Real Life Adventures: Gilmerton Cove
By Daniel J. Bishop
The idea of a dungeon hidden beneath a building in town is an old one in gaming. This past August I had the opportunity to visit one that exists in real life. Gilmerton Cove is far from a megadungeon, but it is large and old enough to be interesting—and it certainly has lessons for the prospective Game Master.
Gilmerton is a suburb of Edinburgh, Scotland, that used to be a coal mining settlement. In the 1700s, George Paterson, the local blacksmith, claimed to have dug the caves himself from the sandstone bedrock from 1719-1724. It seems impossible that the chambers could be carved by one person in so short a span, and there are several other theories of how the caves came to be. One is that it was a coal bore, where miners sought a coal seam that failed to manifest. Another is that the cove is 2,000 years old, and was actually a druidic temple. No one is certain.
One of the features of the Cove is a well, which does not normally hold water. Nearby is a “forge” that shows no signs of soot. Had it been used as an actual forge, the sandstone would have cracked. A bowl-like depression in the “forge” suggests a sacrificial altar, and that the “well” might once have held the sacrifice-in-waiting.
Two filled-in tunnels lead to the northeast and northwest. Tradition suggests that one of these lead to nearby Craigmillar Castle. Other theories suggest that tunnels were used by a local Hellfire Club, Knights Templar, or Presbyterian Covenanters hiding from the State. It is possible that “Cove” is a shortening of Covenant or even Coven, rather than meaning simply “cave.” Masonic marks can be found carved within. One tunnel might run to Roselyn Chapel, which is associated with the Templars and the Holy Grail. Acoustic archaeology has shown that the system may be much larger than the section currently known, so more clues may eventually be uncovered. One problem facing archaeologists is that the tunnels run near the surface under roadways, so removing the backfill could result in serious problems.
So how can Gilmerton Cove improve our games?
- Having certainly been used as an illegal drinking hall, possibly hiding both Templers and Protestants, and possibly having been created as a Druidic temple, Gilmerton Cove reminds us that we should consider how our adventure site has served multiple purposes over the centuries, as different people and creatures inhabited it.
- Stone tables carved into chambers are part of the actual stone of the floor – the table was carved at the same time as the cave was! So were the stone benches that line them. This is a cool detail that one seldom appears in published adventures, and would be appropriate for the ruins of a dwarven clan or other underground species.
- If there is a dungeon hidden below the village your PCs are staying in, it is entirely reasonable that the upper reaches at least are being used by the villagers rather than monsters. It can be a drinking hall, a “Hellfire Club,” a place to hide contraband, and so on.
- The Cove floods partially – or deeply – when it rains. I can picture a hidden drinking club where people are sloshing through puddles quite easily. The outside weather affecting conditions underground is also something that Game Masters seldom take into account.
- Carving on the walls of Gilmerton Cove give the walls a texture similar to oak bark…something you feel more than you see. This is a good reminder of how touch can be used to add depth to an adventure location.