There's gold in them thar hills

THE mine shaft at Cononish fulfils one's expectations, fuelled by countless B-movies, as to what a disused gold mine should look like: rusty rails leading out of a faintly sinister-looking hole in the flank of Ben Chuirn, the entrance closed off by a padlocked metal gate.

According to countless Hollywood scripts, there could be untold riches, bandits, even aliens, down there. Chris Sangster unlocks the gate and we file into a gloomy, dripping rock tunnel, feet splashing through water as we edge past a line of disused wagons and into what could soon be Scotland's only working hard-rock gold mine.

The economic concentrations of gold, he explains, are some 400-500 metres down the tunnel, and we're not kitted up for that, but he shines his torch up to the tunnel's rocky roof, looking for tell-tale sulphides: "You see that twinkling up there. That's pyrites - 'fool's gold' - but you'll find some very fine particles of gold around that. Further in, it looks a lot more impressive."

Forget any fantasies of nuggets glinting from the walls in some Disneyesque grotto, with the Seven Dwarves, perhaps, cheerfully hacking away at riches beyond a prospector's wildest dreams. Nuggets there are none. "There are very few hard-rock mines where you'd find large amounts of visible gold," explains Sangster. Nuggets are basically derived from rock that has been eroded away and, while there have been very large nuggets found in Australia, the United States and Canada, sources like that are very rare."

Sangster is a much-travelled mining engineer and if the company of which he is chief executive, Scotgold Resources, is successful in applications it has lodged with the Crown Estates and the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park Authority, Cononish mine, a couple of miles south of Tyndrum, could yield an estimated 70 million worth of gold and silver. But it would be by the laborious process of crushing and processing. One tonne, or a third of a cubic metre, of Cononish rock will yield about 10-11 grammes of gold - "about enough to manufacture a gentleman's gold wedding ring", explains Sangster.

So Cononish is no Klondike, but it could have a productive life of eight years - possibly even more if other potential local deposits prove positive and permission to extract is granted - and provide the area with up to 60 jobs.

The Tyndrum area has long been associated with lead mining (Hanoverian troops guarded the workings there during the upheaval of the '45 Rebellion) and the ever-hopeful still occasionally long-pan the burns in the Cononish area for gold - local lore has it that one patient soul managed, over many years, to pan enough gold to buy his future wife her wedding ring.

Tyndrum is popularly associated with a brief "gold rush" during the 19th century, although Sangster has his doubts about this. The London-born son of Aberdeen parents, he has spent some 30 years as a mining engineer, working mainly in southern Africa, as well as Canada and Australia.

He came to Tyndrum in 1996 to join the Canadian-based Caledonian Mining Co (founded by the millionaire Dennis MacLeod, who hailed from a genuine Scottish Klondike area, Helmsdale in Sutherland, where a lucky strike prompted a "gold rush" in the Strath of Kildonan).

Gold in commercial quantities was first identified at Cononish in the 1980s, when the Irish firm Ennex International identified an outcrop of gold-bearing rock. Its exploration company, Finegold, spent several years exploring the area, eventually proving deposits which it reckoned could produce just under five tonnes of gold and about 25 tonnes of silver.

In 1994, the mine was acquired by the Caledonian Mining Co, which gained planning permission for the site two years later with a view to putting the mine into production.

At this point Sangster joined the company, but then a slump in gold prices rendered the mine uneconomic. "When I joined Caledonian in 1996," he explains, "the gold price was about $400 an ounce, but from early 1997 onwards, the price declined and around 2000-1 reached its lowest point for many years, when it came out at $250 an ounce. Basically, for the size of the mine and the resources, it was uneconomic."

With gold prices rising again to around $500 an ounce, and experts talking it up to $700-$800 in the short term and even higher long term, the Cononish operation is potentially viable once more, and as Finegold's lease terminates at the end of July, Sangster's company, which has Australian backers, has filed with the Crown Estates for the continuation of the lease, pending planning permission. And Sangster sounds positive about its chances of success, while appreciating that there may be issues to be discussed with the park authority.

The allure of gold is as old as history itself. Paleontologists have discovered fragments of natural gold in Spanish caves once inhabited by Paleolithic man, while Egyptian pharoahs were adorning themselves with it around 3,000BC. But while traditionally people, not least our Celtic ancestors, have worn gold about their persons, its enduring appeal as a tangible asset continues to put a glint in the eyes of investors and city speculators and it is still regarded as a stable bulwark in times of economic and political uncertainty.

Desire for the stuff may drive men to desperation - "I wanted the gold and I sought it, / I scrabbled and mucked like a slave," as Robert Service, the Ayrshire-born bard of the Yukon, wrote - but it remains "the ultimate form of payment", as Alan Greenspan, until last year chairman of the US Federal reserve, put it a few years ago after Gordon Brown auctioned off much of Britain's gold reserves. Greenspan warned the US against following the Chancellor's example: "Flat money in extremis is accepted by nobody. Gold is always accepted."

Gold and copper were the first metals known to man, but its origins are unimaginably more ancient. The hills that rise around Cononish, Ben Chuirn, where the mine is situated, and Bens Lui, Dubhcraig and Oss, rise from what is known as Dalradian rock, a geological sequence which extends into western Norway as well as Ireland and eastern Canada. Named after Dalriada, the ancient Argyll kingdom of the Scots, but formed some 475 million years before the Scots, or anyone, walked the earth, Dalradian rocks are often associated with precious metals and minerals.

Not that it's particularly visible. "The gold is very fine, and when you look at the rock you'll rarely see any evidence of gold," says Sangster. "Basically, it's situated, in very fine form, round the borders of the other metal crystals." To extract the gold, he continues, the Cononish rock will have to be ground down to fine powder and separated out by gravity techniques.

However, in some cases, the gold is actually formed within the sulphides and other mineral crystals, in which case it will have to be taken off-site, and furth of Scotland, for smelting. Between 25 and 50 per cent of the gold, Sangster reckons, would be recoverable onsite, and Scotgold Resources is interested in using it to establish a craft jewellery business.

"Certainly, we think there is an opportunity to develop a product which we hope would command some kind of premium over the spot price of gold. The idea would be to establish some kind of locally based jewellery business, selling into a market we perceive as being mostly overseas - Scots who have moved abroad - but, hopefully, with a local market as well."

As we stand outside the mine entrance, looking back down the glen of the Cononish river - a salmon-spawning ground which feeds into the Dochart and thence to the Tay - we can see residual groves of the old Caledonian pine forest cladding the slopes to the south of the river, an area designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI).

The footpath to Ben Lui runs nearby, the West Highland Way cuts across the mine's access track and the area is now within the Loch Lomond and Trossachs National Park. What sort of environmental impact will the mining operation have on this intensely scenic area, much frequented by walkers?

As things stand, the crushed rock residue would be stored in the valley below the mine, screened by trees and landscaped and planted over at the end of the mine's working life.

But technology has evolved since the original planning permission was granted, and Sangster envisages ways in which environmental impact could be further minimised. "We've had numerous discussions with the national park authority and we have applied for an extension to the existing planning permission here. We would want to modify that permission because the technology has changed and what was proposed in 1996 is no longer technologically or economically sound.

"We would seek to try and improve the environmental footprint of our activities on site here. For instance, there is technology these days which takes a lot of the water out of the residue, which means that, effectively, you're just storing a large amount of sand, whereas previously it was stored as sand and water and you had water reticulation issues."

He also sees potential for the use of small hydro-electric schemes for some of the mine's operations. At Cononish Farm below the mine, John Burton, a contractor whose family owns the land, is already looking at a mini-hydro scheme that would provide his farm with electricity - currently provided by a generator - and which could feasibly be of use to the mining operation, about which he is enthusiastic. "It's great, just to see something happening to the site. It's been sitting there for a long time doing nothing."

Also positive about the resurrection of the mine is John Riley, chairman of Strathfillan Community Council - and coincidentally a retired metallurgist: "I came up here to run a hotel," he laughs, "and lo and behold, within three years of my coming here, someone wants to open a gold mine.

"We've debated this many times on the council. We were first told about a possible gold mine way back in 1985, and that we were going to get so much from it, but it never came to fruition. The community council line is positive because the biggest problem we have round here is the cyclic nature of tourism."

Whether or not there was a brief gold rush at Tyndrum in the 19th century (and both Sangster and Riley have their doubts about this), there was indeed almost a lucky strike at Cononish a century ago. Sangster points out that the existing mine incorporates an adit, a horizontal entrance excavated by "the old men" as he calls the 19th-century lead miners.

In their quest for lead, he says, they almost, but didn't quite, hit the gold seam. They missed achieving the old alchemists' dream of transmuting lead to gold... by a mere ten feet.

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