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The mysterious layers of Gilmerton Cove

Gilmerton Cove is a mysterious cave system in suburban Edinburgh. For a long time assumed to have been the work of an 18th century blacksmith, it is now emerging that he could not have possibly created the entire system himself. The question that everyone asks, therefore, is who then created the enigmatic structure?

Philip Coppens



When you drive past the crossroads of Gilmerton Road/Drum Street and Newtoft Street/Ferniehill Drive in Gilmerton, a sleepy small suburb of Edinburgh, there is little if anything to suggest that under your very feet, is one of Edinburgh’s greatest mysteries. Not that it is necessarily that important – but essentially that it is that enigmatic. Inexplicable. One of those sites that underlines that the past is quite often difficult to uncover and explain.

Just a few metres below ground is what is known as “Gilmerton Cove” – caves that at one point in time were hewn out of the sandstone. The Cove is a series of caves, connected by a 40 feet main passageway, with two entrances, and located no more than ten feet underground.
Tradition tells us that in 1724, after five years of hard labour, George Paterson, a local blacksmith, completed an underground dwelling house. His subterranean apartment seems to have consisted out of several rooms with stone tables and chairs, what appears to be a bedroom and a forge – though this was never operational as it lacked the airshaft. There are clear signs that the various rooms were once separated from each other by wooden doors. Elsewhere, there is a well that never reached down to the water level. Hence, the apartment appeared to have two features essential for living, but both were ineffective. Still, the story continues that he lived in it until 1737, however unlikely that is.
Furthermore, even though it is often labelled as an underground construction or a system of man-made caves, fact of the matter is that each room and the corridors were once exposed to the open air by a series of skylights that have since been closed off. Hence, though it is often labelled a cave, it should perhaps be more accurately labelled an open-air cellar. But whereas the construction would make sense if it was a proper cave, with the numerous skylights, it defies explanation as to why someone in the 18th century would go through all of this trouble.
The only logical explanation would be that there was once an upper structure, which interacted with the various manmade spaces below ground. Maybe the cellars were constructed as storage spaces for food or liquids that were required to remain at constant temperatures, yet could needed to be lowered into place, rather than transported via the main two – stepped – entrances. Indeed, the chambers on either side of the well were labelled wine cellars. Were some of the rooms equipped with tables and like, as a number of people spent considerable time in this facility, tasting wine or other liquids brewed here? Perhaps, but… who knows?

The existence of the Cove is well-known. The local historian Rev. Thomas Whyte referred to the construction in 1792, saying that the “cave for many years was deemed as a great curiosity and visited by all the people of fashion”, while Chronicler D. Webster in 1819 noted that it was “the resort of fashionables from Edinburgh. It is said that our Judges did not disdain to spend an idle hour in this retreat.”
Whyte elaborated: “Here is the famous cave dug out of rock, by one George Paterson… in this cave are several apartments, several beds, a spacious table with a large punchbowl… a forge, a well and washing-house all cut out of rock in the nicest manner.” All true, but as mentioned both the forge and the well were never operational, and hence we need to question the good Reverend whether his other observations were truly accurate. The “punchbowl” is an opening in one of the stone tables which could indeed have contained a bowl, or alternatively could have contained a liquid directly… or something else entirely!
It is nevertheless a fact that Paterson is the first layer of this enigma. We know little of Paterson, apart from the fact that he had to appear before Liberton Kirk Session, charged with supplying alcohol in his house on the Sabbath. He told the Session that the doors into his home were locked and always brought the key with him to church. He then laid the blame with his wife, claiming she had opened a back door to let the culprits in, while he was at church. So we know the structure was definitely occupied by blacksmith Paterson’s family, though we know he cannot have used it to practice his profession. And why would you want to lead horses down a series of steps into dark corridors anyway?
That Paterson decided to branch out from blacksmith into pub landlord, is a distinct possibility. In 1725, the Government levied hefty excise duties on whisky, which inspired massive illegal alcohol production – is this why Paterson decided to create, or adapt, the Cove, as an underground drinking den? It might explain why some people were found “drinking on the Sabbath” there. It might also explain why there are more than one room with stone seats and tables, though why would Paterson have created stone benches, as wooden benches would have more than sufficed.

With the mundane offering little explanation, a more esoteric dimension was already offered at the end of the 18th century. There is a story – recorded as early as 1782 – that the poet Alexander Pennecuik wrote an inscription that was carved in the stone about the fireplace in the cove. It read: “Upon the earth thrives villainy and woe, But happiness and I do dwell below, My hands hewed out this rock into a cell, Wherein from din of life I safely dwell. On Jacob’s pillow nightly lies my head, My house when living and my grave when dead, Inscribe upon it when I’m dead and gone I lived and died within my mother’s womb.” The inscription is now gone – though some of course doubt it ever was present – but there is indeed room above the fireplace for such an inscription to have once been there.
Pennecuik was clearly in touch with the pagan traditions that saw such cavities as wombs. But equally interesting is that he references Jacob’s pillow – which in turn is linked to the Stone of Destiny, that sacred stone said to have come from Ancient Egypt first to Ireland, then to Scotland, only to be removed to London by Edward Longshanks. The Scots, of course, will tell you that Edward walked off with a replica and that the original Stone of Destiny is still “somewhere” in hiding in Scotland.
Though it could merely be a superficial reference to how indeed the inhabitants of the cove slept on stone, like Jacob, there might be other explanations. For example, the question whether people came to sleep here, because the cove offered them something akin to the pagan rites of incubation dreams, which were often done in subterranean structures, somewhat like the Cove. At the time, for example with the Hellfire Club in England, a series of strange rituals were once again practiced by often well-off noblemen, wanting to reconnect with Nature – which often included sexual activities, on par with what was quite common practice in ancient Greece. The next layer that we can therefore ask about the Cove is whether something similar went on inside here, and whether the good poet Pennecuik was involved with them – or at least knew of them.

The first full survey of the Cove was done by F. R. Coles, Assistant Keeper of the Museum in Edinburgh in 1897; the findings were published in “The Scotsman” in 1906. Coles’ conclusion was that the workmanship dated back to at least the previous century, pointing out that the sandstone had been worked with pointed tools, not chisels. Coles therefore seemed to confirm the accepted belief that Paterson was the creator of the Cove. But he added that the work could not have been completed in just five years by one man alone, and noted that the technical detail in stone-working that was on display in the so-called beds and tables superseded those that were to be expected to have been mastered by a blacksmith. So either Paterson had help from people that had never been identified… or the structure predated Paterson.
So how old is it? Some argue that the earliest origins of the structure may be nothing more than a simple quarry. Gilmerton village existed at least as far back as the 16th century; at the time mining of coal and limestone was the principal economic activity of the village and there must have been an ample resource of men available who could dig the sandstone chambers, for whatever purpose.
So, even though there is nothing to suggest that Paterson excavated the structure, he definitely did own it. Maybe he merely enlarged upon an already existing structure? This might make more sense. But if so, what is it? During excavations in the late 1970s, a draining channel was discovered that runs along the right-hand side of the main passageway. In 2002, a secret blocked doorway was found in one room. So far, there have been strict orders not to excavate, as just beyond, is a street and no-one wants to see the road surface collapse. So there is a distinct possibility that there are more chambers, or corridors, and that maybe sections of the apartment were purposefully blocked off… and might contain artefacts that might – at least – perhaps shed further light on what the Cove was once used for.

It is therefore likely that the Cove predates Paterson. But where to go from here? There are numerous avenues to follow, and all we have are a number of scattered stories. For example, some have highlighted how nearby Craigmillar Castle had underground passages and some believe one passage runs between the Cove and the castle. There was another tunnel to Gilmerton House, once on Lang Gilmourtoon ridge.
The Duke of Buccleuch once kept a private garrison in the village, complete with prison cells. Could these be the cells?
In the 1960s, Mary Ritchie Keegan’s “Old Gilmerton” added an oral tradition linking the cove to the Covenanters, political-religious refugees who were forced underground into hiding. Did they do so in the Cove? Possibly, of course, but as to the question whether they made them: most unlikely! Ritchie Keegan also mentions that Paterson “had a friend, a hunchback, who watched for horsemen requiring their horses shod. The hunchback took the horse and told the gentleman to take a walk down the Dalkeith Road and come back to the same spot at a certain time, when his horse would be ready for him. This is how the blacksmith’s abode was kept secret.” The story seems first of all to be unlikely, but again it begs the question as to why and how horses were led down this subterranean structure, which we know did not have an operative furnace anyway, so blacksmith Paterson could not have worked on the horses here anyway.
Coles observed that the Cove was only “one of a large number of chambered and recessed hollows in similar rock, hewn in the same style.” Other sites included Gorton (Wallace’s Cave) in Hawthornden, Queen Margaret’s Cave at Dunferline, a 300 foot long passage carved beneath Newbattle and a number of caves on the banks of the river Jed. Though this makes the Cove sit within a series of similar constructions, neither of the other caves had a uniform usage, so this does not explain the purpose of the Cove. It does suggest that the Cove may be several centuries older than the 18th century.
Rev. Donald Skinner added “it probably had a Masonic connection… and it isn’t be too great an exaggeration to guess that it goes back 2000 years.” There are indeed a number of compasses found on the stone tables inside the Cove and a Masonic connection seems to be the easiest explanation. But – again – should we see the Masons using or building it? Masons have commented that the Cove is completely at odds with the functional requirements of a Lodge, and as such, any Masonic connection to the Cove should be seen as secondary.
When the Cove was reopened for tourism in 2002, one of the first visitors through the door stated that his great-grandfather had won the Cove around 1910 as part of a gambling debt. He apparently used it as an – illegal – drinking den. But more interesting is that the new owner apparently believed that the Scottish kings were buried there, so they began digging, though the owner had to stop his brothers from being overzealous in their pursuit. The small holes that can be found in numerous locations in the wall and which continue to perplex visitors and archaeologists alike might have been made for the future use of dynamite… used in this “exploration”. The good friend could, of course, have been delusional. But noting that in the 18th century, Pennecuik made a connection to Jacob’s Pillar, and by implication the Stone of Destiny, upon which the Scottish kings were crowned, we can wonder whether there was indeed an old local belief that there was a royal connection to the site.
Scotland, after all, had a turbulent history. On numerous occasions, the treasures of Holyrood and various other sites had to be brought into safety. Often, underground but nevertheless still accessible locations were favoured to secure the booty. Though it is absolutely unknown whether the Cove was ever used as such, we can say that it meets all the requirements to stash such treasures away. Whether this necessarily implies that there is still some treasure left to be found, is an entirely different question…

In the final analysis, and based on current excavations, the Cove therefore represents a veritable archaeological puzzle. So many things can be, but so few of the possibilities can be excluded or backed up. It seems that only future excavations might potentially change this… maybe.