Sunday, 19 August 2012

The mystery of Edinburgh's Gilmerton Cove.

Gilmerton Cove is a set of underground chambers and passages in the South of Edinburgh near Gilmerton Crossroads, an otherwise unremarkable part of Edinburgh. No one is sure when where or how it was built but since 2003 it has been open to the public. At the end of the twentieth century the entry was through a betting shop but now the entry is through a visitor centre adapted from a traditional mining cottage (According to the Scotsman the entrance was a former Plumber's workshop).

Records of the cove go back to the 18th century though it seems to be much older. A local blacksmith, George Patterson, occupied the caves from 1724 to 1735 and claimed to have chiselled them from the local sandstone by hand. In addition to his work as a Blacksmith

Two caves, one larger than the other, have continuous horseshoe benches round the edges and long tables have been carved from the rock and a bowl has been carved out of one table. There are also blocked tunnels, no one knows where they lead, though apparently an exit from one of those passages once led to an open field, which might suggest they were designed as escape routes, if they were not back and side doors. Some of the tables have crudely drawn masonic symbols and on one table is a drawing of a cat. It is hard to imagine anyone living there but it may well have been vastly superior to accommodation above ground.

Patterson used the Cove as a drinking den, patronised by the gentry. When hauled in front of the local church officials for selling liquor on a Sunday he claimed he had closed the front door but his wife must have let customers in by the back door. Of course he could simply have given the liquor away with a snack as an 18th century meal deal but that might not have worked on the local priests.

In 1897 a detailed study of the caves indicated that one man could not have dug them out in 5 years, as Patterson claimed and that the tool marks on the walls were made by pointed instruments not chisels. Since mining was carried out in the area since the 15th century it is likely the Cove started as a test seam that found no coal and was then used as a hiding place when English and other raiders came to town. With increasingly rare raids from England work on improving the Cove ceased. Nothing more is known for certain till Patterson took over the Cove.

Post Patterson the Cove was more than once passed around as payment for gambling debts and again used as an illegal drinking den and possibly housed an illegal still. There was a belief a Scots king was buried under the Cove .

There are theories that the cove was used by a Witches coven and a Masonic Lodge, probably not on a time sharing basis, or as a covenanters' refuge. All these theories have weaknesses and the idea the Knights Templar were involved is very unlikely, but fun.

Like the Arthurian Chapel that used to exist under a store near Edinburgh's Holy Corner ( Four churches and two banks, truly sacred to God and Mammon) it could just have been a folly, but follies take money to build and the builders are usually well known.

In 2017 two new chambers were were discovered using  ground penetrating Radar.   The study has shown the site to be twice as big as previously thought and there are hopes of finding where the blocked tunnels lead.  It would be fantastic if they linked to say Rosslyn Chapel but the more likely explanation is they either peter out or lead to nearby fields suggesting they were escape routes leading to nearby fields.

Gilmerton Cove is about 30 minutes from the city centre on the way to Dalkeith and would make a pleasant change from the sights of the city centre. Being underground it would be a good place to visit on a rainy day. From the Badjao Bedand Breakfast it is most easily reached by car or after a short walk, by bus and takes about an hour. Wear  suitable clothes and check opening and tour times in advance.

For the nervous the Cove seems to be one of the few old places in Edinburgh that is not haunted.  

For more information see the Mystery of Gilmerton Cove website. 

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