Strath Kildonan carries the Helmsdale River south-east through lonely upland country from its origin at Loch Badanloch to the North Sea at Helmsdale. It's difficult to imagine today, but in 1869 parts of Strath Kildonan were home to Scotland's very own gold rush.
The story starts in 1818 when a nugget of gold large enough to produce a ring was found in the Helmsdale River. The ring remains in the family of the Duke of Sutherland. Fifty years later, in 1868, Robert Gilchrist, a local man who had worked in the Australian goldfields, was given permission by the Duke of Sutherland to prospect for gold in the River Helmsdale and its tributaries.
Gilchrist found significant quantities of gold in two tributaries of the Helmsdale River, the Kildonan Burn and the Suisgill Burn. Word reached the newspapers and by Spring 1869 some 600 prospectors had found their way to Strath Kildonan, no mean feat given that at the time the railway only reached Golspie, 30 miles to the south.
Two temporary settlements were established. One was a hutted shanty town on the edge of the Kildonan Burn at Baile an Or: Gaelic for Town of Gold. The other was Carn na Buth, or Hill of the Tents on the edge of the Suisgill Burn.
Numbers diminished to a hard core of some 200 prospectors after the Duke of Sutherland started charging £1 per month for prospecting licenses, plus a royalty of 10% on all (declared) gold found. But the falling price of gold, partly because of the success of the Strath Kildonan prospectors, plus diminishing levels of finds in the best areas and the alternative employment offered by the onset of the herring season in August, led numbers to fall to nearer 50 by Autumn.
The real problems arose, however, because of conflict between the interests of the prospectors, who wanted permission to extend the area being exploited, and those engaged in shooting, fishing or grazing sheep in Strath Kildonan. When the Duke of Sutherland found he was losing more potential income from these other users of his land than he was gaining from the prospectors he announced that all exploration for gold would cease with effect from 1 January 1870. The Strath Kildonan gold rush was at an end.
Baile an Or today is largely as it was left when the prospectors' huts were cleared away. An information board in a shelter gives some background about Baile an Or, and nearby is a notice setting out the regulations governing panning for gold in the area. The rights are owned by the Suisgill Estate, and the position regarding panning today is set out on their website, linked on this page.