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
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
I 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
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...
This 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