Gold in them thar hills - British mining

Materials World magazine
5 Jun 2011

The biggest ‘material’ matter recently has been the wedding dress fabric used in the Royal wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, a subject on which I am utterly unqualified to comment. For me, a more interesting speculation was the source of Welsh gold used in the wedding ring, a tradition that goes back to the late Queen Mother’s wedding to the future George VI in 1923.

Given that the last gold mine in Wales closed in 1998, the stock of ingots is nearly exhausted, and the amount of actual Welsh gold in items of jewellery labelled as such, is only a fraction.

Coincidentally, the resumption of gold mining in Scotland recently took a step closer with the announcement by Scotgold Resources Ltd that it has secured a conditional £600,000 Scottish Enterprise grant to redevelop the Cononish mine near Tyndrum in the Loch Lomond National Park.

Planning permission for mine development was rejected last year owing to concerns with the scale and visual impact of the tailings management facility, and questions regarding the proposed restoration techniques. Scotgold has since announced its intention to reapply with plans for a reduced surface facility and greater clarity on site restoration once mining operations are complete.

The legacy issue is always a difficult one for mining and mineral extraction industries when it comes to persuading the public and planning officials alike. Photographs of huge tar sand workings in Canada, unregulated alluvial diamond extraction in West Africa and vast open cast uranium mining in Australia create the perception that all mining is dirty, destructive and permanently damaging to the environment.

In terms of short-term visual impact, it is hard to disagree. But the UK has a mining tradition that stretches back centuries rather than decades, making it possible to see and measure the impact over the long-term.

In places like Smardale Gill in Cumbria, ancient lime quarries and kilns have blended in to such an extent that they form part of the natural landscape. In Cornwall, the remains of the tin and copper mines of the 18th and 19th centuries add a haunting poignancy to the beautiful coastal walks. The remarkable Eden project near St Austell shows how an exhausted clay pit can be restored as an education and tourist attraction to explore new ideas on how we live in the 21st century.

The black conical spoil heaps (bings) once so prominent in the Esk valleys and around West Lothian are not exactly attractive but are slowly being recolonised by the natural flora and fauna. Aberdeen has the Rubislaw Quarry, the largest man-made hole in Europe, less than a mile from the city centre and yet so well screened that it can only be viewed from the air, or by a determined scramble up from the road.

I hope that the restoration issues can be resolved and the Cononish project gets the go ahead. According to Scotgold, approximately 5,000oz per year will be extracted on site as bullion, making it identifiable as ‘Scottish’ gold and therefore attracting a premium for locally produced jewellery. If so, a certain Mr and Mrs W Wales might like to place an order for the future.