Cold War, Military, News

The Secret History of Scotland’s Largest Nuclear Bunker

You probably couldn’t guess what lies under Edinburgh Hill. For decades now, the hill has concealed a huge nuclear bunker known as the Barnton Quarry Nuclear Bunker. It was constructed in 1944 and remained unknown to many people.

It expanded in 1951 but was rendered inactive by 1955.

Exploring the Nuclear Bunker

Accessing the secluded entrance to the building, situated 100 feet beneath Corstorphine Hill, requires traversing a rugged private path. Spanning three storeys, this structure was once the foremost line of defense against the menace of nuclear war in Scotland.

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The bunker featured a BBC broadcasting studio. It also had the capacity to serve as a refuge for Queen Elizabeth if the city came under attack.

The central operations floor lies amidst a labyrinth of corridors and chambers. It was responsible for collecting data in the 1950s. The purpose? To identify any aircraft traversing Scottish airspace.

Back in the day. The main operations room in the Barnton Quarry Nuclear Bunker.

An unidentified individual, previously associated with the Home Office bunker, informed BBC Scotland that the radar operations center had a brief lifespan of only 18 months. Despite costing millions, the bunker’s radar technology was soon surpassed by advancements in fighter jet technology, rendering it obsolete.

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The bunker is situated on the same hill as Edinburgh Zoo. In 1955, its classification was finally withdrawn. As a result, the government assumed control of the bunker in 1960. They transformed it into a safeguarded control centre in the event of a nuclear strike. But, this function was eventually transferred to a bunker in the Kirknewton vicinity of the city. It was relocated to several other places in the later years.

An Obsolete Relic of the Past

The military shut down the facility and handed ownership to the Lothian Regional Council in 1983. The council intended to use it as an emergency control centre. Later, however, they acknowledged the bunker was excessively large.

As a result, it was scarcely utilised.

James Mitchell: The Proud Owner of a Nuclear Bunker

MacGregor Properties subsequently purchased the bunker. However, they encountered difficulties obtaining planning permission to build retirement flats on the land. In 1996, a local entrepreneur, James Mitchell, bought the bunker for £60,000.

Mitchell shared, “They couldn’t do anything with it because they weren’t given planning permission for flats. So I inquired about purchasing it. They indicated they were in a board meeting and would call me back. I was in my car at the time, and by the time I was crossing the Forth Road Bridge, I had acquired it.”

Nuclear Bunker
Hidden form above. Barnton Nuclear Bunker on Corstorphine Hill. (Photo: James Mitchell)

Nonetheless, upon gaining entry, he encountered “an atrocious mess.” He explained, “Vandals had entered through the air vents and looted much of the contents. So, I left the site for a few years while considering my options.”

The Bomby Group

Many fires broke out over the following years. One inferno in 1998 ravaged the entire bunker for two days! The former Home Office official attributed the conflagration to a radical group known as the Edinburgh Bomby Group. The organization believed the government would re-establish the bunker in the event of a nuclear war.

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The anarchist group inscribed their intentions on the bunker doors. They wanted to chop down telegraph poles – so they did. Number ten on their list was to set fire to the site. Using angle grinders and sledgehammers, they put up a motorcycle against the telephone exchange. A little spark blew the exchange to smithereens.

So What is the Future of This Nuclear Bunker?

The bunker’s owner projected it would need £20 million to restore the facility to its original state. However, he revealed he had already spent £1 million to remove more than 40 tonnes of debris.

Director of the preservation group, Peter Gordon, in the bunker’s plant room.

Peter Gordon, Director of the Barnton Bunker Preservation Society, claimed that only a handful of people have ever accessed the bunker. “When we first arrived, there were dead rats everywhere. And the atmosphere was musty,” he remarked. “The blaze was an inferno that caused the concrete to fracture and pop; you can still see evidence of that now.”

Mr. Mitchell, Proprietor of Scotland’s Secret Bunker in Fife, expressed his desire to repurpose the Category A Listed structure as a museum. Mitchell has now established the bunker as a charity and intends to offer “hard hat tours” to visitors. 

The Home Office Consultant reflected on the bunker’s past. “I recall the days when the polished floors reflected your face, but now it’s a semi-derelict building. It’s one-of-a-kind and extremely fascinating and thrilling to explore. Even though the bunker ceased to be a secret in 1955, nobody ever talked about it.”