of charge for up to 2 weeks a year and outdoor barbeques are welcome. I highly advise you to try gold panning, as it not only holds you on the edge of discovery for several hours at a time, but it really is great, sometimes back-breaking exercise. Here are a few pointers for those explorers out there.


Goldpanners at the Kildonan burn, Scotland.

Goldpanners at the Kildonan burn, Scotland. (Les Harvey/CC BY SA 2.0)

Gold panning is restricted to the areas between the upside of the stone bridge and the ford crossing. Equipment for mineral separation is strictly limited to a gold pan, riddle (hand sieve), spade, and trowel, but the use of a gravel sucker is permitted.

Digging must be kept to the center and sides of the burn, to avoid undermining the banks. Any holes must be backfilled for the safety of other users.

The gold rights are currently owned by the Suisgill Estate and the position regarding panning today is set out on their website.

You can find out more about the Strath Kildonan gold rush, and see a little of the gold, at the Timespan Museum and Arts Centre in Helmsdale.

A gold nugget from Kildonan Burn, Helmsdale, Sutherland, Scotland.

A gold nugget from Kildonan Burn, Helmsdale, Sutherland, Scotland. (mineral-paradise)

Top Image: Panning for gold in Kildonan. (slains-castle) Alluvial gold from Kildonan Burn, Helmsdale, Sutherland. (BGS Geoheritage)

By Ashley Cowie


Brands, H.W. (2003). The Age of Gold: The California Gold Rush and the New American Dream. Anchor. (2015). The Scottish Gold Rush March 1869.

ashley cowie's picture


Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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