There is nowhere quite like this. Nowhere as secret, as devious or as hidden in plain sight. I found it online; and when the opportunity to volunteer would give me permission to explore this place as it is, untouched and lost, I had never been so excited about a trip. Edinburgh Underground investigates: The Barnton Quarry Nuclear Bunker.
You can volunteer in a nuclear bunker. Honestly. No volunteering magazine will cover this and you probably won’t find it on any job site. But, for one Saturday (or as many you like) bring yourself along to Clermiston Road North, and look out for some telecoms towers; find the gate, enter the complex and be amazed. What you will be looking at isn’t what it seems.
Behind that cliff, and deep, deep, down, lies Edinburgh’s most sinister modern secret. A place where the important would have survived as the city perished; a place built in case of global destruction.
The Barnton Nuclear Bunker was constructed during the height of the cold war. The area was ideal as it previously served as a base for Turnhouse – Edinburgh Airport – which served it’s time as an RAF airbase during the second world war.
Since then, it has had its share of various inhabitants from teenagers, vandals, urban explorers and scavengers. It was once a secret that only a few locals knew about and it was once possible to get into the bunker without much effort.
However, this lead to its devastation and the bunker was set alight by arsonists in the early nineties. When I say devastation; the fire reached temperatures so high that it buckled the steel girders holding up the roof. Some rooms seem barely scarred; whereas others were a pit of ash, dust and asbestos.
Now owned by the Barnton Quarry Restoration Project, with ties to the fantastically preserved Secret Bunker near Anstruther, Fife, the bunker is undergoing a massive transformation. This is where you step in.
Budding travellers, locals and weekend historians take serious consideration for this. It is an opportunity that will someday be lost. The bunker is being renovated into a painstaking reconstruction of the original ROTR4. I cannot wait for this, but in the meantime you can help the team do basic reconstruction work whether that is moving brush from access roads or getting stuck in painting the complex. There is so much work to be done, but once it is done you will not have this opportunity to work in such an amazing piece of Edinburgh history again.
This is the only chance you get at seeing one of these amazing structures in its bare flesh. The owners are going to use what they can of the original, but due to fire damage much has to be replaced so if you want a feel for real history, then contact the team today.
I spent a day hauling logs onto a large bonfire and it was hard work. It was roasting outside and the lick of the bonfire grew more intense. Once the work was done the team are more than happy to show you the inside of the bunker and if you’re a health and safety nerd – look away now.
It is a staggering four stories deep and quickly becomes a labyrinth of corridors and burnt rooms. The main entrance is ornate as the curved metal structure tunnels its way into the bunkers depths. The walls are blackened and many stained with decades old graffiti. When the owners first started the renovation the place was stuffed with fly-tipping and junk. They have hauled out pipes and rusted ventilation but salvaged everything that can be brushed up and used again.
The feat is enormous but the passion of the team is staggering.
Deeper and deeper we traversed. Down into the bowels of the bunker – the engine rooms and telecoms centre. And old BBC station tucked away in the deepest corner. No beds. This was a place to wait out the nuclear fallout. A sign that perhaps we had mistaken ideas about the power of the nuclear bomb.
There are rumours that the Queen would have been ushered in there had she been at Holyrood. That is still up for debate, but it seemed that the bunker was built mainly for communications and intel, not for living.
Personally, I don’t think anyone would have survived down there.
It was amazing to walk around and feel the place. The old smell of dust mixed with ash. Not so long ago it would be treason to stand as idly as I did in that spot, looking at a rack of broken telecoms equipment with local place names stuck onto them – somehow surviving the blaze.
The surreal nature was brought to reality when the place names read out towns and cities nearby. It was real, this place really was the last resort. That stuffy cold war period with those horrible public service announcements ‘Protect and Survive’ and the creepiest one ‘Duck and Cover’. You only need to watch ‘Threads’ to see how truly wrong we were about the bomb.
“Of course today there is no point building a bunker,” said one of the staff, “there is no way to escape the size of bombs we have now.”
Chilling, yet extraordinary. This is your opportunity to see somewhere no one was allowed to see. Touch the walls, smell the air, walk into rooms that once said ‘Restricted!’ Your imagination will carry you through those haunting corridors, and when you walk down princes street, the royal mile or explore some of the beautiful landscape that Edinburgh has to offer, you can’t help but think how close all that history was to being completely obliterated.
…Chilling, isn’t it?