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Work on Scotland’s first gold mine begins. Will everything go to plan?
23rd March 2021 at 11:00PM
Filmed in the Scottish Highlands over a year and a half, the series follows the constant challenges at the mine, and life in the local community, a busy tourist hub that up until now relies mainly on tourism.
Farmer John Burton and his wife Deirdre have known about the gold on their land for almost 40 years. A quartz vein, hidden inside Beinn Chuirn, contains gold estimated to be worth 200 million pounds. Several companies have already tried and failed to extract it. Establishing a new mine is not easy.
August 2019. Farmer John’s son Davy is one of the mine supervisors, leading a team of local lads, all new to mining. Training here means the miners could get jobs abroad that pay almost three times the average for the area. Working 12 hour shifts underground can be challenging. It’s noisy, dusty and damp, with a potential for unexpected rock fall and hazardous fumes.
Five miles down the road the local village of Tyndrum is buzzing with visitors. Fiona from the busy service station The Green Welly Stop, has lost a couple of workers to the mine. Sarah at The Real Food Café was against the mine initially, but is now keen to ensure it brings genuine benefit to the community. A shortage of housing is a huge problem here, but mine employees increasing the demand may encourage companies to build.
The mining company won’t make a penny until the first molten gold is poured and that date keeps slipping. Already 24 million in the red, CEO Richard Gray has had to ask investors for more money. He calls on all managers to re-double their efforts to keep the funders on side and produce gold by February 2020 - six months away.
To extract the tiny gold particles from the ore vein, the company need to build a giant processing plant just below the entrance to the mine. But as farmer John’s land lies within Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park, planning consent comes with strict stipulations. The start of the build is delayed by months, and when they finally get going they immediately hit a problem - much more peat than they’ve been given permission to unearth. Work can’t properly move on until they find somewhere to store it. Australian project manager Jason is now faced with building a giant processing plant on an exposed Scottish hillside in the depths of winter. Any further delay could mean the whole mining project runs out of money.
It’s November 2019 and the delays in building the processing plant for the gold mine continue. Shifting 185,000 thousand tons of mountain terrain to level the ground should have taken six weeks, but it’s been three months and they are nowhere near finished.
Until they have the processing plant up and running, the mine can’t extract the fine particles of gold from the quartz vein and start making money. Project Manager Jason Saint is hitting problem after problem. Unrelenting rain makes the ground too dangerous for the contractors to operate their heavy machinery, and excess peat keeps being discovered. Jason has one final area he thinks Loch Lomond and The Trossachs National Park planning team may approve for peat storage. If they don’t agree, he’s at a loss as what to do.
Four miles west in the village of Tyndrum, the quieter winter months provide time for staff training at The Green Welly Stop. During winter they don’t turn a profit, but Fiona’s keen to keep open to provide a service to those who need fuel and supplies.
Mine CEO Richard Gray has travelled to Edinburgh with Nat le Roux, one of the mines main investors for an urgent meeting. Two jewellery companies signed up to an exclusive deal to create and sell jewellery made from gold produced in the mines first year. They expected to see their first batch three months ago. Richard needs to keep everyone on board.
Back at the mine, there is an accident, though not one that takes place underground. Two men are injured by a truckload of heavy matting. The matting crushed the delivery driver who had to be airlifted to hospital. The other casualty is Davy, farmer John’s son. Davy suffers a broken jaw and badly bruised ribs.
In February 2020, the earthworks for the processing plant are no further on. They were supposed to be pouring gold by now – but instead they’re facing many more months of delay. With finances at a critical point, Richard has decided they will stand down the contractors and ask the miners to help with the ground works. Using smaller machines they may make more headway. Davy is leading the new team, but just as they get going, there’s another problem for Jason. The National Park Planners have told them to stop work on the new water management system. Yet another hold-up.
The mine is six months behind schedule and there’s still no sign of the processing plant. Despite the efforts of the redeployed miners, winter conditions mean they haven’t been able to finish creating a flat platform on the hillside for building to start.
As February comes to a close the weather starts to improve and there’s a chance to claw back lost time, but then everything changes. The pandemic hits the UK and on March 23rd and the country goes into lockdown. Jason closes the site.
Four miles down the road in the usually bustling village of Tyndrum – everything is quiet. The sound of bird song soars above the silence. Owner of The Real Food Café, Sarah is concerned about the large elderly population in the area, including her mum. Green Welly Stop owner Fiona continues to provide essential fuel supplies, but she’s had to put 60 staff on furlough. In an area so heavily dependent on tourism, many local businesses are under threat.
Up at the mine the small team working on care and maintenance have been able to finally finish preparing the base for the processing plant. There is one piece of positive news. The price of gold has reached an all time high and the company are now in a good financial position, despite all the delays. They’re hiring more miners.
At the start of July the Scottish Government’s five mile travel restriction is lifted and local businesses are able to open. Andy, at the Tyndrum Inn is worried they won’t make it through the winter though. At The Real Food Café, Sarah explains they are between a quarter and half a million pounds down having missed out on 4 of their most profitable months.
It's November 30th 2020 and crunch point. This is the day that investors have been told the mining company will pour the first molten gold. Processing plant manager Nigel is taking on the challenge of turning the crushed quartz vein into gold. After heating several times, the concentrate goes into the furnace at 1070 degrees. It’s a success, not the quantity they had hoped for, but a major step in showing they can be a working goldmine and a key moment for investors. By 2022 their target is to produce nearly three quarters of a million pounds worth of gold every week.
The success story at the mine contrasts sharply with the state of play in Tyndrum. The Inn and Real Food Café have had to close down once again, as Scotland goes into further lockdown. In these trying times, with Brexit and COVID-19, the mine is one of the only local businesses on the up.
Where do the metals we use come from and what determines where we get them from? Dr Julie Robson focuses on the highly sought-after metal of gold, which actually occurs with other metals including silver, copper and lead.Read now ❯Digging for gold and other precious metals
Dr Avi Boukli, Senior Lecturer in Criminology, Social Policy and Criminology, looks at the impact of mining in Cerro de Pasco, Peru - home to one of the most polluted places on Earth.Read now ❯What environmental harm is caused by mining?
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This module starts with investigating how social science perspectives change the way we understand and respond to the major environmental challenges of our time. You'll explore how understandings of environment and society had profound and unequal consequences for people and ecosystems across the planet, in the age of the Anthropocene. You'll also explore ways of understanding environmental and societal issues that are entangled in cultural, economic, social, and political terms and look at how these can provide the resources required to value environments differently and to build new models of responsibility required to navigate the Anthropocene.Learn more ❯Environment and society
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The academics at The Open University are some of the leading experts in their field, who apply their passion for their subject to teaching, research and public engagement.
The OU academics supporting this series have been chosen for their ability to advise on the programme’s subject area.
Dr Julie Robson, Senior Lecturer and Lead Staff Tutor
Julie is a Senior Lecturer and Lead Staff Tutor in School Environment Earth and Ecosystem Sciences at The Open University in Scotland.
Dr Gerry Mooney, Senior Lecturer
Gerry is a Senior Lecturer in Social Policy and Criminology at The Open University in Scotland.