Barnton Quarry: Cold War Edinburgh’s Abandoned Nuclear Bunker

barnton-quarry-edinburgh-bunker-3 (Image: Ben Cooper – website: Transient Places)

Edinburgh’s Wild West and the mysterious subterranean Gilmerton Cove are proof that the Scottish capital, while rich in history and culture, also has its fair share of offbeat travel destinations. That list may soon be added to, as an abandoned nuclear bunker occupying a warren of tunnels deep beneath Corstorphine Hill is poised to open as a museum. The disused military facility in Barnton Quarry, which lies amid trees immediately to the east of Clermiston Road, includes a long-derelict and heavily vandalised surface building guards a three-storey network of tunnels extending more than 100 ft below ground.

barnton-quarry-edinburgh-bunker-5 (Image: Ben Cooper – website: Transient Places)

Barnton Quarry once supplied high quality building stone to Edinburgh’s artisans. But it closed in 1914 and remained dormant until the outbreak of World War Two, when it was taken over by RAF Fighter Command as an operations room for the Turnhouse Sector (the nearby RAF Turnhouse airfield was later redeveloped as Edinburgh Airport). It wasn’t until the Cold War was well underway, however, that the former control centre was redeveloped for the shadowy purpose that it’s famous for today.

abandoned-edinburgh-barnton-quarry-2 (Image: via Bing Maps)

Beginning in 1952, a network of underground tunnels, chambers and control rooms were quietly excavated beneath the surface structure, carving out an R4 type bunker. The facility housed a Sector Operations Centre (SOC) tasked with coordinating information received from early warning stations throughout Scotland. As part of the elaborate ROTOR air defence radar system, the SOC would then order the scramble of RAF fighters to intercept incoming Soviet bombers before they entered UK airspace.

abandoned-edinburgh-barnton-quarry (Image: via Bing Maps)

But as the jet age advanced, delays encountered between the transfer of information from one radar station to another meant there wasn’t enough time to scramble fast jets before their adversaries had penetrated British defences. The subsequent development of the vastly improved Type 80 Ground-controlled interception (GCI) radar soon rendered the old ROTOR system redundant. The Sector Operations Centres may have been abandoned, but the Cold War was heating up as nuclear paranoia swept the western world, and Edinburgh’s proximity to Rosyth Naval Dockyard made it a likely target should Armageddon be unleashed.

barnton-quarry-edinburgh-bunker-4 (Image: Ben Cooper – website: Transient Places)

Therefore, after its second brief period of disuse, the abandoned bunker beneath Barnton Quarry was transformed into a Regional Seat of Government (RSG) in the early 1960s. It was here that politicians, ministers of state, military top brass, BBC broadcasters and the Royal Family – should they happen to be at Holyrood Palace – would be spirited away immediately before the fallout from a nuclear strike had settled on Edinburgh. But its highly classified purpose wouldn’t remain in the shadows for long. On Good Friday, 1963, a group known as Spies for Peace revealed the details of 14 such RSGs across the country, and it wasn’t long before demonstrators from the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) had taken to the main entrance on Clermiston Road in protest.

barnton-quarry-edinburgh-bunker-15 (Image: Ben Cooper – website: Transient Places)

For several decades, the 30,000 square ft bunker remained one of the area’s most open secrets. Access to the high security facility – which could house up to 300 officials and incorporated water tanks, an air filtration system, food supplies and communications – remained tightly controlled, and little information other than its existence proved forthcoming. But its main purpose as a Regional Seat of Government in the event of a nuclear strike had been outed. And so it remained until 1984 when Barnton Quarry passed into civilian hands for the first time in almost half a century. Lothian Regional Council reportedly sold the property to a Glasgow developer for £55,000 in 1987, but before the abandoned bunker could be repurposed, fire swept through its deserted tunnels and spread deadly asbestos fibres throughout the subterranean chambers.

abandoned-edinburgh-barnton-quarry-3 (Image: via Bing Maps)

The abandoned facility lay derelict and unloved for years thereafter, overgrown and hazardous. But in 2005 it was purchased by James Mitchell for just £60,000, who restored power to the facility for the first time in two decades and began a long term restoration effort which will hopefully see the site fully decontaminated and transformed into a museum. James, who turned another abandoned bunker at Anstruther, Fife, into a popular tourist destination, told the Edinburgh Evening News in 2013 that he believed visitors would flock to the site. The Cold War enthusiast said: “This isn’t just a part of Scottish history, but British history; and a vital part too… The building is full of history and I’m sure it could become another of Edinburgh’s key tourist attractions.”

barnton-quarry-edinburgh-bunker-18 (Image: Ben Cooper – website: Transient Places)

Despite its impending restoration, the historic facility hasn’t yet given up all its secrets. Rumours have long swirled around the Clermiston area of an escape tunnel which served as the bunker’s emergency exit. Locals speak of a solitary ‘green telephone box’ which is believed to have marked the opening, and supposedly stood in nearby woodland near the edge of Edinburgh Zoo. James said: “I’ve heard about the ‘green telephone box’ but am yet to discover any tunnel heading off in that direction.” He did, however, add that: “There are parts of the complex which have been badly affected by fire so we’re still to get a full overview of its layout but there are tunnels running off in many directions.”

barnton-quarry-edinburgh-bunker-16 (Image: Ben Cooper – website: Transient Places)

One Evening News commenter, meanwhile, remarked: “There is no point searching for an escape tunnel to the south of the bunker. The emergency exit was into the remainder of the quarry – now the council roads depot – to the north. The green telephone box was located atop a small water tank/ reservoir within the boundary of Edinburgh Zoo over a kilometre away.” According to the newspaper, the British government built almost 1,600 nuclear monitoring facilities and 36 military and civil defence control posts across the UK in the decade from 1955 to 1965. The existence of many of these has only recently become known, while others likely remain in the shadows.

barnton-quarry-edinburgh-bunker-17 (Image: Ben Cooper – website: Transient Places)

Cold War bunker expert Nick Catford, who visited the abandoned Barnton Quarry facility in 2006, told the Evening News that the facility presented a “a unique tourist opportunity”. He said: “I’ve visited numerous nuclear bunkers all over Britain and in terms of location for a possible tourist attraction, this one is the best. It’s the only one in close proximity to a city. The rest are all miles out in the countryside… This site was vitally important for the region, as it is where the government would have set up in the event of nuclear war breaking out. “I doubt the bunker would have survived a direct hit but it would have been used to escape the fallout and the blast,” he added. “Its purpose was to co-ordinate recovery after an attack and to get services running again. It’s a marvellous relic from that time.”

barnton-quarry-edinburgh-bunker-19 (Image: Ben Cooper – website: Transient Places)

Another abandoned bunker, meanwhile, could be found nearby in West Lothian, not far from the site of the austere wartime airfield RAF Kirknewton. The bunker, which was also built during the 1950s, was reportedly used as a nightclub for a brief spell before its demolition in 2003.

Related – 10 Abandoned Nuclear Bunkers, Missile Silos & Ammunition Dumps


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