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Gilmerton Cove

Tradition tells us that after five years of hard labour, George Paterson, a blacksmith, completed an underground dwelling house, hewn out of solid sandstone, the work being finished in the year 1724.

It contains several apartments, a forge, beds, stone tables and chairs. He lived in it until 1737, and the authorities were so impressed by his dexterity that they overlooked the rates!

Each room is lit by a skylight, and in one room carved into the stone table is a punch bowl. This led him into trouble, as the house was for many years considered to be a great curiosity to which people flocked from far and near.

As a result, Paterson was compelled to appear before Liberton Kirk Session charged with supplying people with liquor in his house on the Sabbath Day. He told the Session that he always had a padlock on the door and always brought the key with him to Kirk, but his wife had opened a back door to let them in. What his wife did and said when he returned from the Session Meeting is not recorded!

Pennycuik, the poet, wrote an inscription which is later said to have been carved in stone above the fireplace in the cave. It read:

"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."

The earliest known written account was produced by the Rev. Thomas Whyte of Liberton in 1782 in his account of the Parish published in the first volume of Archaelogia Scotia (p. 313).

Fact, however, is often stranger than fiction, and F. R. Coles, Assistant keeper of the Museum, Edinburgh, writing in 1897 raises some very interesting questions on the whole background of the Cove.

Accompanied by J. Balfour Paul, and George Good, FSA., Coles carried out an extensive three day survey of the cave. He was of the opinion that the majority of the work in the cave had been carried out at least a century earlier and backs his theory by pointing out that the passages and chambers had been picked out of the sandstone by pointed tools, not chisel worked.

He goes on to maintain that the work could not possibly be completed in five years by one pair of arms, and further states that the lines of the cave's recesses, its passages and so-called ‘beds' and tables hardly fall into the practical habits and methods of workings adopted by a blacksmith.

While great play has been made in the past on Pennycuik's inscription, supporting the attribution of the complete work to Paterson, this argument becomes rather doubtful when one discovers that as far back as 1890 the inscription above the fireplace was not there, although it must be admitted that there is a sunken panel above the chimney breast. There are, however, a number of interesting features about the Cove. At the entrance to many of the recesses there are Giblet Checks which must have been used for wooden doors.

There are also several pipe-like holes pierced in the rock in various degrees of inclination, some of which appear to penetrate for many feet. It has been suggested that these pipe-like holes were bored to convey liquors into the cave, around the principal table with its appropriate ‘punch bowl'.

Carousals, or maybe secret politico-masonic meetings of the Vehmqericht type were wont to be held. The argument, however, could just as easily be put forward that the borings were for ventilation and would serve that purpose better than the larger roof openings.

During some of our excavations and clearing-up operations in the late 1970s, a beautifully cut draining channel was discovered, running along the right hand side of the passage-way, and in the middle of the same, directly opposite the ‘punch bowl' chamber, under about two hundred years of top soil deposit, a two foot square cavity, the total depth of which is yet unknown.

For the safety of visitors at that time, it was covered over, but I would hope to return to the task of research in the future.

The Reverend Donald Skinner, former Minister of Gilmerton Kirk

© South Edinburgh Echo, June 1998

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