What’s the story?

PEOPLE walking their dogs on Corstorphine Hill rarely notice the nuclear bunker. It’s hidden behind trees, high fencing, and a lot of broken cars. The surface is sprayed with jagged graffiti and the door cut into the wall gives nothing away. Yet it’s here, 100 feet underground, down a chilly sloping tunnel and through a set of blast doors, that Scotland would have been controlled during a nuclear war. Forget the idea that the government would head for the countryside; post-apocalyptic Scotland would have been administered from a prim Edinburgh suburb.

What was the bunker for?

IN the early phase of the Cold War, a nuclear attack would have come via Russian bombers flying over the North Sea, and Scottish radar would have been the first to detect them. The Barnton Quarry RAF bunker was built in 1952 to co-ordinate the radar information and defend Scotland from attack. But, by the late 50s, radar had become redundant due to the advent of ballistic missiles, so Barnton Quarry dropped its defence role and became Scotland’s Regional Seat of Government.

If London was knocked out in a nuclear war, power would devolve to such Seats across the country, and so it was here that 400 politicians and civil servants would have sheltered for up to 30 days, organising Scotland’s food supplies, healthcare, communications and policing.

Thenceforth, the huge bunker, three floors deep, lay empty but in constant readiness, with phone lines installed and water tanks topped up, waiting to receive the 400 souls whose names were on a secret list in the Scottish Office. Most didn’t know they’d been selected and would only hear of it when told to say some discreet goodbyes and report for duty.

What happened to it?

THE bunker held this role until 1983 when ownership passed to the local council but they found it too expensive to maintain.

They tried to sell it and various parties proposed turning it into a shellfish farm or knocking it down and building luxury apartments, plans soon ditched when it was realised massive nuclear bunkers aren’t particularly easy to demolish.

So it was abandoned and eventually targeted by thieves who stripped its copper wire and metals, even stealing the blast doors which each weighed a ton and a half. In 1993, it was set on fire and burned for five days with a heat so intense it blew the remaining metal from the walls.

As the firemen worked on the surface they could hear the eerie explosions beneath their feet. After that, its doors lay open for years to the delight of local children.

What’s happening now?

Work is under way to restore the bunker and turn it into a Cold War museum.

Since 2011, a team of volunteers, led by local enthusiast Grant More, have met at the site every weekend. They’re not tradesmen or experts, but just people who don’t want a crucial part of Scotland’s history to be lost. They work under the supervision of the site foreman who instructs them in what needs to be done and then they roll up their sleeves and get on with it.

They began by clearing the site which meant shifting thousands of tons of fly-tipping, fallen trees and mangled fences and only then could they enter the bunker itself which is an intimidating place.

Everything has been incinerated, with only the structure still standing – built for nuclear war, after all.

The fire also melted the glass and it lies on the ground in frozen ripples which are impossible to remove, so there it remains, warping the floor and your sense of normality. No, it can’t be a pleasant place to work, especially if, far underground in the damp silence, you allow yourself to dwell on what might have been.

But the volunteers are too busy for such grim thoughts and one of their first moves was to get a generator and running water installed, so now they work amidst light and the welcome possibility of a cup of tea.

Who’s paying for it all?

Funds come from Scotland’s Secret Bunker in Anstruther. Both sites have the same owner and all proceeds from Anstruther’s ticket sales go to Barnton Quarry’s restoration.

There was the possibility of funding from Historic Scotland but they wanted to direct how the money would be spent and the Barnton Quarry team politely declined on the grounds that they’re doing this as a labour of love, so will never simply opt for the most efficient or affordable materials, because they want everything to be authentic.

To avoid conflict and retain independence, they bravely decided to go it alone. For this reason they’ve also refused to employ contractors who could perhaps have restored the bunker more quickly.

Instead, they prefer to do it in the slow, obsessive and utterly respectful way that only amateur enthusiasts can understand.

For example, the old air filtration system won’t be required as there’s no longer a fear of radioactive fallout yet they’re still restoring it – cleaning, priming, painting and reinstalling – in the name of authenticity.

The future

The team want a Cold War museum to remind everyone, particularly younger generations for whom the threat of nuclear annihilation may seem like a Hollywood story, how close we came to overstepping the brink.

But it won’t be an old-fashioned museum with glass cases, red ropes and posed mannequins.

They’re envisioning interactive displays, holograms, and teaching spaces where local researchers and students will be welcome.

The authorities were content to let this incredible site rot and burn, but local people are claiming their history and preserving it for the rest of us.