Tomas Mc Rae, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, © 2005
Published in Philalethes Magazine
article is featured in the Lowlands-L Gallery and Lowlands-L Travels collections as well.]
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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?
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
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
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.
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.
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?
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.
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?
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.”
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
am grateful to my father and Masonic Brother Peter Mc Rae for ﬁrst telling
me of this wonderful site and to my sister Sheila Taylor for organizing my
main informant was the excellent Mercat Tours 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. Little seems to have been written
about the place apart from several websites which can be accessed by searching
on GILMERTON via Google. Among these are...
includes a virtual tour.
gillonj.tripod.com/gilmertoncove/ Excellent article
tour site gives full details of tour times and costs but is also a mine of
information on The Cove. The letter from the great grandson of the 1910–1920 owner may be accessed here although the writer remains anonymous for privacy