Doocots in Scotland
Jack Gillon discusses the problems of protecting a type of building for which modem society has little use.
Edrom, Scottish borders: 19th century doocot over farm entrance arch.
Dovecotes (doocots in Scotland) form prominent features in the landscape of many parts of the country. Many have survived for centuries because of their substantial construction, and their architecture is generally a perfect expression of local craftsmanship. They have an appeal to anyone with an eye for architectural form and express a substantial degree of functionalism in their design. They also represent a reflection of national architectural tradition; it is unlikely that anyone would mistake the charming Butt Mouse dovecote in Herefordshire, built of black and white half-timberwork on a base of red brick, with the robust thickwalled solid stone doocots of Scotland. Their main interest for Conservation Officers lies in the facts that they are usually Statutorily Listed as Buildings of Special Historic or Architectural Interest, are often Ancient Monuments and may unfortunately frequently fall into the category of Building at Risk.

The earliest form of dovecotes were those converted from natural caves or cut into rock, 'coo caves'. The Romans kept pigeons in a columbarium or peristeron and are recorded as being "mad with the love of pigeons; building towers for them on the tops of their roofs". The earliest in Britain which still exists is within the Norman keep of Rochester Castle and dated 1126, and the oldest free-standing dovecot is at Garway, Herefordshire dated 1326. The earliest surviving Scottish doocots date from the 16th century with the oldest, dated 1576, being at Mertoun House, St Boswells.

Bolton, East Lothian: 19th century circular farm doocot.
Prior to the 18th century, doocots were a standard feature of Scottish landed estates. They are particularly numerous in Fife and the Lothians because estates in these areas were relatively small and consisted of mainly rich arable land producing fine agricultural crops which provided an excellent source of food for the pigeons. Doocots were also the legal right of abbeys, castles and monasteries, and many existing examples are associated with these uses.

Pigeons provided a valuable source of year-round fresh meat and eggs, adding variety to meals in the winter months. Their droppings, which built up in the dovecots, made an excellent fertiliser and were used in the production of gunpowder and in the processes of leather tanning and cloth dyeing. There was also a prevalent belief that pigeons had medicinal properties and they were used in various forms as a cure-all for everything from the plague to baldness.

Doocots were thus the valuable property of powerful landowners and there have been laws concerning them since 1424 when an Act relating to destroyers of cow-houses was passed. In 1503, under James IV, an Act directed all lairds and lords to layout deer parks, orchards, stanks for fish, cunningaries (rabbit warrens), and to erect 'dowcots' as a benefit to the community. However, pigeons could have a significant effect on sur~ rounding crops, and by 1617 another statute was necessary on account of "the frequent budding of doucottis by all manner of persounes in all the parts" of the realm. This restricted the privilege of building doocots to owners of land which produced ten chalders or 160 bolls (1.25 cwt) of grain within 2 miles of the site of the doocot in order to attempt to ensure that the pigeons fed on the landowners' crops rather than their neighbours'.

Below: Doocot, Bridgend Farm
Early surviving Scottish doocots are of two main types. The first purpose built doocots, dating from the 16th century, are beehive shaped, circular in section and tapering towards the top with a flat domed roof They are constructed of rubble stone, with thicker walls in the earlier structures, and little ornamentation. The other early style, which superseded the beehive design in the late 16th century, is the rectangular lectern type. These have a distinctive sloping monopitched roof often with crow stepped gables which provided a perch for the pigeons, and are normally divided into separate chambers. The roofs usually face south to give the birds a sunny surface to rest on, while sheltering them from northerly winds. The more sophisticated construction of the lectem type doocots allowed for greater ornamentation which became more elaborate as time went on.
typical lectern type doocot: Stoneywind, Boarhills, Fife.
They continued to be built well into the 18th century and later examples have a variety of forms: cylindrical, pentagonal, hexagonal and octagonal, in all sorts of styles ranging from baronial to classical. From the mid-18th century, they were frequently constructed as ornamental features of the policies of country houses, representing a form of architectural expression and acting as eyecatchers within a designed landscape. Many of these are two-storey with other uses incorporated on the ground floor and the pigeon quarters on the upper floor.
Phantassie Doocot, Prestron Mill, East Lothian. Beehive type with built-up roof. Cared for by the National Trust for Scotland.
Practically all Scottish doocots are constructed of local stone and the number of internal nesting boxes can accommodate around 500 birds in the smaller doocots, whilst the largest can hold well over 2000. Access for the pigeons is normally by louvred vents in the beehive doocots and small arched openings in the lectern type. Nesting boxes were reached for the collection of eggs and birds by a revolving ladder called a potence. Doocots are normally provided with projecting string courses around the outside to prevent rats getting into the structure and destroying the eggs.
Beehive type, Bogward, St Andrews.
The need for doocots gradually died out at the start of the 19th century as their function as an extra source of fresh food in winter time became obsolete with the introduction of new farming methods which allowed for the feeding of cattle in the winter. The pigeons' habit of indiscriminate feeding was also seen as a source of social injustice (one of the minor causes of the French Revolution is said to have been the destruction of peasants' crops by pigeons owned by the French aristocracy). It is noted that there were no fewer than 360 doocots in Fife during the 18th century, and it is little wonder that farmers began to complain. Doocots dating from the 19th century are normally associated with larger planned farm steadings where they were often incorporated as ornamental features above the arched entrances to the farm courtyards.
East Fortune, East Lothian. Small lectern doocot
It is unfortunate that so many doocots have disappeared over the years. However, they are also great survivors. It is frequently found that the doocot is the only remaining residual reminder of a great estate the rest of which has long before been wiped out by change. This is possibly due to fact that they were often converted to other uses during the 19th century. Another possible reason for their survival may be associated with the old superstition that the demolition of a doocot would result in a death within the year in the family of the person responsible for its removal.
Kenly Green, Boarhills, Fife.
What of the future for doocots? Generally accepted tenets of good building conservation practice are that the most effective method of ensuring that historic buildings are retained andmaintained is to keep them in an appropriate use, and that the best use for a historic building is its original use. These are often difficult objectives to obtain in the case of doocots, which, because of their construction for a quite specific purpose, may be difficult to adapt to alternative uses. Even minor alterations can have a seriously adverse affect on their intrinsic architectural character. Some of the larger
Dirleton, East Lothian. Circular doocot associated with castle
doocots have been altered to form small houses and a few are maintained in use for their original purpose. The role of the Conservation Officer is to recognise the importance of doocots as a part of the social, historic and architec~ tural character of the area, to maintain adequate records of doocots in their area and to encourage maintenance, re-use and consolidation where necessary.
Athelstaneford, East Lothian. 16th century early lectern type, dated 1583. Converted as interpretation centre for Saltire. According to legend, the Saitire originated in Athelstaneford circa 832 AD.
Launtley Court, Herefordshire; completely different in style from Scottish doocots.
Jack Gillon is a Conservation Officer with Edinburgh City Council.

Context 57 March 1998