Barnton bunker a hot spot in the Cold War

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Little remains of the dormitories that once lined the walls of the secret underground bunker, its BBC studio, kitchens, or endless rows of desks piled high with intricate communication equipment.

&#149 Creature comforts contrast with apocalyptic purpose in the main image taken in 1981

Set deep into the rock at Barnton Quarry, it is here that if the Soviets had decided to launch a nuclear attack on Britain during the Cold War, Edinburgh's recovery would have been kick-started. Now it is nothing short of an empty shell.

Those expected to rush to the bunker following an attack, leaving behind their family and friends, were cabinet ministers, members of the military, the police, fire brigade and ambulance service, along with BBC staff and telecommunications engineers, all of whom would have helped the Lothians get back on its feet in what would undoubtedly have been mass destruction on an unimaginable scale.

Of course, the bunker was never put to the test and served as little more than a site for decades of government-led training, pre-emptive of what the Soviets could have done to Britain, but thankfully never did.

All these years later, the Barnton nuclear hideout features in a fascinating new book examining Britain's Cold War bunkers, offering in many instances an unprecedented look at what is contained in them now, decades after the risk of Soviet attack.

For cameraman and photographer Nick Catford, author of the book, it was something of a dream come true to be given access to the Barnton bunker - truly one of a kind owing to its construction in a rock face - as well as another base at Craigiehall and a bunker at Kirknewton, which has since been demolished.

For the last decade, as part of his Subterranean Britain series he has toured the country to offer a photographic overview, comprising more than 450 pictures, of every type of nuclear bunker built.

"I feel very privileged to have had such access," the Kent-based author explains. "I am sure you can hear the fascination in my voice.

&#149 The installation at Kirknewton

"Nobody really knows what would have happened if there had been an attack, but we were prepared. Whether our plans would have worked is a totally different matter. It all depends on whether the Soviets had thrown all their missiles."

The history of the Barnton Quarry bunker has obviously gripped Nick and he hopes his findings will excite readers of his book, many of whom may use it to learn about Britain's Cold War preparations for the first time.

The bunker site was first used during the Second World War as an RAF Fighter Command Operations Room. This original structure still survives, but is in poor condition.

It was in 1952 that work began close by to create a three-level rotor sector operations centre, which was used to control radar surveillance across Scotland. In the early 1960s, the purpose of the bunker then changed when it was transformed into a regional seat of government for Scotland.

"It was basically an underground office," explains Nick, "If central government was taken out of action owing to an attack, then the government would be devolved regionally. They never really knew how many people would have turned up. They could have forced people at gun point, but that was never put to the test."

Fully self-sufficient, with a filtered air system, water tanks, food supplies, kitchen facilities and communication equipment, the Barnton bunker would have become home to key figures who had spent countless years, often weeks at a time, training for an emergency situation they hoped would never happen.

"It would have been protected from a blast, and fall-out, but it would not have survived a direct hit," says Nick.

"Its purpose was to co-ordinate recovery after an attack, to get services running again."

But what of it now? "Inside it is a total mess," Nick explains. No longer serving a purpose in the mid-1980s, the site became disused and was eventually sold off, yet before any commercial development started, most of the interior of the bunker was destroyed by fire, possibly the result of vandalism, as Nick's pictures here show.

While ideas to turn the bunker into a museum have since been floated, the site currently lies unused and in a state of disrepair, also with asbestos contamination.

"While the bunker is structurally sound, the inside would have to be rebuilt from new," says Nick. "It's not an eyesore because it is well hidden, but it would be nice if something could be done with it. I would like to see it as a museum - a recreation of what it once was."

It is of no surprise that Edinburgh housed such an important bunker, one of only six of its kind in Britain, which many smaller government seats would have reported to.

Owing to its size, and proximity to the Rosyth naval base, Edinburgh was always considered a target for attack, so was well prepared.

Nearby in the West Lothian village of Kirknewton there was also a Cold War bunker, built in the 1950s yet demolished in 2003.

Originally a rotor radar bunker, the hideout eventually took over the role of Scottish Central Control from Barnton Quarry in 1964, yet the job reverted back to the latter in 1980.

The bunker closed in 1990 and went on to be used for a number of commercial purposes, including becoming a nightclub, called the Bunker.

"The structure had five-foot thick walls which would have given massive protection from fall-out, but it was not underground," explains Nick. "It too had dorms and kitchens, designed to hold around 50 people.

"I managed to visit the bunker in 2001 when it was a nightclub, but it had been closed down. It really just looked like exactly that - a nightclub in a bunker."

Another example of Britain's Cold War preparations is at Craigiehall, in the north west of the city. Now serving as a conference and lecture hall at the military site, this former anti-aircraft operations room played a key role the government's planning in the 1950s.

"It was very heavily protected, but it too would not have been able to withstand a direct attack," says Nick. "Its use was short lived and eventually it was incorporated into the military site."

With the threat of nuclear contamination in Japan hitting headlines across the world, the thought of how Britain would have coped if nuclear war had occurred seems highly relevant.

"If it had happened, nuclear war would always have been over in a couple of days, but millions would have been killed. Millions would also have survived and that's why we had these bunkers."

n Cold War Bunkers, by Nick Catford, is published by Folly Books priced 24.99. It is available from www.subbrit.org.uk.

catherine.salmond@edinburghnews.com