King Jamie's Silvermine at Hilderston, Bathgate Hills (1606-1613)


In the autumn of 1606, Sandy Maund, a Scottish collier, while prospecting for coal by the "Silver bourne, under the hill called Kerne-Popple" in the Bathgate Hills, now Hilderston in the central valley of Scotland,  made a chance discovery of native silver. The event was vividly described thirteen years later by Stephen Atkinson, a metals assayer who became actively involved at the mine.  "And this Scotsman, by meanes of digging the ground, hitt upon the heavy peece of redd-mettle; no man thereabouts ever saw the like. It was raced with small stringes, like unto haiers, or thredds.". 

Sir Bevis Bulmer, of Leadhills, well known metallurgist and assayer of his time analysed Sandy Maund's original sample of the silver ore. He was considerably surprised by the result of his first assay "because it proved, riche .. (he) went to it againe, and againe, and still it proved rich, and wondrous rich.". Sir Bevis’s results were sufficient incentive for Sir Thomas Hamilton, the landowner but also the King's Advocate, a notable lawyer and 'a very clever man', to proceed on January of 1607 to acquire a mining lease from the King.



Native silver processing (Agricola 1556).

The materials evidence such as ore and metallurgical waste from mining and smelting respectively has been scarce and when available, at best inconclusive. Silver occurs in its native state at Hilderston in an unusual and quite rare type of mineralization with arsenic and nickel. Silver is more commonly produced as a by-product of lead (galena, PbS) ore.  Evidence for smelting must centre around the site of the Furnace which lies currently at the edge of a ploughed field. A 1 mm silver platelet with small fragments of translucent phase is most certainly the relict of silver processing. Although the shape of the platelet suggests that it may have been a cutting perhaps generated by the type of shears illustrated in Agricola, the presence of lead (oxide?) “trapped” within the platelet implies cupellation with the peculiar shape resulting from liquid immiscibility. This is the only evidence so far for this type of activity at Hilderston.




Polished section of 1mm silver platelet.

Metal exploration should always be seen in the political and historical context of its time, of the people behind the ventures and of the events that justified their actions. In Scotland, the Union of the Crowns had just taken place (in 1603) and James VI of Scotland became King James I of England and VI of Scotland. In the popular mind King James's reputation has rested on greed, the Scottish King who turned his back on his native land once he tasted the finery and intellectually stimulating high life of the London court. Yet "few sovereigns have equalled his literary output and no other prince ever carried to the English throne as extensive a knowledge derived from reading and study". King James gave his wholehearted support to "projects", through the granting of patents and monopolies to individuals, usually over-confident adventurers who were willing to undertake risky enterprises.

Our work introduced here has focused on one particular venture or "project", that of the extraction and processing of silver at Hilderston in the Bathgate Hills and has included documentary, archaeological and geological investigations.

The King's Advisers became aware of the apparent richness of the mine and in April 1608 the workings were officially repossessed. In order to process the large quantities of the rich ore expected, a mineral processing plant was constructed at Linlithgow, The exact locality has been lost and with extensive road and building development in the area, there is little chance now of locating the site. However, a complete series of accounts spanning May 1608 - May 1609 illuminate all aspects of the activities of the 'Melting Fining and Stamping Mills' at Linlithgow. "Slag" and other types of industrial waste is scattered throughout the area but our analyses of samples collected in the course of two surveys remained inconclusive.

By December of 1608 it became clear that things were not going according to plan.  The main problem was evidently the variation in ore grade. "Until the same redd-mettle came unto 12 faddomes (18m) deepe, it remained still good; from thence unto 30 fathome (55m) deepe it proved nought."  The accounts for  May 1608 to December 1610 demonstrate how unprofitable the nationalised silver mine was. It was inevitable that operations would soon cease.  In March 1613 the Crown gave up all efforts.

View looking NE over old silver workings in floor of valley.

From an archaeological perspective one of the most useful documents about the overground and underground remains at Hilderston is undoubtedly the plan of the site, titled "plan of the Works of the silver Mines of Hilderstoun and Tartraven" prepared by the surveyor Joseph Udny, dated 14th July 1772 and held in the archives of the Hopetoun Estates. This date evidently marks the end of late 18th Century mining activities started in 1766.

EDM survey of Silvermine area.

For full account see:

PHOTOS-JONES, E. et al 1999 "The manner how it grew was like unto the haire of a man's head": the early 1600's discovery and exploitation of native silver at Hilderston in Scotland. In Young et al (eds) Metals in Antiquity BAR International Series 792, pp 280-289.

Authors: E. Photos-Jones1,2, A.J. Hall2,3, T. Pollard4, T.K. Meikle5 & A. Newlands3

1 Scottish Analytical Services for Art and Archaeology, GLASGOW.

2 Department of Archaeology, University of Glasgow, GLASGOW.

3 Department of Geology and Applied Geology, University of Glasgow, GLASGOW.

4 Glasgow University Archaeological Research Division, University of Glasgow, GLASGOW.

5 13 Tassie Place, EAST KILBRIDE.


We are grateful to the following for funding this project: The Russell Trust; The Department of Archaeology, University of Glasgow; and The Metallurgy and Engineering Materials Group, Department of Mechanical Engineering, University of Strathclyde.  Particular thanks are extended to the following for their comments and assistance in the field and in the laboratory: Mrs Crichton, archivist, Hopetoun House Preservation Trust; Mr Aitken, Riccarton Farm, Linlithgow; Mr Graham, Mid-Tartraven Farm, Bathgate; and  Mrs Potter, The Knock, Bathgate.