There’s gold in them thar hills.
Or as they might say it in Scotland, there be gold in the glen.
Sometime this year, Scotland’s first and only commercial gold mine will begin operations. That in itself is noteworthy, but moreso is that this mine is located inside Loch Lomond National Park.
At the end of a long dirt road, among the craggy hills and mists of the Scottish highlands, Chris Sangster unlocked an iron gate that is the gateway to gold.
Only headlamps on helmets light up the darkness along a muddy, wet path about half a mile long, to where the first vein of gold appears.
“The resource we have is about half a million tonnes of rock which contains just under five tonnes of gold and 25 tonnes of silver and that’s what the mine is built around,” said Sangster, the chief executive officer of Scotgold mine.
The estimated value of the gold could be as much as $300 million, depending on market prices. Scotgold won approval from park authorities by promising to restore the site after the gold is removed.
“Mines are transient beasts,” Sangster said. “We’ll be here for 10 years and then we’ll disappear and at the end of 15 years, you won’t particularly see that we’ve been here.”
Approval for the mine came only after an initial proposal was rejected.
The second time around, the restoration plan was deemed adequate, as was a design meant to minimize the view of the mining operation from the nearby hills favored by many for walking.
But the project is not just unusual for its location inside park boundaries. From the start, the company had the overwhelming support of locals who love the majesty of the park, but are not so fond of the tough economic times in their village.
At the Green Welly rest stop in Tyndrum, customers can stop to buy gas, a snack, outdoor hiking gear and just recently, a new product. It is a whiskey, called Tyndrum Gold.
“It’s a 15-year-old Speyside single malt whiskey. It’s a very good whiskey. We had a whiskey tasting here one night and this bottle that we tasted on that night, we finished, because it was so good,” said Shona Oakston, a clerk in the shop.
Oakston has sold most of the 600 bottles of this special edition whiskey to the locals who are pretty happy to toast the new endeavor.
She has seen young people leave Tyndrum for work elsewhere so she thinks it is well past time to dig the gold out of the rock.
“Because it’s there why not use it? People need gold, people need jewelery and if the gold mine’s there I think it’s a benefit for everybody,” she said.
Residents hope it will mean jobs and economic development – there’s already talk of a tourist center. Resident Julie Moore also believes in the project.
“How many beautiful hills do you want, how many beautiful walks do you want? They are actually going to put this back. After ten years you won’t know there was a gold mine there,” Moore said.
The mine was first staked out in 1985, but abandoned when the price of gold dipped earlier this century. Since then, the price has soared, doubling since 2008.
That has made for a new gold rush both in the natural splendor of Scotland, and in the glass and concrete heart of London.
At the London office of Goldsmiths’, recycling takes on a very different, very expensive meaning. The company, which been around since 1327, certifies the value and purity of gold and other precious metals.
It also melts down gold in a small smelter operation at the back of the building. A worker dumped a tangle of gold chains, bracelets, earrings and even false teeth into the smelter. Those are the ingredients. It baked for about twenty minutes at 1,000 degrees Celsius, before being poured it into a mold and becoming something very valuable.
“That is a very heavy gold bar, it’s about eight kilos (close to 20 pounds),” said the company’s David Merry as he cradled the bar. “This is only nine karat. That’s probably worth about £80,000 — ($127,000).”
The bar does not look like those shiny, smooth bricks of gold stored in vaults. It’s unfinished, pockmarked and dull. Merry says the company bought the new smelter about three years ago when the price of gold went crazy.
Now they melt down more than $3 million worth a week .
“When it first started it became such a bit of a madness that we were getting ... things like Crimea war medals and World War I medals and things like that you would expect to be family pieces. But, it’s that price of gold. If you’re hard up, you need to get your money from somewhere. And that’s the route people took,” Merry said.
Back in Scotland, Dorothy Breckenridge opens another metal gate opens on another hillside. Breckenridge is the co-owner of a company that organizes hikes in and around the park. The land is both her passion and her livelihood.
“I’ve had people coming from all over the world and they are absolutely gobsmacked at the variety and actually just the wildness of the landscape,” she said.
Breckenridge is dismayed by the plan to go ahead with the mine. She sees it as part of a trend, driven in part by the craze for gold.
“It’s a gradual encroaching of this fantastic natural asset that we have in the scenery and landscape of Scotland and that’s not being accepted as a viable long term necessity for Scotland to develop," she explained.
This windswept land is generating a debate about where its value really lies. For those promoting Scotland’s only gold mine, it is about what lies beneath.
For Breckenridge and others, it is more of an untouchable place, no matter how tempting the glitter of gold.