"Mystery" is an overused word. So it comes as a surprise to find that a cottage on one of the main roads leading south east out of Edinburgh conceals a genuine mystery. The cottage in question stands in Gilmerton, today a suburb on the edge of Edinburgh and four miles from the city centre. Gilmerton was originally a separate village which grew from medieval origins to accommodate local coalminers and limestone quarrymen and their families.
This unassuming little cottage forms the entrance to Gilmerton Cove, a subterranean complex of passageways and chambers carved out of the sandstone bedrock on which this part of Gilmerton stands. The mystery arises because no-one knows when this obviously man-made complex was excavated, or by whom, or what it was used for. Gilmerton Cove is a fascinating place to visit in its own right, and would remain so even if its history was clearly established. But it has to be said that the air of mystery that surrounds it makes a visit an even more compelling experience.
As you'd expect, there are no shortage of theories seeking to explain the origins of Gilmerton Cove. The "traditional" theory is that the Cove was the work of George Paterson, a blacksmith who is said to have excavated it between 1719 ad 1724 as a home and workshop for himself and his family. This theory first emerged in 1769 in verses written by the poet Alexander Pennecuik. It was given wider circulation in a detailed description of the Cove published in 1792 by the Reverend Thomas Whyte in "The Transactions of the Society of the Antiquaries of Scotland".
The "Paterson" theory held sway throughout the 1800s, helped by the discovery that on one occasion he had been charged by the Kirk with operating an illegal drinking den on the Sabbath. Meanwhile, the absence of any known grave for Paterson led some to suggest that he not only lived and worked in the Cove, but was buried here too.
In 1897, F.R. Coles, an assistant keeper of the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland, undertook a comprehensive survey of Gilmerton Cove. His conclusions, published in The Scotsman newspaper in 1906, were that Gilmerton Cove was excavated long before George Paterson's day, largely because of the types of tools revealed by the marks on the rock. Coles thought the Cove was very like other chambers in this traditional mining area excavated as "trial bores" to see whether coal or other minerals might be found, and abandoned when they weren't.
A comprehensive archeological investigation of Gilmerton Cove took place between 2000 and 2002. Rubble blocking some of the chambers and passageways (but not others) was removed, and a set of stone steps providing a rear entrance was uncovered. Also uncovered were a network of drainage channels and various artefacts from the last three centuries. The overall conclusion, however, was that Gilmerton Cove had been so regularly used and reused over recent centuries that meaningful archeological evidence of its origins had been lost.
A wander around Gilmerton Cove only serves to deepen the sense of mystery that surrounds it. Features originally named by Whyte as a forge and a fireplace show no signs of burning on the surrounding rock: a glance at the blackening around any fireplace in any castle shows why this is so odd. Meanwhile, someone expended a considerable amount of work to dig out a well that does not go deep enough to find water: or is it simply intended as a drainage sump? And the form of the accommodation is curious. Many of the chambers seem to be furnished with carved bench seats facing inwards towards a carved table. You could get a large number of people down here, but all in small groups sitting facing one another over the carved tables in the individual chambers. Maybe the Cove started life in the 1600s as a "trial bore" and Paterson simply used the abundant local mining expertise to expand it into an underground drinking den?
On the other hand, the relative proximity to Rosslyn Chapel, 3½ miles to the south, has perhaps inevitably given rise to theories involving the Knights Templar; while others believe that the still blocked tunnel or tunnels heading north from the Cove once covered the mile and a half to Craigmillar Castle. Still others point at the name "Cove" and ask whether this means it was once a centre for the black arts, the home of a coven during the era of Scotland's persecution of witches; or perhaps the name has an association with the "National Covenant"... The possible theories are endless, and that really is part of the fun!