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How mining lead ore resulted in a tiny village in Argyll giving its name not only to a mineral, but also a chemical element.

Strontianite is a strontium carbonate with the chemical formula SrCO₃. It is an important source of the element strontium but is a relatively rare mineral. In contrast to pentlandite, strontianite has a much more straightforward history.

The mineral is named after the village of Strontian, situated on Loch Sunart at the base of the Ardnamurchan Peninsula in Argyll. The name Strontian derives from the Gaelic Sròn an t-Sìthein or 'the point (promontory) of the fairy hill'. The hill itself lies just to the east of the village. The village does not have a long history, but the Peninsula has a long timeline of settlement by Picts, Scots and Vikings. St Columba is also known to have visited the area in the 6th century.

Strontianite illustration by Vojta Hýbl.

In 1722, galena (lead ore) veins were discovered in the hills above the present-day village. The landowner, Sir Alexander Murray, initiated what was to become 250 years of mining in the area. The remoteness and relative inaccessibility of the mines led to the establishment of the village of Strontian as a place to house the miners and their families, as well as provide somewhere to process and ship the ore out of.

Village of Strontian from the air.

Although the principal target of the mining operations was lead, other minerals were also found there. A pale green to brown mineral was discovered and the German scientist Friedrich Gabriel Sulzer of Göttingen became the first to describe and name the mineral strontianit in 1791.

Pale green strontianite from Strontian, Argyll.

The village of Strontian also gives its name to the element strontium. At the end of the 1780s, Dr Adair Crawford and Mr William Cruikshank were experimenting with material from Strontian and became aware that this material was behaving in a manner different from what they expected. After further experimentation and measurement, they concluded that this material must contain a new earth (element) and published the data in a paper in 1790. Finally, in 1808, the element was isolated and named strontium by Sir Humphrey Davy.

So far, Strontian is the only place in the UK to have an element named after it. It is also the smallest (by population) habitation in the world to have an element named after it.

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