Golden chance or great pretender?

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IT RESEMBLES an old tattered letter from a pirate's chest and was rediscovered by chance in a bric-a-brac shop, but the 18th-century document could help solve one of the most tantalising mysteries of Scottish history and has sparked a Highland goldrush.

The legend of Bonnie Prince Charlie's gold - a shipment of coins worth 5m at today's prices and landed on the Scottish coast by his French allies to support the Jacobite rebellion in 1745 - has intrigued historians for centuries.

It was reputed to have been buried at the head of Loch Arkaig, 10 miles north of Fort William, to keep it from the prince's Hanoverian pursuers.

But the letter, a deathbed confession by a Jacobite supporter named Neill, describes how he stole one of the bags of gold and buried it near the small coastal village of Arisaig under a "black stone" with a tree-root springing from it.

Tomorrow, the letter will be used to try to find the stash while experts from the National Archives of Scotland have been called in to verify its authenticity.

If the team of archaeologists, working for a new BBC TV series, History Detectives, is successful, it will prove the hoard existed and fuel speculation that other hidden consignments could still be waiting to be rediscovered.

Mairi Mooney, curator of the West Highland Museum, which was given the letter three years ago, said: "We are very hopeful that the letter is the genuine article and it would be absolutely fantastic if the team found something. It is well documented that money was sent to Scotland by the French to help the Jacobite cause, but what happened to it after that has always been a mystery."

The History Detectives team will be led by Scottish TV archaeologist Neil Oliver and will begin work tomorrow on the land identified in Neill's letter close to Arisaig.

Tasneem Maqsood, an assistant producer with Lion TV, the independent production company making the programme, said: "The letter gives instructions on where the gold was hidden and the local historian will decipher it to try and find the exact location. We are also having the letter examined at the National Archives of Scotland to find out if it is genuine."

Up to seven casks of gold coins were landed by two French frigates at Loch Nan Uamh, south-east of Arisaig, on April 29, 1746, as part of a promised consignment of money, arms and brandy. The waiting Jacobite clansmen neglected to tell the French commander that Prince Charles Edward Stuart, the pretender to the throne and by then in the Hebrides, had been defeated two weeks earlier by Hanoverian forces at Culloden.

When the French ships came under attack from English warships, the gold was spirited away. Three clansmen are thought to have hidden the stash at the head of Loch Arkaig, on land belonging to a loyal supporter. Historians believe it was dug up and reburied on several occasions over the next few months to keep Hanoverian soldiers from discovering it.

According to an article published in 1934 by an author who had extensively researched the story, Neill was passing through woods near the head of Loch Arkaig when he saw a group of men burying large packages. When they had left the scene, he crept up to see what they had been burying and discovered bags filled with gold coins. On hearing voices, he snatched one of the bags and fled to Arisaig, reburying the gold on his way.

As a Jacobite himself on the run from Hanoverian troops, he subsequently made his escape from Arisaig but fell off his horse, suffering a horrific injury. In a fit of remorse, he wrote the letter on October 6, 1746, as he lay dying and gave it to a clansman to hand over to the prince's close supporters. Signing it, Neill vic (son of) Iain vic Ruari, he wrote he was "sorre trubbled in mind" that he had taken money belonging to "mye rightful Prince" and gives detailed instructions on how to find it.

What happened to the letter next is a mystery. But in 1911, a doctor in the Arisaig area, Alexander Campbell, was presented with it by a grateful elderly patient.

Campbell tried to locate Neill's package without success, but an account of his attempt was published in Scottish Country Life magazine in 1934. The author described handling the letter, encased in a frame, himself.

After that, it did not resurface again until 2003. An English holidaymaker who loved the west Highlands gave it to the 1745 Association, a Jacobite history group, thinking it may be of interest to them. He had found it in a bric-a-brac ship in Winchester, Hampshire.

The association gave it to the West Highland Museum in Fort William, which, in turn, alerted the programme makers.

Tristram Clarke, outreach officer for the National Archives, said: "We will be subjecting the letter to analysis this week. It is very intriguing and we are keen to see what we can learn from it."