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November 8th 1862

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Breadalbane mining

There are deposits of various minerals in the Breadalbane area. Lead in the form of Galena was mined in Clifton near Tyndrum though the mines were closed in 1798. In Glen Quaich, near to Amulree a 55 gram nugget of gold was found in 1828, the largest ever to be found in Scotland. Today further prospecting for gold is being carried out in the Tyndrum area and large seams of Byrites are being mined in the area of Farragon Hill, north of Aberfeldy. Byrites is employed as a sealant in North Sea Oil exploration.

Any exploration carried out today is done on a strictly commercial basis but the operations carried out by John Campbell, 2nd Marquis of Breadalbane, were characterised less by any signs of financial acumen than by a tenacious obstinacy and a fanatical determination to prove what he wanted to believe. He succeeded to the Earldom in 1834. Four years later he re-opened the lead mines at Clifton and continued operating them at a loss for many years. But his main operation, one might almost say the centre of his obsession, was the mine at Tomnadashan on the south side of Loch Tay. Tomnadashan was then a small community a little west of Ardtalnaig.

Today there are no houses, the name has disappeared from the map but the mines may still be seen above the roadway between the farms of Kindrochit and Wester Tulloch. The mines are about 200 yards above the roadway and consist of a large cavern with smaller galleries branching from it, and two lesser caverns to the left of the main cavern. According to F. Odernheimer, one of the first of the Earl’s ‘experts’, the south banks of Loch Tay were “highly mineralised and intersected by a vast number of veins.”  He was particularly enthusiastic about the deposits of chalcopyrite (copper pyrites) and iron pyrites. He also reported small quantities of silver and gold.

By the beginning of 1842, mining trials began using a Welsh miner Griffith Roberts, initially working on his own. Later the workforce increased and by 1846, sixteen men and two boys were employed “to break stones and sort ore.” 

In another report a year later there is mention of twelve men “blasting and wheeling.”  But in spite of all these signs of activity there is very little sign of any financial return from the mines though the ever-optimistic reports continued. Even as late as 1860 the mining engineer George Herwood could report that “further energetic development cannot fail to produce immense results.”  But when the Earl finally died in 1862 he had spent over £10,000 with negligible returns.

The ore from the mines was carried down to the Loch. The track used is still visible today though the portion below the road is less well defined. The track finishes up at Fir Bush Pier of which only a few rotting wooden posts remain today. It was here that the ore was stockpiled, and except for a small amount sent to Swansea for smelting, most of the ore remained by the water’s edge.

Two methods were tried to convert this ore into something of greater value. The first somewhat unlikely method was to use the ore as a starting point for the manufacture of sulphuric acid. In the 1840’s there had been a sudden rise in the price of sulphur with a consequent demand for native supplies, mainly for the production of sulphuric acid. Both iron and copper pyrites contain sulphur and the Marquis with his usual enthusiasm decided to build a sulphuric acid plant at Tomnadashan. Work on the building of the plant started early in 1857 and on December 3rd James Jefferis of the Tomnadashan Chemical Works could write, “I beg to inform your Lordship that the sulphuric acid process is working exceedingly well. I am giving it my attention for the greater part of the night in order that the men should not have any accidents and also that the process may work well".

It was intended that some of the acid should be used to dissolve ground bones so producing fertiliser, with the rest being sold in Perth. With the usual over-optimism, the works were soon extended and in 1860 James Napier, a leading industrial chemist and metallurgist was appointed as manager at a salary of £500 per year. With such expertise, the enterprise should have thrived but there was one handicap that not even Napier could overcome - the low grade of the ore. Work continued but a profit was never made and in September 1861 the works were finally closed down. Today no trace remains of the acid plant.

The second and more obvious use for the ore stockpiled at Fir Bush Pier was to convert it to copper. At this time the process used was known as the Swansea process. It involved carrying out six separate smelting processes and was consequently extremely profligate in its use of coal. This was not too much of a handicap in the Swansea area where there were plentiful supplies of high grade local coal but posed great difficulties in a remote locality such as Tomnadashan. If the Marquis was aware of the difficulty it made no difference to his determination to smelt his own copper. A furnace was planned for Tomnadashan and after some initial mishaps was ready to go into production in April 1860. Welsh smelters were brought to Scotland and for the next two years unsuccessful attempts were made to obtain metallic copper. The best that could be done was to produce an enriched ore known as regulus. This was perhaps the most lasting memorial to John Campbell 2nd Marquis of Breadalbane. Down by Fir Bush Pier the shiny black lumps of regulus still lie, easily distinguished from the stones and boulders carpeting the shoreline.

The 2nd Marquis died without issue and it was five years before John Campbell of Glenfalloch finally succeeded to the title. The mining and the smelting had ceased in November 1862.

They were never to resume again.

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