Underneath the streets of Gilmerton in Edinburgh lies Gilmerton Cove, a secret underground series of passageways and chambers that were carved into the sandstone by hand. To date, no-one knows who built them. Or why.
Review of Gilmerton Cove
Underneath the streets of Gilmerton – an ex-mining village not far from the city centre – lies one of the strangest unsolved mysteries in Edinburgh.
It’s here where you’ll find an underground series of passageways and chambers that were carved deep into the sandstone by hand, although for what purpose remains unknown to this day.
This attraction is one of Scotland’s most unusual heritage sites as it’s hidden beneath a nondescript house in an otherwise unremarkable street, but the subterranean caverns are definitely worth taking the time to discover.
Take a trip down into the murky depths below Gilmerton and you’ll find surprising features like a fireplace, a well, and even a blacksmiths forge carved into the rock as well as stone tables and benches.
It’s a mystery that’s baffled experts for over 200 years and I have a feeling it won’t be solved for many more years to come.
What I really like about Gilmerton Cove is that it’s one of those tourist attractions that can be classed as an Edinburgh hidden gem so it makes a nice break from the ultra-touristy attractions you’ll find all over the city centre.
In fact, I bet you can ask any visiting tourist about the subterranean cavern and they’ll say they’ve never even heard of it.
Hopefully this state of affairs will change now that Gilmerton Cove is included in the incredibly popular Edinburgh City Pass – which you can order through the link in the Tickets and Opening Times section below.
Once you venture deep underground you’ll be able to see for yourself what this archaeological mystery is all about. Was it a witches coven? Or some kind of secret meeting place? Did the Romans build it, or is it even older than that? Druids? Who knows?
You’ll just have to make your own mind up when you book your tour down there…
Discover the story of Edinburgh in my article: Edinburgh – A Thousand Year History.
Things to do at Gilmerton Cove
The caves as we see them today are the result of extensive restoration thanks in part to both the City of Edinburgh Council and the Gilmerton Heritage Trust, who in addition to excavating the tunnels restored the traditional mining cottage above as a visitor centre.
What’s collectively known as Gilmerton Cove is actually a network of seven chambers and numerous passageways beneath the streets of the suburb, which although old (possibly even ancient) only opened as a tourist attraction in 2003.
Entry is through the typical working-mans cottage from Midlothian’s mining past and it’s there where you’ll gain your first insight into what makes the attraction so unique.
The cottage houses several audio-visual displays that depict the many theories behind the origins of Gilmerton Cove and also educates visitors about the history of Gilmerton. You’ll even learn about the ghosts that haunt the passageways and the network of undiscovered tunnels that are believed to stretch far beyond some of the collapsed walls.
While you can’t explore the underground tunnels on your own you can at least join one of the daily tours that take you deep into the mysterious cove with a knowledgeable guide who really brings the story of this strange place to life.
It’s genuinely interesting and a little bit creepy too, so if you fancy seeing something that’s different to the usual tourist traps I highly recommend you visit Gilmerton and take a trip underground.
The history of Gilmerton Cove
Several theories exist as to why the caves were dug, ranging from being used as a secret hiding place for outlawed Covenanters (a religious group who were persecuted in the 17th-century) to a secret network of storage chambers for illegal whisky.
One thing we know for certain is that the caves were inhabited by George Paterson, a blacksmith in the 18th-century who was recorded as being charged on several occasions for allowing alcohol to be drunk there on the Sabbath.
But whether he dug the caves out on his own or simply moved into them after they had been previously abandoned is unknown.
Many of the underground chambers contain stone benches and tables and there’s even a Christian chapel, yet local stories are rife with tales of druids and witchcraft practices that took place there.
Interestingly, a recent survey using ground-penetrating radar has shown that the caves are much larger than previously thought, maybe up to twice the size than was originally estimated.
So what reasons could there be for a network of caves in Gilmerton? Perhaps they were simply the location of storage vaults for the wealthy, or maybe they were a secret gentlemen’s drinking den.
Although their purpose still remains a mystery to this day it’s good fun trying to make your own mind up about the reasons for digging these secret passageways.
- Gilmerton Cove a unique attraction in Edinburgh. The only similar attraction I can think of is the underground vaults tour operated by Mercat Tours.
- This is a real hidden gem that most tourists don’t know about and it’s not much of a journey from the city centre if you take the bus. If you want to see a side of the city that’s well away from the crowds this is the place to visit.
- You have to book in advance to view the caves so don’t just turn up on the day expecting to get in.
- Getting to Gilmerton Cove by public transport takes around 30 minutes. From Princes Street take the number 29 bus. There are bus stops on Drum Street on either side of the attraction.
- If you’re looking for other attractions in the area I recommend taking a drive a couple of miles down the A772 to Edinburgh Butterfly and Insect World which is one of the city’s hidden gems when it comes to child-friendly attractions. Alternatively, drive to Dalkeith Country Park which is a large woodland area featuring lots of country walks, a superb shopping centre and a very good play park.
Gilmerton Cove is located on the high street of Gilmerton. Lothian Buses services 3 and 29 stop just a few yards from Gilmerton Cove; services 7 and 18 stop just around the corner.
16 Drum St.,
Photo gallery and video
Things to do near Gilmerton Cove
- Edinburgh Butterfly and Insect World. Melville Nurseries, Lasswade EH18 1AZ. 6-minute drive. An indoor tropical attraction that is home to a collection of animals from across the globe including giant spiders, snakes and jungle insects. A visit includes presentations and displays by expert handlers.
- Dalkeith Country Park. Via King’s Gate, Dalkeith EH22 1ST. 9-minute drive. One of the largest country parks in Midlothian. Dalkeith Country Park centres around Dalkeith House (not accessible to the public). There are lots of paths that run through woodland and open fields. The newly-installed Restoration Yard visitor centre includes shops and cafés. A large children’s play park – Fort Douglas – is located alongside the River South Esk.
- Craigmillar Castle. Craigmillar Castle Rd, Edinburgh EH16 4SY. 6-minute drive. A medieval castle located 4 miles from the city centre that was often used by Scottish royalty (including Mary Queen of Scots). The castle has several gardens, a tower house, a large courtyard and modern conveniences like a shop and toilets. Craigmillar Castle Park surrounds the castle which has a variety of woodland walks through it.
- Blackford Hill. Observatory Rd, Edinburgh EH9 3HJ. 14-minute drive. A hillside nature reserve close to the centre of Edinburgh. The hill is home to the Royal Observatory and the Hermitage of Braid – a 1700s estate home and gardens set in dense woodland.
- Mavisbank House. Polton Rd, Lasswade EH18 1HY. 9-minute drive. One of the earliest examples of a Palladian style villa in Scotland. Mavisbank House was constructed in the 1720s by John Clerk, one of the leading figures of the Scottish Enlightenment. It is partially in ruin but a private trust is attempting to restore it to its former glory. The interior of the house is currently inaccessible to the public.
More places to visit in Edinburgh
- The Balmoral Hotel – Edinburgh: Complete Visitor GuideThe Balmoral Hotel is a historic building situated in the heart of Princes Street in Edinburgh, Scotland. The luxury hotel is located next to Waverley train station and was built in 1902 by the North British Railway Company. Today, it is a popular landmark that attracts visitors to its superb restaurants and bars.
- Real Mary King’s Close – Edinburgh: Complete Visitor GuideThe Real Mary King’s Close is a tourist attraction located in the middle of Edinburgh’s historic Royal Mile. The attraction allows visitors to step beneath the streets of Edinburgh into an underground labyrinth where the stories of the city’s past residents unfold through a series of exhibits and displays.
- St. Giles Cathedral – Edinburgh: Complete Visitor GuideSt. Giles Cathedral has been a focal point for religious activity in Edinburgh for over 900 years, although the present structure that we see today can trace its roots back to the 14th century. Due to its central location on The Royal Mile, St. Giles has become a popular tourist attraction and is an ideal stop-off point between excursions to the palace and the castle.
- The Grassmarket – Edinburgh: Complete Visitor GuideEdinburgh’s Grassmarket is a bustling square in the heart of the city’s Old Town. This historic site is surrounded by classic tenement buildings that line the roads along the iconic West Bow and Victoria Street but it’s best known for the lively pubs and restaurants that offer superb outside seating areas. The Grassmarket is one of the oldest parts of Edinburgh and it was originally used as a marketplace for horses and cattle.
- Leith – Edinburgh: Complete Visitor GuideLeith is a historic district of Edinburgh that centres around the Water of Leith, Leith harbour, and the restaurant-packed Shore. The district has a rich maritime history but it is now a popular tourist destination thanks to its combination of trendy bars, award winning restaurants, superb shopping areas and attractions including the Royal Yacht Britannia.