In August 2016, on news that Australian mining firm Scotgold Resources had announced the first gold ‘pouring’ from the Cononish mine in Tyndrum, Scotland, my thoughts turned to earlier discoveries of precious metals across Scotland.

Silver, dendritic crystals, with encrusting clinosafflorite, in calcite. A specimen from William Hunter’s original bequest, thought to be the largest surviving specimen of silver from Alva. Kindly reproduced with the permission of The Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow, 2017.

In comparison to some of the discoveries around the world, Scotland has a long, if not wholly, productive history in terms of mining gold and silver. While the total amount is minimal, significant finds have been reported, from large gold nuggets in alluvial deposits, to discoveries of silver in vein deposits.

One of the earliest mined areas was at Leadhill-Wanlockhead, Dumfriesshire. Much of the gold mined was used in the production of coins during the reign of James V of Scotland (1513-1542). In 1540, according to the contemporary account of James Kircaldy of Grange, a rich mine of gold ore was located in Clydesdale.

Disappointingly, this mine at Crawford Muir, due to unskilled handling of its output, gave up only 130 ounces of gold before its abandonment. Some of its gold was used in the famous bonnet pieces or ducats worth 40 shillings minted in Edinburgh during 1540.1

There is little evidence that Scotland or her rulers benefited from earlier world discoveries. During the Middle Ages, the chief supply of world gold came from the mines of Saxony, Austria and Spain, while during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, newly discovered sources in Mexico and Brazil became more important. The lack of bullion for melting was a chronic problem in Scotland, so great efforts were made to exploit seams found within the country.2

Instructions issued to Justus Branshagen, 3 Sep 1716. Image reproduced with the kind permission of The National Archives, Kew. Reference:TNA, SP54/12

Across the border in England, one of the early hindrances to the mining of metals was the Act passed in 1404 by Henry IV (1399-1413), which deemed it a felony to create gold and silver by means of Alchemy and rendered the majority of profits to the Crown, equated to ninety per cent of all gold and silver. Later in 1568 during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558-1603), state policy was introduced to encourage new manufacturers, which extended to mining. The establishment of The Society of Mines Royal, one of two companies that held the monopoly for base metals in mines in England and Wales, was incorporated by royal charter. The Society was a joint stock venture with 24 shareholders and worked mines in Cumberland, as well as operating a smelting plant near Keswick and a copper smelting plant near Neath, Glamorgan. The other venture sharing the monopoly was the Company of Mineral and Battery works, with rights based on a patent granted to William Humfrey of the Mint. In 1603 on the death of Elizabeth I, James VI of Scotland became James I (1567-1625) of England, uniting the two countries informally in the process. Optimism was raised for finding commercially viable sources of precious metals in the British Isles.3 In 1609/10, the Warden of the Mint accounted for a return of 456lbs 3 oz of silver coin made from Scottish bullion.4 It took until 1688 before a new Act reduced the Crown’s share of any find to ten per cent and the monopolies in place were disbanded. A slump in mining activities in the latter half of the seventeenth century was followed by a new wave of prospecting, with the Parliamentary Act of Union, which formally brought Scotland and England together in 1707, being the catalyst for change.

The activities of Sir John Erskine of Alva (1672-1739) stand out during this period. Erskine exploited silver mines discovered on land in the Ochil Hills, Alva, Clackmannanshire, east of Stirling in central Scotland. The area, later to become known as ‘Silver Glen’, had passed to him through an inheritance from his father, together with the burden of heavy debts due to death duty taxes. The deposit of native silver was the richest ever found in the British Isles and was discovered just as Sir John joined the Jacobite cause in the 1715 rising, leaving his wife Catherine, Lady Erskine, to oversee the extraction of the silver.

“During Sir John’s absence, his second wife, Lady Catherine, was left to handle his affairs, including the silver mine that Erskine had operated in secret since 1714.”

Sir Isaac Newton, Warden and then Master of the Royal Mint, 1696-1727.

Sir John joined his rebellious cousin the sixth Earl of Mar, (confusingly, he was also called John Erskine) one of the Commissioners for the Union. Mar had been made Scottish Secretary of State, a representative peer for Scotland, Keeper of the Signet and a Privy Counsellor. Mar, nicknamed ‘Bobbing John’ for his tendency to shift back and forth from faction to faction, from Tory to Whig or Hanoverian to Jacobite. Despite assuring the new King George I (1714-1727) of his loyalty, he was deprived of office by him. Mar went on to head the Jacobite rising of 1715 against the Crown and in September called for independence, proclaiming James VIII (known as the Old Pretender) King of Scotland and James III of England and Ireland. By November, Mar had raised a 10,000-strong army, outnumbering his opponent’s forces, and a battle commenced at Sheriffmuir, just to the north-east of Dunblane in Perthshire, against troops of the Duke of Argyll. Following a decisive retreat, the Jacobites were routed, and Mar and Erskine fled to France to evade imprisonment.5

During Sir John’s absence, his second wife, Lady Catherine, was left to handle his affairs, including the silver mine that Erskine had operated in secret since 1714. Having engaged miners from Leadhill to explore his land, two seams of silver had been located, extracted and hidden at Alva.6

With Erskine now exiled in France, in an attempt to hide evidence of the secret venture, the mine was filled in; however, a whistle blower travelled to London and brought it to the attention of the crown. It is in the later statement of John James, a former servantof Erskine, originally employed in 1711 to oversee the training of staff, and who had also volunteered for the Jacobean cause at the mine, who pointed the finger at James Hamilton as the informer. During Erskine’s absence, Hamilton held the position of overseer at the mine. In his disposition, it was recorded that:

“John Erskine’s Lady then employed this despondent as overseer of four men that diff’d the ore out of the mine for about three months in which time they dug out of the mine… about forty tons of ore to which was brought to Sir John Erskine’s house and there packed in pipes, hogs head and other casks which they buried in the bank to the north west end of the house”7

While this account was most likely true and a large sum of the extracted silver was hidden at the house of Erskine, by the time it came to the attention of the authorities, it had no doubt been spirited away. Lady Catherine did not trust Hamilton – this is well documented in her letters to Sir John while he was in France. No doubt some of the silver had earlier been smuggled to France to build up funds for arms and wages to pay Mar’s rebels for the November 1715 uprising.

Lady Catherine wrote to Sir John with news of Hamilton’s departure. However, Hamilton’s betrayal was not as disastrous for Sir John as it might have been. On the advice of Catherine’s brother-in-law, John Haldane,8 a plan was hatched for Erskine to inform the palace of the mine’s existence and it was argued that as he had the best knowledge of the mine he be allowed to return and resume mining with ten per cent of the revenue going to the Crown. This secured a pardon and George I granted permission for Sir John to return to Scotland to excavate the silver at the mine with all possible encouragement given to explore the venture.9

As head of the London Mint, the potential of a new supply of silver came to the attention of Sir Isaac Newton. He had received samples taken from the mine confirming the richness of the ore and was invited to visit to examine the source. Unaccustomed to such matters, he suggested the King might instead appoint an expert from his German mines. Dr Justus Brandshagen, by profession a physician, was called for and dispatched north along with James and Thomas Hamilton.10 A list of instructions was presented to the group:

You are to give a Description in writing of the said two veins as to their Breadth Depth & Distance from one another and upmost which way they run ad what sort of Earth or stone they are all lodged in And what is the Depth of the mountain where the mine is lodged and whether in that mine there be any beds of silver or copper ore besides the said two veins.

You are in the presence with the assistance of the said persons to Enquire after & search fore sundry Casks which we are informed were filled with about 40 tons of Ore dugout of the said mine in the time of the late Rebellion and buried on the northwest side of the Lady Areskine’s house And upon finding of the said Ore to make assay & report…11

A report of the expedition reveals that the journey by sea from London to Edinburgh took three weeks and two days. It was recorded that the party undertook:

A dangerous voyage, and in two storms, we lost two masts and were thrice driven from the Sand-banckes. When the ship was repairing, all the passengers went ashore which was chargeable to [Newton].12

“This secured a pardon and George I granted permission for Sir John to return to Scotland to excavate the silver at the mine with all possible encouragement given to explore the venture.”

Silver medal commemorating the Union of the Parliaments of Scotland and England in 1707, depicting Queen Anne (1665-1714).

Joined in Edinburgh by the Earl of Lauderdale13, the party spent four months in Scotland exploring the area and taking samples, and another three in London writing their report. This, in Newton’s opinion, took far too long, probably because the funds for the venture came out of his budget and the party members were paid by the day!14

Lauderdale’s detailed journal described events as they unfolded. The mine was located and cleared, furnaces were constructed for assaying the ore and samples were dispatched to London. Dr Brandshagen wrote of the ore:

I found it of an extraordinary nature, such as to my knowledge few or none like have been seen in Europe. It consists of sulphur, arsnic, copper tinn, iron, some lead and good silver. Of all these the silver is only to be regarded, for the other minerals and metals contained in the ore are of little value, and not worth the charges to separate and keep them. 15

As for locating the 40 tons of silver said to have been already excavated, Hamilton identified the spot on the northwest side of the house and found that six inches of soil lay on top of the barrels of ore. As they began to exhume the barrels, it was found that the soil was loose and had previously been disturbed, and only a few pieces of ore were found. Sir John indicated another area in the garden where some of the ore was still buried and six small casks were quickly uncovered, but the contents consisted of little more than worthless rock from the mine.

Stephen Moreton, in his recent investigation into the legendary silver, noted that servants at Alva reported the removal from time to time of other casks, but perhaps what appears more curious is that the matter of the missing silver seems not to have been pursued further by the authorities.16

“As for locating the 40 tons of silver said to have been already excavated, Hamilton identified the spot on the northwest side of the house and found that six inches of soil lay on top of the barrels of ore.”

Sadly, despite Sir John’s best efforts, the mine proved to be no great prospect and the project was short-lived. With the proceeds made from the silver mine, reputed to be in the region of £50,000, Sir John set about improvements to his estate. He died in 1739 after a fall from his horse. As for the Earl of Mar, the Writ of Attainder for treason against him issued by parliament in 1716 remained in place as punishment for his disloyalty. He lived out his remaining days in France and was never to see Scotland again before his death at Aix-la-Chapelle in 1732.

Dr Michele Blagg (BA, MA, PhD) is an historical consultant, researcher and writer who works independently offering client services, specialising in financial and business history. She holds a PhD in History from King’s College London, which was funded by The Rothschild Archive in collaboration with the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Her doctoral research focused on the Royal Mint Refinery operated by N M Rothschild & Sons between 1852 and 1968 studying how it adapted to change within the London gold market.

She worked for many years in the financial services industry before pursuing her studies in Political, Economic and Social history. She received a First-class BA (Hons) from the Open University and subsequently, an MA in Contemporary British History from the Institute of Historical Research. She recently qualified in Global Risk Analysis and Crisis Management at Vesalius College, Brussels, gaining an in-depth knowledge, together with a wide range of practical tools, in identifying and analysing global security risks to advance effective responses to humanitarian, military and political ‘complex crises’.

Engaged by the LBMA in 2014 she managed the oral history project ‘Voices of the London Bullion Market’. Sitting as an Executive of the Business Archives Council, she promotes the preservation of business records, encouraging interest in the history of Britain.

  1. S G E Lythe, The Economy of Scotland in the European Setting 1550-1625 (Edinburgh: Oliver and Boyd, 1960) pp. 51-57. See also, for the history of gold mining in Scotland, Neil D L Clark, Scottish Gold, Fruit of the Nation (Neil Wilson Publishing Ltd, in conjunction with The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, 2014).
  2. See, for a history of mining during the Middle Ages, William Jacob, An Historical inquiry into the production and consumption of the precious metals (London: John Murray,1831).
  3. The details are taken from SGE Lythe, The Economy of Scotland, pp.51-57 and Jacob Williams, An historical inquiry.
  4. C E Challis, A New History of the Royal Mint (Cambridge University Press, 1992), p.323
  5. See, for an account of the Battle of Sheriffmuir, Magnus Magnusson, Scotland, the History of a Nation (London: HarperCollins, 2001), pp. 565-568.
  6. James A McKean, The Hidden Legacies of Mineral Extraction at Silver Glen (Private Publication). Accessed via website: 1/11/2016.
  7. Ibid.
  8. John Haldane (1660-1721) of Gleneagles, Perth. He married Helen Erskine (date unknown), the sister of Sir John Erskine. A detailed biography of John Haldane can be found at: http://www.historyofparliament... member/haldane-john-1660-1721
  9. The National Archives, Kew (henceforth TNA), SP55/6, Correspondence Townshend to Carpenter, 27 Nov 1716.
  10. See, for further details of search for a silver mine, papers located at National Archives Scotland, RH69/26/1-7. Files contain copy of instruction to Justus Brandshagen and James Hamilton to undertake survey and trial of the mine; instructions to Lauderdale to assist with survey; journal of proceedings of Lauderdale; payments to Brandshagen; report by Brandshagen, description of mines and assay of ore, and methods of assay.
  11. TNA, SP54/12, Instructions issued to Justus Brandshagen, 3 September 1716.
  12. John Craig, Newton at the Mint (Cambridge: University Press, 1946), pp.103/4.
  13. Charles Maitland, sixth Earl of Lauderdale. He succeeded his father in 1710; served as a volunteer under the Duke of Argyll at the Battle of Sheriffmuir (1715); was a general of the mint, and Lord Lieutenant and high Sheriff of Edinburgh.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Stephen Morton, ‘The Alva Silver Mine’ in The Mineralogical Record, 27:1996, pp.405-414..
  16. Ibid.