Twenty years after the start of the Californian gold rush, and announcement in a local newspaper in Sutherland caused
similar excitement. Towards the end of 1868 it was reported that a Robert Gilchrist has discovered gold in the
Strath of Kildonan.
Gilchrist had spent the previous seventeen years working the goldfields of Australia. On returning to his native
Kildonan he was granted permission by the Duke of Sutherland to pan for gold in the River Helmsdale and its many
tributaries. He was successful in his task and found gold in many locations throughout the Strath of Kildonan (also
known as Strath Ullie) but the richest concentrations were to be found in the Kildonan and Suisgill burns.
Unsurprisingly word of his finds soon spread - the story was even picked up by the Illustrated London News - and by
early summer of 1869 more than 600 people had arrived in the glen to seek their fortune, most of them walking the
thirty miles from what was then the railway terminus in Golspie.
With the influx of prospectors, the Duke of Sutherland started charging £1 per month for a licence to work
each 40-foot claim, plus a royalty of 10 per cent of all the gold that was found. To accommodate all these people
two temporary settlements sprang up. Baille an Or - Gaelic for the "Town of Gold" - was a collection of huts on the
banks of the Kildonan Burn. This even had its own inn, offering food, provisions and accommodation to prospectors.
The other was Carn na Buth - Gaelic for the "Hill of Tents" - beside the Suisgill Burn.
The gold rush reached its peak in June and July of 1869. As well as the prospectors, many journalists and even
tourists made the journey north to witness the spectacle. However, as more and more gold was extracted from the
river beds, the price began to fall. Come August and the start of the herring fishing season many people packed up
and headed home.
Then, as summer turned to autumn then winter and the weather worsened, the numbers fell further. It became harder to
find the gold and eventually towards the end of 1869 it was announced that no new licences would be issued and that
any prospectors left should leave once their existing licences expired. By the end of 1869, Sutherland's brief
gold rush was over.
However, that is not quite the end of the story. Non-commercial prospecting is still allowed today on the Kildonan
burn from the bridge upstream to the waterfall. Many people still come to try their luck at panning for gold and if
you know what to look for you can still find it. You won't become rich but even so on a summers day you will usually
find several people prospecting in the waters of the Kildonan. If you want to try your hand at it then the necessary
equipment can be hired from shops in nearby Helmsdale.