Lost Edinburgh: Troglodytes of Gilmerton Cove

Gilmerton Cove lies about ten feet under Drum Street. Picture: supplied

Gilmerton Cove lies about ten feet under Drum Street. Picture: supplied

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A NETWORK of secret underground tunnels is one of the last things you’d expect to find lurking beneath the streets of a typical suburb, but Edinburgh isn’t your typical city.

Drum Street in Gilmerton is home to the ‘subterranean chambers of a remarkable cave’ thought to have been inhabited up to 300 years ago.

The door leading to Gilmerton Cove.

The door leading to Gilmerton Cove.

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The following account was given by the Rev Thomas Whyte, parish minister of Liberton, in 1792:

‘Here is a famous cave dug out of rock by one George Paterson, a smith. It was finished in 1724 after five years hard labour as appears from the inscription on one of the chimney-heads. In this cave are several apartments, several beds, a spacious table with a large punch-bowl all cut out of the rock in the nicest manner. Here there was a forge with a well and washing-house. Here there were several windows which communicated light from above. The author of this extraordinary piece of workmanship after he had finished it, lived in it for a long time with his wife and family and prosecuted his business as a smith. He died in it about the year 1735. He was a feuar of feodary and consequently the cave he formed and embellished so much and the garden above it was his own property, and his posterity enjoyed it for some time after his decease. His cave for many years was deemed as a great curiosity and visited by all people of fashion’.

Paterson is also reported as being ‘forgiven the yearly duty and public burdens, on account of the extraordinary labour he had incurred in making himself a home’.

David Watt points to a recepticle for a punch bowl in Gilmerton Cove.

David Watt points to a recepticle for a punch bowl in Gilmerton Cove.

SEE ALSO: Did Druids dig the mysterious tunnel network?

Plan of Gilmerton Cove

The cave is about ten feet below the surface and is reached by a flight of twelve steps which lead into a 40-feet long passage with an unusual series of rooms and passages on each side. Immediately to the right at the foot of the stairs is a recess like a blacksmith’s forge, with an aperture through which bellows may have passed, and behind this is a room with a fireplace, table and benches all carved from stone.

The rooms on the left of the main passage are more elaborate and most contain furnishings carved out of the sandstone. The first large room has a number of recesses with stone plinths which may have been used as beds. The next smaller space is almost entirely filled by a narrow stone table with benches on either side.

Well-worn steps at the opening to Gilmerton Cove.

Well-worn steps at the opening to Gilmerton Cove.

The next room is larger - about 15 feet long by 5 feet wide - and its ceiling is supported by a stone pillar. This room is popularly known as the ‘drinking-parlour’ and has a 10 feet long curving table at its centre with seats all around the edge. The base of the table is cut inwards with a 3-inch wide stone ledge left as a foot-rest, but the most unusual feature of the table is the 13 x 8 inch bowl-shaped cavity which has been carefully cut into the surface of the table. Two steps lead from the ‘drinking parlour’ to a 12-feet long narrow side passage which ends in a mass of masonry and which was probably another entrance to the cave. There is a further large room on the other side of this secondary passage.

At its far end, the main passage curves to the right and there is an entrance to a narrow tunnel about 3 feet high. The main parts of the cave have a ceiling height of around 6 feet. One theory is that the tunnel at one time provided a link to Craigmillar Castle which is some distance away.

Alexander Pennicuik, the ‘burgess bard of Edinburgh’, provided the following inscription, which is variously detailed as being carved in stone over the entrance and on a fireplace in the cave:

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.

There is now no sign of this inscription, but over the fireplace in the room behind the forge is a neatly carved oblong recess which may have contained the inscription on an inserted panel.

In 1897, F R Coles, Assistant Keeper of the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland, investigated the cave and cast considerable doubt on whether Paterson had constructed it. Coles considered that ‘the method of cutting the stone pointed to an origin much more remote than the 18th century and the substantial work involved in excavating the cave could not have been carried out by one man in five years’.

Coles also noted a number of narrow holes in the ceiling of the cave around the ‘parlour’. He first considered that these were for ventilation, additional to the larger skylight openings in the roof. However, his alternative theory was that they were for ‘bringing liquor down in the cave around the principal table at which, with its ‘punch-bowl’, carousals or secret political or Masonic meetings were held’. It could be that Gilmerton Cove has a darker and more distant history than is popularly believed, although it is likely that the full story of the Cove will never be known.

Gilmerton Cove is now among Edinburgh’s most highly rated tourist attractions since it reopened in 2003. Some even claim the passages to be haunted.

• This excerpt is from Secret Edinburgh by Jack Gillon available on Amazon and all local bookstores