doocot diaries

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Doocots are rare survivors of a bygone age, offering a window into our past. Here Jamie Swanson, gives a brief history of these structures and their importance.

Doocot at Strathleven House, Dunbartonshire. Image by Paul Zanre

By Jamie Swanson, creator of community group Doocots and Dovecotes

I inherited Elizabeth Beaton’s guide to the “Doocots of Moray” when my father passed. Although Moray is my home county I travel far and wide exploring the natural and architectural delights of Scotland so the book languished on my bookcase. In 2020 restrictions meant I could not leave my county so I dug the book out and set out to find all the cotes as a Covid distraction. I managed to find all the extant dovecotes, 24 of the 25 listed in the book, once restrictions were lifted I continued my quest for these fascinating buildings, seeking them out wherever I roam.

Freestanding Dovecotes, or Doocots in Scotland are amongst the oldest surviving farm buildings. From their introduction in the 16th Century to their fall from popularity in the 19th Century most Castles, Abbeys and mansions would have a doocot in their policies. Sadly, many have been lost as they fell into neglect through changed fashions and farming practices in the 19th century.

Pigeon farming was probably introduced to Britain by the Normans as a way of supplying meat and eggs, providing a particularly valuable supply of fresh meat through the winter at a time when most farmed animals were slaughtered in late autumn as there was no overwintering feed available.

Tealing Doocot

So valuable was the role of the cote that in 1503 an act of Scots Parliament “ordains that ilk Lord and Laird to make them dovecotes”

This led to a rush in cote building with the Doos (pigeons) becoming a nuisance as they were no respecters of land boundaries. In 1617 new legislation was introduced limiting their building to land owners with an annual value of 10 Chandlers (approximately 3 tonnes) This effectively limited the ownership of cotes to the Gentry.

Doocot at Strathleven House

From the 17th Century as timber became more readily available design became more reflective of fashion and style. In the 18th Century Charles “Turnip” Townshend advocated the growing of turnips as a crop for overwintering feed, meaning livestock no longer had to be slaughtered before winter and fresh beef and pork was now on the menu year-round.

A few cotes remained in use and a few new examples were built to house birds for sporting purposes but when legislation restricting their building to the landed gentry was rescinded the golden age of cote building ended. The cote was no longer required for food or guano and had no role as a status symbol.

Orton Mains Doocot

Through the late 19th and early 20th Century some pigeon lofts were incorporated into gables and pends of farm buildings but no new freestanding cotes were erected and the existing ones were abandoned.

The introduction of timber as a building material now became the Achillies heel, untended water penetrates buildings, wooden frames and roof trusses get wet then rot and buildings collapse. What is remarkable is there are 948 extant Doocots in Scotland according to the Canmore National Record of the Historic Environment database.

Orton Mains Doocot

Many of these remain where the building they were originally built to serve has long disappeared. New Spynie Doocot served Quarrelwood Castle. The Doocot was converted into a cistern last century but the exterior is in fine condition, nothing remains of the castle. Crail Doocot served Crail Priory, The Priory is long gone, the Doocot survives and has recently been renovated and opened as a visitor attraction. Leuchars Doocot is extant, although in poor condition, of Leuchars castle not a stone remains.

The reason for this survival may lie in a hint of folklore I have been trying to corroborate, but the origins seem lost in time. “Within one year death will visit the family of anyone destroying a Doocot”

Follow along on social media as we shed some light on these often forgotten and overlooked structures. We will explore the doocots in our care and thoseunder the care of other bodies and those at risk. Share your Doocot stories and photos to our socials #thedoocotdiaries

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