The Mysteries of Gilmerton Cove
Back in the mid-80s I lived in Edinburgh while studying geology at the University of Edinburgh (happy days!). I would like to think that during that time I got to know the city quite well and I certainly made sure investigate many dimly lit, subterranean hangouts (Bannermans comes to mind as a place frequently visited but full of hazy memories), however I never heard of the Mystery of Gilmerton Cove.
Gilmerton is a suburb on the south side of the city and is home to a series of caves or tunnels that are not on the main tourist route. The tunnels were for long assumed to have been the work of an 18th century blacksmith, George Paterson. After having been caught selling liqueur from them on a Sabbath (he blamed this on his wife) he claimed that he had dug the labyrinth over a five year period as an underground dwelling for his family. There are a number of “rooms” in the tunnels with stone tables, benches and even some that look like stone beds. In the walls there are markings suggesting that some of the rooms were separated by, presumably wooden, doors and curiously there are various skylights at strategic places.
The Cove was well known in the late 1700s with local historian Rev. Thomas Whyte noting their unusual construction. Various recordings have been made since with the first investigation undertaken by F. R. Coles, Assistant Keeper of the Museum in Edinburgh in 1867. He described the construction of the caves in an article in the Scotsman in 1906 as having been dug using pointed chisels and further commented that it would have been unlikely for Paterson to have been able to create them by himself in just 5 years.
If not Paterson, then who had constructed the tunnels? The area is one that has long been associated with mining and as far back as the 16th C there would have been ample and adequate labour to have dug them but for what purpose?
The walls today are without marks of soot and with virtually no inscriptions apart from one small cross it is hard to imagine what went on in them. Dating structures like these is notoriously difficult and so all we can do is compare them to similar structures elsewhere and better understand the layout of the caves themselves.
|sketch plan of caves|
In the 1970s excavations revealed blocked passageways suggesting that the tunnels extend beyond the current layout. So finally this is where the geophysics comes in. About a year ago Dr Simon Shackley and Prof Stuart Haszeldine at the University of Edinburgh asked if I thought any geophysical technique might be appropriate for exploring the extensions to the caves and I suggested that ground penetrating radar would be our best bet in this very noisy urban situation. The main problems for the site are that to the west is built up with housing, to the north three shops have been constructed over the tunnels and to the east is a very busy main road. Combined with this the pavement and road areas are riddled with drains, pipes and buried cables. Not ideal for high quality geophysics!
The NERC Geophysics Equipment Pool provided a Sensors and Software Radar and we used this with 500Mhz antenna. A station spacing of 10cm along lines was used and we placed lines at 30cm apart down the pavement and as far into the road as we could safely do. The results somewhat surprised me, especially those on the pavements either side of the main road. Here reflections were recorded in the radar data that are consistent with a void-like structure at 2-3m in the subsurface.
These seem to align across the road, however the significant gap in data where we could not survey still means that we do not really know what the extension might look like. At the other end of the tunnels the picture is not so clear as the ground is very uneven and to achieve better quality data would require a significant amount of ground preparation. So a little bit further with the mystery but certainly no great Scottish enlightenment yet – just like the old days coming out of Bannermans.
We hope to be back and continue the work but as with most projects, funding is now needed plus cooperation with the council to get a few hours of road closure would help greatly.