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Edinburgh’s Mysterious Cove

By Tomas McRae, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, © 2005
Published in Philalethes Magazine

[This article is featured in the Lowlands-L Gallery and Lowlands-L History collections as well.]

n the southern fringe of the City of Edinburgh, Scotland, is the old mining village of Gilmerton where a strange system of man-made caves was recently re-opened to tourists. Just how old these are is unknown but records go as far back as the 18th century and the system appears to be very much older. The questions remain who constructed them? When? Why? And what have they been used for over the years? Tomb of ancient king? Meeting place for one or more persecuted religious groups? Masonic Lodge Room? Witches Coven? Illicit Whisky Still, Drinking Den: Knights Templar Retreat? The list of theories keeps growing but it is on record that the caves were occupied by George Paterson, a local blacksmith from 1724 until around 1735.

“Cove” in this case has nothing to do with the sea, being in fact an old Scots word for a cave. Local tradition has Paterson chiseling the chambers out of sandstone, including furniture, fireplaces, benches, and long tables. He then used it as a family residence and it is claimed he also had his smithy here. While an alleged forge is still shown there is no sign of any fire ever being lit in the recess concerned. Local historians claim the smithy was actually across the street where a Bingo hall now stands.

What was obviously intended to be a well does not reach down to the water table in fact it never held water. Some claim this pit is a dungeon but for whom would this have intended? There is at least one fireplace with mantelpiece but here again there is no sign of this being used, it does not even have a chimney aperture to let the smoke out.

Two caves, one much larger than the other have continuous benches, horseshoe style around their perimeters. Long tables have been hewn from the rock which sit within the bench area and at the front end of the larger one a concave bowl has been carved out. There are several sets of initials and many graffiti on both benches including what seems to to be a Masonic Square and Compasses adjacent to the bowl I discovered an identical symbol on the table in the smaller cave during my visit.

Although the cave system is about 10 feet below the surface it is dimly lit by apertures to the surface which would also have assisted with ventilation. Nowadays the chambers are illuminated by electric light. Drainage guttering was created by the builders who obviously knew full well what they were doing and a deep vertical pit about a two feet in diameter was recently discovered within this drain. Plans are afoot to excavate that pit which I believe was merely a latrine for occupants.

Much remains unexplained including several holes about 2 inches around set too low down in the gallery walls to hold torches. There are also at least two blocked passages but nowadays nobody knows where these lead. My late father who visited The Cove as a child told of exiting into an open field via such a passage.

It is known that Paterson used the place as an underground tavern selling liquor to visitors; some even claim the apertures served to lower supplies down. Many of Edinburgh’s gentry came to sample his wares and records tell of his being called before church officials on charges of selling alcohol on The Sabbath. His excuse was that he had closed the front entrance but his wife must have let customers in via the back door. Aye Male Chauvinism was alive and well at Gilmerton.

What conclusions can be drawn? In 1897 F.R. Coles, Assistant Keeper of the National Museum of Antiquities in Edinburgh, made a detailed study of the caves. He reported that no one man could have carried out all this work in just a few years. Coles also stated that the tool marks on the walls had been made by pointed objects and not by chisels. He concluded the caves went back to a time much earlier than 18th century. Modern archaeologists are still investigating the mystery and geophysical techniques are being used to try tracing where the blocked passages originally led.

My explanation? Rule out Knights Templar even though they get in everywhere. The witch coven claim is based solely on a crude carving of a cat adjacent to that of the Square and Compasses. Hardly a proof of witches; maybe somebody just drew a cat. Masonic Secret Vault? Most unlikely, the chambers are unsuitable for Craft perambulations but some sort of appendant club could have met there and a member scratched the symbol in question. Surely Brethren of an actual Masonic Lodge would have carved something better on the table?

The Cove lay hidden and forgotten 100 feet beneath a Betting Shop for many years but was reopened to tourists in 2002 . Ironically my father and I sometimes placed bets just above the place he so much wanted to revisit but could never find.

One of the first of the new visitors claimed his great grandfather won The Cove around 1910 as part of a gambling debt and carved the initials of members of his family on the tables and benches. He also used it as an illegal drinking den and made money from showing visitors round. He and his brothers believed an ancient Scots king was buried there so started digging to find the inevitable treasure but the Owner finally had to stop his brothers blowing up his investment during the quest. The two inch diameter holes may have been drilled as shot holes for their explosives, later this family is accused of setting up an illegal still.

Tradition tells of the blacksmith using the “village idiot” to create a disturbance whenever the Law came by but, as Peterson’s business was perfectly legal, it may have been this latter day shebeen owner who employed the Idiot to give alarms. Oral traditions can get distorted.

Perhaps the owner, or one of his drinking pals, was in the Craft and scratched the Square and Compasses on the table? A mediocre solution but not to be ruled out. This unnamed owner lost The Cove to another gambler around 1920 after which the complex sank into the long obscurity that lasted until 2002.

How do I think it all began? Coal mining is recorded at Gilmerton in 15th century or even earlier and limestone has also been mined there for centuries. The marks of pointed implements on the cave walls and furniture indicate that pointed tools such as miners’ picks were used to carve things to shape. A team of local miners must therefore be our prime suspects but why dig it all out in the first place?

Gilmerton was in an area through which invading English troops passed en-route to Edinburgh. Rape, devastation, and pillage were the norm in those days and I believe The Cove started as a Safe Shelter for local residents when those forces threatened. It might have commenced with test digs for coal then later emergencies prompted this expansion.

In 1513 King James IV and his army were destroyed by the English at the disastrous Battle of Flodden. Panic broke out in Edinburgh as it was believed yet another invasion was imminent and they frantically started building what became known as “The Flodden Wall.” Is it not possible that the miners of Gilmerton decided to create a comfortable bolt hole for their families in anticipation of the same invasion?

Basic construction being completed and no sign of any English meant they could start on amenities including a well and fireplace. This invasion did not eventuate and in time the work petered out, leaving the complex for others to use down the centuries. It might have provided later refuge during brief English invasions when Henry VIII tried forcing a marriage between his son and young Mary Queen of Scots in 1544/49. The “Rough Wooing.”

Local Presbyterian miners possibly used it as a church during their long persecution, carving the so-called punch bowl for a baptismal font. Years passed then an enterprising blacksmith took the place over as home and grog shop and the current legend began. This hypothesis should however be regarded as merely one among many, we’ll never know the whole story of the Mysterious Cove of Gilmerton.


Acknowledgements

I am grateful to my father and Masonic Brother Peter McRae for first telling me of this wonderful site and to my sister Sheila Taylor for organizing my recent visit.


References

My main informant was the excellent Guide who showed my wife and I around The Cove. The educational panels in the room above the Site, detailing its known history, were also of great help.