Queen’s Edinburgh nuclear bunker to open as museum
OVERGROWN vegetation and graffiti-daubed outbuildings do much to avert prying eyes but more than 100ft below Corstorphine Hill there lies a secret.
Deep below ground, set into the protective rock of Barnton Quarry, sits a three-storey warren of rooms and chambers designed to offer shelter and a base of power for both royalty and the highest dignitaries in the land if the Cold War had ever become hot.
In the eventuality of a Soviet nuclear attack on Britain, this is where government ministers, members of the military, the police, fire and ambulance, along with BBC staff and telecommunications engineers, would have fled with the Queen had she been in residence in Edinburgh at the time.
At 30,000 sq ft, the bunker complex is similar in size to a large supermarket and current owner James Mitchell, 52 – the man behind turning a bunker near Anstruther, Fife, into a popular tourist attraction – hopes to soon attract more than 100,000 visitors to it in its new incarnation as a museum.
James has long been interested in all things relating to the Cold War era and he believes tourists will flock to the site.
He said: “This isn’t just a part of Scottish history, but British history; and a vital part too. We’ve reconnected the power to the site for what must be the first time in 20 years and we’re now setting about renovating it. Don’t be fooled, there’s a lot of work needing to be done on it, but the building itself is solid. It just needs some TLC.
“We’ve been working on it for the past two years and now that the power is back on we should really begin cracking on.
“Edinburgh Castle draws over 1.5 million visitors each year, so if we could attract even just a fraction of those visitors we’ll be doing pretty good.
“If the Queen and the Royal Household were at Holyroodhouse Palace at the time of a nuclear attack then this is where they would have been sent to escape it.
“She would have been joined by members of the Scotland Office and local dignitaries.
“The building is full of history and I’m sure it could become another of Edinburgh’s key tourist attractions.”
Barnton Quarry produced high quality building stone up until about 1914, after which the site lay largely redundant until it was used during the Second World War as an RAF fighter command operations room. The original building can still be seen at the site.
In 1952, work began on creating a three-level operations centre, which was used to control radar surveillance across Scotland. However, in the early 1960s, as Cold War paranoia and fear of nuclear armageddon spread, the purpose of the bunker changed and it was transformed into a regional seat of government (RSG) for Scotland.
The complex was even fitted with a BBC studio to allow government broadcasts in the event of nuclear war – given its proximity to Rosyth naval base, Edinburgh was considered to be a prime target for a Soviet missile strike.
Classed as a secret government building, the existence of the nuclear shelter was made public on Good Friday, 1963, when a group known as Spies for Peace revealed details of 14 RSGs throughout the country.
Anti-nuclear demonstrators belonging to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND) then proceeded to protest outside its Clermiston Road entrance.
The site eventually passed to Lothian Regional Council in 1984, which then sold the property to a Glasgow property developer for £55,000 in June 1987.
For years, the six-acre site sat derelict and uncared for, until history-nut James snapped up the entire site for a knockdown price of £60,000 in 2005.
He said: “I had tried to buy it years before but had no luck. One day I was driving past Edinburgh to Anstruther in Fife when I decided to ring the developer and ask about it. By the time I had reached the Forth Road Bridge I had bought it.”
Locals in Clermiston have long known of the site’s existence and children playing in the nearby woods have long referred to the “green telephone box”, which lies to the south near the boundary with Edinburgh Zoo.
There stands a solitary dark green telephone box-like structure with a door which is understood to be an emergency exit for the bunker.
The entire complex – which could house more than 300 officials was designed to be fully self-sufficient – with a filtered air system, water tanks, food supplies, kitchen facilities and communication equipment
James said: “It was basically a huge underground office complex containing laboratories and broadcast rooms. Even after owning it for all these years, I still find loads of new stuff each time I go down there.
“There are rooms which would obviously have been command rooms for the war, with large mapped tables like the ones you see in all those old spy films. There was enough food and water to last around three months with battery back-ups, too.
He added: “I’ve heard about the ‘green telephone box’ but am yet to discover any tunnel heading off in that direction. 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. If anything, it’s a remarkable work of engineering as it’s been carved right into the rock and quarry. The walls are around 45ft thick.”
Fire devastated the complex first in August 1991 and again in May 1993, it was claimed at the time that ravers had been using the site to hold illegal parties.
Both blazes resulted in a large amount of asbestos becoming airborne and as a result the site has been largely avoided by vandals. James has been assured following tests that the threat of asbestos has now eased.
Nick Catford, an expert and author on Cold War bunkers, was given access to the site in 2006 for a book he was doing on the subject and he feels the bunker offers “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. I do hope James succeeds with his project because this site has such a rich history from the Second World War all the way through the Cold War.
“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.
“If central government was taken out of action by an attack, then the government would be devolved regionally. Nobody really knows what would have happened if there had been such an attack, but as this facility shows we were prepared.
“The regional commander would have had the power over life and death deciding who would be allowed in and who would not.
“They obviously would not have known who would have turned up but in the run-up to any attack, all the local powers that be would have informed of its location.
“I doubt the bunker would have survived a direct hit but it would have been used to escape the fallout and the blast. Its purpose was to co-ordinate recovery after an attack and to get services running again. It’s a marvellous relic from that time.”
Monuments to war that never was
It is more than 50 years since the Cuban missile crisis and more than 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War.
During that period, the UK government ordered the construction of thousands of underground complexes.
Almost 1600 nuclear monitoring posts and 36 control posts for military and civil defence purposes were built across the UK between 1955 and 1965.
Owing to its size, and proximity to the Rosyth naval base, the Capital was deemed a target, and was well prepared.
In the village of Kirknewton, West Lothian, another bunker was built in the 1950s and demolished in 2003.
Originally a radar bunker, the facility took over the role of Scottish Central Control from Barnton Quarry in 1964. It reverted in to radar 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.