The Gold Panner

Via Inverness I traveled through the Scottish Highlands to Fort William. My
host in Inverness, a Norwegian flight courier, took me halfway down along the
water of Loch Ness, from where a primary school headmaster from Australia stopped
along the road to give me a lift to Fort William.

It took me two days to get away from the quaint little place – Fort William
is one of Scotland’s tourist hot spots with an image as if the Dutch draftsman
Anton Pieck would have painted it. A lonely ski lift on a green hill even makes
it one of five places in the Scottish mountains where you can ski in winter. It
had never occurred to me that people could ski in Scotland! Scotland goes, as
worldwide known, with rain, but in the Highlands this rain turns to snow in winter.
The Scots even taught me a practical proverb: If you can’t see the hills, it is
raining. If you can see the hills, it will rain soon.’

After one night in Fort William I tried catching a lift south. I spent more
than four hours in the pouring rain and got used to the idea that no-one wanted
to offer me a ride. I gave up for that day and was lucky enough to be able to
spend another night with my host family in Fort William.

The following day there was hail in the early morning, pouring rain the rest
of the morning and just a little bit of sunshine in the afternoon. Scotland is
a funny country weather-wise.

I was given a lift by a guy from Wales, who’d spent the weekend in the far
north. He could use some company during the more than four hundred kilometer journey
down South. Driving though the last bits of the Highlands, breathing the clean
air and looking through valleys of lakes and rivers, we finally approached Glasgow,
where I spent the night.

While heading southbound I was the dreary mountain scenery turn into the lush
green hills of the Scottish Lowlands. That is where I met a truly fascinating
person.

I was picked up from a spot by the motorway by Douglas, whose two loudly barking
dogs didn’t allow me to sit in front, so I sat in the back of the van. From the
exit to the old mining village of Elvanfoot we drove westwards to reach a place
which, by Douglas’ account, was called Daer. It wasn’t on my map of the United
Kingdom but, according to Douglas, Daer used to be a lively market village for
the local farmers.

‘Nowadays, it’s nothing much,’ he told me. ‘There’s one house left, and one
school.’

Douglas had invited me to Daer, but hadn’t told me that he lived in the school.

‘Great, isn’t it?’ he asked me while he unlocked the chain lock on the front
door and letting me in. ‘Squatted it myself!’

I walked through a long corridor of what had clearly been a school once. One
of the classrooms had broken windows and was filled with junk. ‘That’s the shed.’

Next, I entered a classroom with pieces of cardboard and carpet on the walls.
Obviously, this was the living room. In the middle there was a small wood stove.
A number of windows had cracks in them, which were taped over with sticky tape
to keep the draught out. There was no running water anymore, since the plumber
had refused to return after his first visit. Douglas’ water was supplied by a
creek behind the building and his fresh drinking water came from the single house
across the road. Electricity was generated by a diesel generator outside.

While my host made coffee, I wondered why anyone would want to live as isolated
as this with no modern facilities.

‘I’m a gold panner,’ Douglas said, exposing an uneven set of yellow teeth in
his mouth. ‘Very few people know, but there’s lots of gold hidden in the soil
of Scotland and Wales.’

He told me how every day he takes his dogs down to several streams nearby.
In the middle of small river he digs into the ground with his hand. Everything
he digs up, he studies for traces of gold dust in a pan.

‘And even if I find a tiny amount, I know I’m in the right place,’ he said.
‘That way I know there must be grains of real gold upstream, which could lead
me to nuggets.’

Douglas sipped his coffee. ‘But that hasn’t happened yet.’

He wore a chain around his neck made of his favorite grains of gold. ‘These
aren’t worth much,’ he said, ‘but if the gold’s pure enough, I take it to the
city, where I know a man who can keep my findings a secret and he pays me well.’
The latter he said in a whisper.

On the walls hung several large, roughly drawn maps of Britain. On them dates
were written parts were colored purple and green as they had been scratched on
by a small child.

‘Here,’ Douglas said when I looked at one of the maps, ‘some really large nuggets
were found here! I came to this area because no one had found anything here yet.
I could be the first. And, you know what?’ he said pointing at an area colored
purple on the map, ‘Here, off the coast of Wales there’s more gold than you can
imagine! If I’m ever able to recover it, I’ll be very rich!’

During dinner I asked him whether he had always been a gold panner.

‘I started panning gold for health reasons. I had enough of my job as a secret
agent working for MI5 and MI6.’

That really surprised me! Was I seriously having dinner with a retired James
Bond?

‘I started as a sailor with the Royal Navy, Douglas said. ‘And because I knew
so much about the world, I advised the Ministries of Foreign Affairs of foreign
countries, which is how I ended up in the secret service.’

‘So you were a spy?’

‘No, eventually I became a security expert’, and Douglas got all his evidence
out. He showed me photographs of himself in a uniform on big Navy ships and in
the dessert of Oman. ‘I designed the infrared defense line around a secret American
army base in England.’ He then explained the entire system to me, so I now know
everything about this infrared protection that I now only have to find that secret
American base. ‘To make some money on the side, because I wasn’t earning much,
I registered myself for medical tests and was paid well for subjecting myself
to several medicinal tests. Eventually the secret service declared me unfit. They
said I’d gone crazy, they said. I was sad, but meanwhile I knew what was hidden
in Britain’s soil and how I could make lots of money from it. The only thing I
needed to do was find it.’

I looked at him as though I believed him, but inside I was laughing my head
off. I didn’t doubt this all being his truth, particularly when he told me how
the medicinal tests had ruined his body, but I’d never heard such a bizar story.

Douglas would have loved to take me on his search for gold, but because there
was the Foot and Mouth Epidemic at the time in 2001, the local police officer
wouldn’t allow him to go to his work. I would have liked to give it a try.

In the morning I skipped the cold shower and after a quick breakfast, I was
ready to depart again. Douglas took me down in his van and – out of affection
for the barking dogs – I sat in the back seat again until Douglas dropped me off
at the motorway. I thanked him for hosting me for a day and his interesting stories.

On my way to my next destination, I got a lift from a man who, when was young,
had hitchhiked through large parts of Europe. He told me how he ended up in Amsterdam
once and he bought a big bundle of cannabis. After a while he reached the German
border where he was told to either hand it in or smoke it all. He camped several
days at the border and smoked it. My driver laughed out loud for narrating his
discernment in my home country.

Having picked me up from such a remote spot on the motorway, he wondered where
I came from.

‘I stayed with a gold panner in Daer,’ I told him.

‘Oh no! Not that crazy gold panner? Did he tell you about his meeting with
the Pope? Or about his space missions which were cancelled at the last minute,
or about how he ended the Cold War by just in time connecting the right phone
lines in a submarine in the Atlantic? He also seems to know where Marilyn Monroe
and Elvis Presley are.’