Historian says 18th century cove was a drinking den

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IT has been steeped in mystery for hundreds of years.

The labyrinth of rooms and passageways in Gilmerton Cove have been surrounded by tales of witchcraft, secret rituals and theories that it was once used as a chapel for the medieval Knights Templar.

Now a local historian and genealogist claims he can finally reveal the origin of the cove – as a drinking den and Edinburgh’s first man-made tourist attraction.

According to John Rennie, most of the common theories behind the cove’s existence can now be discounted with evidence that it was not created until the 18th century and appears to have attracted customers from miles around.

Mr Rennie, 77, from Liberton, was a guide at the cove around three years ago and has now discovered the earliest written evidence of its existence.

The information, which was found in the minutes of a meeting of Liberton Kirk Session on May 7, 1725 – Gilmerton was previously part of Liberton Parish – reveals that the cove was dug out of rock by an 18th Century blacksmith from Gilmerton, George Paterson, between 1719 and 1724.

This means the cove could not have been used by either the Knights Templar or the Covenanters, as had been suggested.

Mr Rennie, a member and guide at Liberton Kirk, said: “The Knights Templar predates the cove by several centuries – at least 300 years – and by the time the cove had been built, the Covenanters had become obsolete.”

He added: “George Paterson had visitors from Edinburgh and further afield to see his cave so it’s clear to me that he built it as a visitors’ centre serving alcohol. It’s pretty clear that it was a licensed premises.”

The minutes make it clear that the cove was one of many legal drinking dens at the time in Gilmerton, and state that Mr Paterson was compelled to appear before Liberton Kirk Session charged with supplying people with alcohol on the Sabbath.

He was warned that if anyone was caught drinking in the cove on the Sabbath again, he and his wife would be banned from attending Liberton Kirk.

Mr Rennie also disputes speculation that the cove was used as a blacksmith’s shop because the forge inside the cove is too small and shows no signs of having been used.

He added: “The vast majority of the tales told regarding the cove have no foundation.”

Margaretanne Dugan, owner of tour company Rosslyn Tours, which operates tours of the cove, said: “John’s theory is interesting, although Gilmerton had 24 drinking establishments at the time, and if he is correct, then it seems an awful lot of effort has gone into creating the underground cave for a sly whisky on the Sabbath Day.

“Also, the markings throughout the cove indicate a tool much earlier than the 1700s was used.

“Queen Margaret’s Cave at Dunfermline has the exact same tool markings dating back 1000 years.

“We also have Masonic marks and a carving of a cat at Gilmerton Cove.

One thing is for sure – the cove is mysterious and a definite must-see.”




THERE are many theories surrounding the use of Gilmerton Cove.

These include speculation that the cove was used as a chapel by the Knights Templar and the Covenanters.

It is also believed that the cove was linked by tunnel to Craigmillar Castle. However due to the distance between them – around two miles – and the fact that a valley lies between them, this theory has also been discounted by many.

Witches are said to have used the cove while another theory is that the cove may have been a blacksmith’s shop.

The man said to have built the cove, blacksmith George Paterson, is thought to have had a separate shop – as well as a house – next to the cove. But neither building exists today to prove this theory.