Tales from End to End
The Gold Panner’s Tale
by John Wilkinson
I am a retired joiner from Preston. Five years ago I was in Dumfriesshire. It was raining and so I went to the lead mining museum at Wenlock Head. It just happened to be the time of the annual Gold Panning Championships which always take place over the last weekend in May. One of the competitors, called Nelson from the Isle of Wight, said to me ‘Come down to the river and I’ll show you how it’s done’. And that’s how I learned to pan for gold.
For of couple of years, I dabbled at panning and it was only last year, 2010, that I really got seriously involved. I was up in northern Scotland panning for gold in the River Kildonan. Panners are allowed just a two weeks’ permit by the landowner – this is so that everyone who wants to pan will get a chance. In Scotland the panners are permitted to keep all the gold they collect. That’s not the case in England where the arrangements are a good deal more complicated.
It actually costs me more to travel around Scotland to the different panning locations than it would if I bought a gold ornament directly from a jeweller. But that’s not the point. There’s a gold panners’ motto that says: ‘The true value of the gold is not in the river but in the people you meet’. That’s certainly been true for me.
Every county in Scotland has some gold and the gold is always found in quartz rock, usually with iron, silver, lead or tin. However, each gold ore is unique to its area and the gold in the Tyndrum area is mainly associated with iron, the gold forming a seam between the iron and the quartz. As the rocks have been worn away, the gold has been washed out into the rivers.
The quality of gold is measured in ‘carats’ and 24 carat gold would be 100% pure. The finest quality gold known in all the world is found in the Dumfriesshire area where I was five years ago and this ore is 22.79 carat. However, this is too soft for making into jewellery and so, ironically, it has to be made less pure in order for it to be strong enough for use by jewellers. At Tyndrum the natural gold is 15.7 carat.
Let me tell you about the techniques of panning for gold. Firstly you need to ‘learn your river’. By this, I mean you have to study the places where the water is not flowing too fast; such as at a slack back-water; because this is where the gold, being heavy, will sink to the gravels on the bed of the stream. Then you need to collect the gravels – I suck them up using a simple pump made from a length of drain-pipe with a tennis ball attached – and put them in the sluicing pan. Finally, you wash the gravels out of the pan and the heavier gold particles are left lying on the bottom of the dish. Easy!
Panners are usually very generous with their time and they will give advice freely to anyone who comes along seeking instruction. Here I’ll make a bold claim: I’ll guarantee to take any newcomer down to the River Crom Allt at Tyndrum and promise they’ll find some gold.
I have to say that there has never been a day when I have not recovered some gold. I keep a careful record of dates, locations and quantities and my best-ever day yielded a total of 1.3 grams. On the worst occasion, I collected only 0.003 grams. But nevertheless, it was something.
So far this year, I have collected about £1,400 worth of gold. But I don’t do it for the money – it’s for the fun, the friendship of other panners and now for my grandchildren. Last year I managed to collect enough gold to make a quarter ounce gold Celtic Cross for my grand-daughter’s 18th birthday. As you might imagine, she was delighted. Our second grand-daughter will celebrate her 18th next year and so I am carefully collecting gold to make her a similar present. After that, I imagine our great-grand-children may be hoping for their ‘surprises’. At the moment, they are only three and four years old, so I have plenty of time to keep prospecting… assuming, that is, more and more great-grand-children don’t keep appearing…
Editor: John showed me the results of his gold panning for that afternoon. He had collected about 0.75 grams in only four hours. The following morning he was leaving Tyndrum to go prospecting on the River Kildonan. I had caught him just in time.