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Gilmerton Village (Villages of Edinburgh)

Many residents of Gilmerton, and the surrounding districts, are acutely aware of the area’s ancient, historical past, but others, particularly those who have come into the district in recent years, are less well acquainted with how the village was first established. Dating from at least the sixteenth century, Gilmerton’s early history is undoubtedly associated with coalmining and limestone quarries, which were worked by successive generations until fairly recent times.

A close-knit economy, and insistence on independence from outside sources, meant that much of the very early working population was engaged in carting coal, lime and sand to various outlets in Edinburgh. Those who were not engaged underground worked on one of the many farms or on the estates of Drum or Gilmerton.

Although Gilmerton House and its estate on the West Side of the village have long since disappeared, that of Drum, on the East Side, is still very much to the fore.

Roy’s map, dated 1753, shows the layout of the village very similar to its modem form, with the exception of Newtoft Street, which was first developed as New Street in the last quarter of the nineteenth century.

The village, and its surroundings, may well have developed very differently had a proposal, first made in 1935, come to fruition. In 1934 Edinburgh Town Council (as it was then) acquired seventy-seven acres of ground at Gilmerton, and was in the process of acquiring more land with a view to building a civic airport.

The Edinburgh Evening News for 25th April 1935 carried a report and plan of the intended area, immediately south of the Drum Estate, and bounded by the roads to Dalkeith and Eskbank.

The scheme collapsed under the weight of controversy as a result of which Edinburgh had to wait until 1947 before Turnhouse was extended to include civilian traffic. Today’s residents of Gilmerton can, therefore, give a collective sigh of relief that their back gardens do not sit under the flight path to the present Edinburgh Airport.

Of all Gilmerton’s places of interest there is one which stands out from all the rest. Although it is of national importance, it is hardly known at all by people in many other districts of Edinburgh. Gilmerton Cove lies buried, as it always has been, a hundred yards to the south of Gilmerton Community Centre.

According to popular disbelief, the Cove was hacked out of solid stone to a depth of about ten feet below the level of the surrounding land by the local blacksmith, George Paterson, who lived in the Cove and also used it as a forge and workshop. Whilst most authorities accept that George Paterson certainly lived and worked in the Cove in the middle of the eighteenth century, there is very much less agreement between the experts as to whether Paterson actually dug it out himself.

Many people argue that he could not possibly have cut the entire ruck on his own and that, in any case, the tool marks belong to a period in history much earlier than the life of George Paterson.

A flight of stone steps leads down to a main passage about forty tests in length with rooms off on both sides, including the famous drinking parlour, fifteen feet long, with a stone table into which is cut a shallow basin or bowl. It is likely that we shall never know me full story of the Cove but most of the available information on its origins and layout is discussed in more detail in the Gilmerton chapter of Villages of Edinburgh: an Illustrated Guide.

Although this photograph is entitled "Main Street", it is actually Drum Street.
The true Main Street was renamed "Ravenscroft Street" around the same time
that New Street was renamed "Newtoft Street".

Gilmerton Village Play Day

Some senior Gilmerton residents will still recall the Gilmerton Play Day which at one time was the most celebrated event of the year in the village.

Preparations began on the Thursday before the main event which was usually held on the last Friday in July. A lorry, scrubbed and bedecked, would carry a full load of earthenware basins round to Jimmy Veitch, the baker, in Main Street (not Ravenscroft Street) where the Play Haggis was already being prepared.

Oatmeal, suet and onions combined to create a culinary delight seldom repeated in such large quantities outside Gilmerton. The earthenware basins, heaped with haggis and topped with a leg of mutton, were collected at noon on Friday and taken to the Society Hall to be distributed to the members of the Junior Friendly Society. In the afternoon the village band led the company round the neighbouring streets, stopping outside members’ houses to play a favourite jig or reel in exchange for a little refreshment.

Once back at the Hall the flags were auctioned amidst great rivalry between Gilmerton families, the bidding enhanced by the euphoria of the day and the excitement of being custodian of one of the favourite flags: The Stenhouse Best and The Auld Hundred.

Author: Malcolm Cant, discussing his second volume of Villages of Edinburgh - an Illustrated Guide

More about Gilmerton Village from "The Fringes of Edinburgh"