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Issue 62 - Going Underground

Scotland Magazine Issue 62
April 2012


This article is 6 years old and some information provided may be time sensitive. Please check all details of events, tours, opening times and other information before travelling or making arrangements.

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Going Underground

Roddy Martine discovers a hidden world

What is it about subterranean hideaways? What is it about being underground that makes us feel safe?

On the south side of the city of Edinburgh, in the most unlikely of locations beneath a busy main road, is Gilmerton Cove, a network of hidden rooms and passageways. Dating from at least the 16th century, so we are reliably informed, mystery shrouds its origins to the extent that its provenance, since they passed this way, might even be Roman.

The name itself is evasive since the dictionary definition of the word ‘cove’ is a small creek or inlet, or a hut or cabin. However, that which lies below Drum Street, in the Midlothian district of Gilmerton is no creek or cabin. In reality, it is a network of tunnels and seating areas carved into the dense bedrock sandstone, and the only thing that is certain is that nothing is certain about them.

There are those who insist that it was once the Scottish headquarters of the Hellfire Club, a notorious gentlemen’s club formed in the 18th century for the pursuit of debauchery, but I think that unlikely since its members were predominantly English; others believe that it was once housed a witches’ coven or a Covenanter’s church. Margaret- Anne Dugan who leads the tours, eloquently expands upon all of the possibilities but the puzzle remains.

According to local tradition, Gilmerton Cove was occupied in the mid-18th century by a blacksmith, George Paterson, who not only made it his home but used the rooms as a forge and workshop, and latterly, according to rumour, a pub. That he might have dug it out himself, however, seems highly improbable. No single individual could possibly have hewn the walls of these underground caverns on his own and it has since been authenticated that the tool marks belong to a much earlier century.

So what was it all about, this hidden world?

From a low cottage building which houses an audio-visual exhibition, a flight of stone steps leads steeply down some 10 feet or more to a main passage about 40 foot long with rooms off on both sides, including one which could only have served as a drinking parlour, 15 feet long, with a stone table into which is cut a shallow basin or bowl.

Lit by torchlight, imagine the scene. Furtive figures lurking in the shadows to raise their glasses to kings over the water, curious sacrificial rites, plotting and anarchy, sorcery and necromancy, incantations, and perhaps illegal distillation.

Gilmerton, up until the 20th century, was a tiny Midlothian community situated at a crossroads leading from Edinburgh to Dalkeith and Gorebridge, close to Craigmillar Castle and Rosslyn Chapel. Over the centuries, villagers not employed on the surrounding farms, were employed in mining coal, lime or sand. A 1753 map shows that the basic layout of the original village has little changed.

In Old and New Edinburgh published in the 1880s, the author James Grant writes that in the 14th century the lands of Gilmerton were forfeited by William de Soulis, Lord of Liddesdale and Butler of Scotland, for conspiring against Robert the Bruce. The estate was then acquired by a family called Herron, passing in the 17th century to the Somervilles of Drum, then the Kinloch family.

All three were unfortunate dynasties. A Herron daughter was seduced by the Abbot of Newbattle and set on fire with her lover by her outraged father, James Somerville of Drum, died from wounds received during a drunken duel with his friend and neighbour Thomas Learmounth in 1682, and the sixth Kinloch baronet was murdered in 1796 by his brother who was subsequently acquitted for being insane.

Were these families, I wonder, aware of the secret tunnelling that lay beneath their land? And if so, did they make use of it? Alas, unless some long forgotten documents are suddenly miraculously revealed, we have no way of knowing.

If I ever need to go into hiding, I now definitely know where I shall first seek refuge.

Those readers sufficiently intrigued to want to go and have a look for themselves,