Suzanne invited a contribution on gold to add to the seasonal herbological musings on frankincense and myrrh. And who could resist the chance to write about gold? It is probably fair to say that of the Christmas triumvirate, gold is the most valuable. The heavy yellow metal has an affinity for bank vaults that is not shared by its biblical companions. Gold is easy to work, does not tarnish and is relatively rare. This combination of rarity, permanence and beauty accounts for its value.
Gold is heavy and resistant to weathering so it is concentrated in the beds of streams and rivers. It is in these deposits, that gold nuggets are found.
Nugget gold precipitated the gold rushes that were a feature of European expansion in the nineteenth century. Unlike mines, which require skilled labour and significant investment, anyone could try their hand at digging gold from river gravels! The best known gold rushes were in California, Alaska and Australia, but there were smaller gold rushes closer to home. The most famous of these was on the Gold Mines River in Ireland where it is estimated that 400kg of nugget gold was recovered.
Britain’s only working gold mine is in Co. Tyrone in northern Ireland. Recent research at The Manchester Museum has described barite with a very unusual morphology from this deposit.
The same gold-rich rocks that are common in Ireland stretch in a belt across Scotland. A mine was developed on a deposit at Cononish near Tyndrum in the 1990s. It was mothballed when gold prices slumped but will soon come back into production. With gold now trading at more than a thousand dollars an ounce, it is likely to be profitable.
Mines in Wales have supplied gold to the Royal family for many years and because of this, Welsh gold commands a patriotically high price (much higher than normal bullion). As a result, Welsh gold specimens are very hard to get.
Britain’s most unusual gold deposit is to be found in the unlikely setting of the English Riviera at Hope’s Nose near Torquay. Here, the gold occurs in limestone. It forms beautiful dendritic fronds which are highly prized by collectors. A fine example can be seen in the Rashleigh Gallery at Truro Museum.
Gold panning is a popular hobby today. There are competitions every year and one of the museum volunteers, Dr Oneta Wilson, is a gold panning champion.