There’s gold in them there Leadhills

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LIKE the gold prospectors of yesteryear, he spends every spare moment trudging through the countryside searching streams for glinting treasure.

Come rain or shine, George Paterson can be found peering into river water, sieving mud and sand in his pan and sluice.

Except for good fortune, he has little else in common with the Klondikers of 19th-century North America - he is middle-aged, unemployed, and lives in Dumfriesshire.

But, unlike many prospectors in previous gold rushes, his commitment has finally paid off after the sludge at the bottom of his pan revealed a nugget the size of a pebble, which turned out to be the largest and most valuable to be found in the area for more than half a century - a discovery now expected to spark a gold rush among tourists.

The delighted gold panner said: "I’ve been panning as a hobby for about three years and I’ve had a few finds but nothing as big as this. I thought at first it was just a yellow stone but I knew as soon as I picked it up that it was gold.

"I believe it’s worth between 500 and 600 but I won’t be selling it. I couldn’t replace it."

Mr Paterson was panning in a stream on Lord Hopetoun’s estate in the Lowther Hills near his home village of Wanlockhead, which has an illustrious gold panning history, when he hit paydirt. But he intends to keep secret the exact location of his find because he plans to return in the hope of making even larger finds.

Weighing 6.1 grammes, the nugget is the largest to be found in the district for almost 60 years, according to Gerard Godfrey, manager of the Museum of Lead Mining in Wanlockhead.

"There is still a lot of gold in the area, but it would be uneconomic and damaging to the environment to mine it, but this find will no doubt create a lot of interest among tourists and gold panners who still come here from all over the country to try their luck."

Local records show Mr Paterson’s nugget is the heaviest found in the area since 1940. In medieval times, the area was so rich in precious metals that it earned the title "God’s Treasure House in Scotland".

Gold was also discovered in Kildonan, Sutherland, in 1868. The credit for the discovery went to local man Robert Nelson Gilchrist, who had spent 17 years in the goldfields of Australia. On his return home, he was given permission by the Duke of Sutherland to pan the gravels of the Helmsdale River.

He found gold in many places but the greatest concentrations were in the Suisgill and Kildonan burns.

The accounts of his findings spread like wildfire throughout the north of Scotland. The Illustrated London News circulated the story further afield and, within six months, more than 600 hopeful adventurers had made their way to the normally deserted Highland glen.

Many of the prospectors were novices, but a hard core of miners from Australia and America helped to provide some much-needed expertise in gold recovery.

In April 1869, however, the Duke of Sutherland introduced a system of licences which cost 1 per month for each claim measuring 40 square feet. In addition to this, the prospectors were expected to pay a royalty of 10 per cent on all gold found.

Inevitably, much gold was never declared but was used in barter for food, tools and accommodation.

But eventually, the high cost of extracting gold from the inhospitable hills and growing concerns about the environment brought about the end of the gold rush in Scotland at midnight on 30 December 1869.

Sue Jenkins, who runs the Old Store in Wanlockhead, said last night: "It’s wonderful to hear that such a large nugget has been found in the area after all these years.

"It will certainly be good news for the local tourist industry. We get gold panners here every year but last year there were none because of foot-and-mouth. It would be great to think that we might see more and more coming after this find."