I sat down to write something about gold prospecting in the Highlands, a story of the long forgotten mines that scar our landscape and the rivers where enthusiasts can still pan for tiny flakes. Distracted in equal parts by history and mythology it soon became apparent that the treasures that lie beneath the Scottish soil will not be found by miners and gold panning but by archaeologists and folklorists.
If old stories and legends are to be believed then the Highlands are laden with gold, buried centuries ago and just waiting to be discovered. Vast treasures and long forgotten hordes await those clever enough to decipher the clues as to their whereabouts or brave enough to risk supernatural vengeance from their spirit guardians.
One of the most celebrated and oft discussed cases of hidden gold relates to Bonnie Prince Charlie. This incident was the basis of an award winning film only a few years ago that told the story of one man’s quest to find millions of pounds worth of missing gold coins and also a BBC documentary presented by Neil Oliver. Both failed. What continues to make this particular tale so compelling is that the background is well documented. Numerous sources back up the facts at the heart of the story, it is just the end however that still has to be written.
Seven casks of Spanish gold were landed by two French frigates at Loch Nan Uamh, south-east of Arisaig, on April 29, 1746. This was part of a promised consignment of money, arms and brandy for the Jacobite cause. The waiting clansmen neglected to tell the French commander that Bonnie Prince Charlie had been defeated two weeks earlier at Culloden and was now on the run in the Hebrides. When the French ships came under attack from English warships, the gold was spirited away. Three clansmen are thought to have hidden the stash at the head of Loch Arkaig, on land belonging to a loyal supporter. It is here that the trail goes cold. Historians believe it was dug up and reburied on several occasions over the next few months to keep Hanoverian soldiers from discovering it. What follows is a complex knot of hearsay, deathbed confessions, forgery, greed and betrayal. It is documented in the court records of the time that in 1753 Prince Charles’ secretary in exile in France was betrayed then arrested when he returned to Scotland in an attempt to secure the gold for the Prince. He was tortured, sentenced to death and was in fact the last Jacobite to be hung and drawn in Scotland. Despite all the attention, conflicting theories and scholarly research the gold, which would be worth about £10 million pounds today has never been found.
There is an alternative version of this story that drifts from the historical towards the mythological but nonetheless bears retelling. This version of the tale has a hogshead of gold consigned to a certain Duncan MacRae. Duncan, a Jacobite sympathiser was endowed with second-sight and had the ability of rendering invisible both persons and objects, surely the perfect person then to hide a stash of treasure. Duncan and a couple of his confederates buried it aside Feadan Mor, hoping that, if one day Prince Charlie should happen to find himself in this part of the country it might be of service to him. Prince Charlie never came this way again and, so, to this day it still lies buried. Duncan put a spell on the hogshead — a spell that made it invisible to the human eye except for a brief moment once in seven years. Sometime around 1845 just a century after its concealment a crofter woman watching her cows noticed by her side part of a hogshead projecting from the ground. Believing that at long last the buried treasure of the 45 had become visible once more, she drove her staff into the ground to identify its position. On her return to the spot with the rest of the village the staff had vanished and she could not locate the hogshead. Although Duncan MacRae had been dead long since, his power of rendering things invisible still pervaded the Feadan Mor, and maintained the hogshead under spell. And, so, to this day the treasure sent from France to assist the cause of a hapless Prince lies among the wilds.
History and myth can often give conflicting explanations for past events but occasionally they overlap and one backs up the other. Such is the case with the lost treasure of Castle Tioram. The evocatively named Silver Walk that winds its way along the coast to the castle near Acharacle gets its name from a hidden stash of Elizabethan coins that were dug up when the path was created over a century ago. In the 1600s the 13th chief, gained a reputation for his cruel, savage, and unreasoning behaviour. When a quantity of silver was stolen from the castle, he suspected three servants, two men and one woman. Although unable to prove the case, he had the two men hung and the woman tied to one of the rocks in the estuary by her hair and allowed to drown in the rising tide. To this day the rock is still known as the Rock of James’s Daughter and the rest of the silver is yet to be found.
Tobar an Dualchais or Kist of Riches is an online project that collects and preserves old Gaelic recordings of interviews made by folklorists in last century. Would-be treasure hunters will find a unique trove of oral history and for those fluent in Gaelic and willing to wade through hundreds of old recordings there is a wealth of tales of buried treasure. The importance of these stories is evidenced by the fact that many have never been written down but they have still survived intact for hundreds of years by being passed on orally through generations. One such tale that survives in a number of strangely similar versions is that of MacQueen from Oronsay on North Uist. In the 16th century he buried a vast treasure inside a colts hide at Crogary. In order to identify the location he carefully chose his spot and planted three marram roots. When you get to the only point on the island where you can see at the same time three different forts and the configuration of a ploughing man in the ground then you are in the right spot. Sounds easy to find? Indiana Jones wannabees have tried and failed for many years to identify the site but there is just enough in the way of clues to tempt each successive generation to go and look. The remains of old forts are still being discovered and with the advent of drones and aerial photography to survey the landscapes a treasure quest has never been easier.
The Cave of Gold or Uamh Oir on the Isle of Skye is considerable easier to find although seldom visited as it is still well off the regular tourist trail. To get here is an adventure in itself as recent disputes with landowners have all but closed access completely. The mythology surrounding the cave is detailed and varied, and people entering have been known to exit at completely different parts of the island, miles away. Neil Gaiman, in the media spotlight as the TV series based on his bestseller American Gods is currently being broadcast, wrote in his online blog of how coming across the myth of this cave in a book of Skye folklore inspired him to write the award winning novella The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains. The legend tells of a pot of gold hidden deep inside the cave and a spirit guardian watching over it. If you were brave, and resourceful you could go and help yourself, with no cost, but each visit you paid to the cave would make you more evil and would eat your soul. Don’t say you haven’t been warned.
On a final note – you have about as much chance of finding the treasure as winning the lottery……… bet you still do that though…..argyll, castle tioram, cave on skye, gold panning, hidden gold, Jacobites, Lochaber, pot of gold, Prince Charlie, treasure, treasure hunt