Unsolved Edinburgh: Gilmerton Cove

a mason's mark on a table in Gilmerton Cove

When many people think of Edinburgh, they think of the castle, high on its black volcanic base, or the lively shopping district of Princes Street. Holyrood Palace may come to mind, or the cobblestone-paved Royal mile. Some might envision the winding Grassmarket passage, which inspired Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley, or even the Elephant House, the cafe where J.K. Rowling wrote parts of The Sorcerer’s Stone. And then there’s our beloved Bobby, the monument to Edinburgh’s most famous dog. And we do love our doggies.

Well, the castle is overcrowded, expensive, and not particularly handicapped-accessible, the Royal Mile is filled with overpriced Scottish-themed tat, and the Elephant House is now a Chinese restaurant that charges people to walk to the back room where Rowling actually worked.

But there are still plenty of things to see that aren’t heaving with visitors and won’t cost you a limb. One of these is Gilmerton Cove. And unlike a lot of mysteries, this one is yet to be solved.

Where?

Gilmerton Cove is located in the village of Gilmerton, on the southeast side of Edinburgh. Gilmerton Village dates back to at least the 1500s, and has its roots in coal mining and lime quarrying. There was also quite a bit of farming in the area, and there still is. The City of Edinburgh began to buy up land around the village in the 1930s. Today Gilmerton is a suburb of Edinburgh.

The name comes from the Scots Gaelic Gille-Moire, meaning “Servant of the Virgin Mary” and ton, meaning “settlement.”

Today, the village is quiet and pretty, with winding streets and a combination of modern homes and businesses with centuries-old ones made from local sandstone. And there, on the western edge, beneath the Ladbrokes, is Gilmerton Cove.

What?

table

Gilmerton Cove is a series of tunnels carved out of the sandstone bedrock beneath the village. No one is quite sure how they got there, but there are theories. What we do know is that the caves have been a tourist attraction since the beginning of the 19th century.

The Mystery

In 1820, blacksmith George Patterson claimed that he had dug the tunnels, singlehandedly, over the course of five years, to use as a combination of workspace and living quarters. 

IMG_20180916_141847765

On one hand, the walls and ceilings clearly show the marks of hand-tools. However:

  • It would have taken one person a lot longer than five years to have carved out tunnels of that size, especially by hand
  • There are inscriptions in some places in the tunnels that resemble masons’ marks, indicating some of the work was done by professional masons
  • Where did the rubble go?
  • There is no evidence, anywhere, of fires used either in forging or cooking

Some theorize that since Gilmerton was a mining community, Patterson or someone else hired local miners to secretly dig out the tunnels. However, despite a more than 120-year history of archaeological study, we still don’t know exactly who dug the tunnels, when they dug them, or why.

Some Theories

There are, however, plenty of plausible theories about who might have used the tunnels. There are three rooms, for example, that provide seating, and two of them have stone tables. Some possibilities include:

Covenanters

First, some say Covenanters hid here. The Covenanters were Scottish Protestants opposed to both the influence of Rome over the English monarch and to the buying and selling of indulgences. They believed in self-governance for Scotland, as well as direct communication between people and God. 

The history of the Covenanters is long and fraught. For forty years (1638 to 1678) the Covenanters met with persecution and repression from the English kings Charles I and Charles II. Some believe that Gilmerton Cove was one place the Covenanters sought refuge.

a stone table in an underground cove
One of two table structures with seating.

The Hellfire Club

Another theory is that people used this space for illicit drinking and carousing, perhaps as an underground pub. On one hand, there was no need, seeing as drink has never been illegal in Scotland. On the other hand, perhaps something a bit darker was going on.

“The Hellfire Club” was the name adopted by numerous clubs for upper-class men who enjoyed behaving rudely and blasphemously. Plus ca change. Underground caves would, of course, have been an excellent place to do so — both because it was well out of sight, and for the atmosphere.

Mary Queen of Scots

Some say she, too, hid from her enemies here. It’s possible. She seems to have hidden just about everywhere else in Scotland.

The Knights Templar

Oh, why the hell, not? Dan Brown, Rosslyn Chapel, blah blah.

Druids and Witchcraft

Because of course.

What Actually Makes This a Great Attraction

There are several real things that make Gilmerton Cove well worth your time, however.

First, it’s not overrun with other people wanting to see it. One-hour tours are by appointment only, and limited to twelve people at a time. This makes it cozy and intimate, but not stifling — and the guide is engaging and knowledgeable as well.

Also, it’s not too expensive — just 7.50 GBP for an adult 4 quid for a child, and 20 for a family ticket, at the time of this writing.

Recent imaging by the University of Edinburgh has shown that the tunnels actually extend much further out, prompting speculation that there may actually have been secret passages to both Rosslyn Chapel and nearby Craigmillar Castle. And that’s pretty cool.

So the next time you’re in Edinburgh, skip the castle and hit the cove.

All photos CC BY SA NC by Jess Faraday. This means feel free to use for all NON-COMMERCIAL purposes, with attribution. Thank you.

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