A Book of Dovecotes
The following is from A Book of Dovecotes by A. O. Cooke (Annotated by Helen Bresler):
Chapter 19 - In and Around Edinburgh
The Southron who arrives in Scotland by the East Coast route will not lack evidence as he draws near to the "grey city of the North," that he has entered dovecote-land. Clearly seen from the railway carriage is an oblong example between Drem and Longniddry, serving, in conjunction with a circular dovecote in a field immediately west of Prestonpans station, to illustrate the two chief styles. Both of these dovecotes will be noticed later on; meanwhile let us see what Edinburgh and her suburbs have to show.
And here the visitor, however poor be his pedestrian powers, is at little pains to carry out his search. Let him board a tram-car going south from the Register House, and travel on it to the terminus at Nether Liberton. There, barely fifty yards away, between the forking roads, he sees a high bare wall; viewed from the southern side the dovecote stands revealed. It is a very large and massive building, a most excellent example of its kind. The shape is oblong, with a lean-to roof which, as often the case in this type, is broken half-way down into two separate planes, forming an upper and a lower slope; the slope of course is almost always towards the south as here; and entrance holes for the birds are provided under the eaves of the upper slope, in addition to a row at the top of the south wall. It is a pity that, while the upper section of the roof is tiled, the lower half has been renewed with slates.
The building is divided into two equal and entirely identical compartments, each entered by a massive door placed on the outer edge of rough stone walls full three feet thick. The door is secured, not only by a lock, but by heavy iron bars, which, fitting over staples, are held fast in their position by an upright bar. Further, on the wall's inner edge there is a second door. Clearly the Scottish doocot was regarded as a treasure to be held secure.
The nests inside are plain rectangular recesses, those of L-shaped form being practically unknown north of Tweed. There are about three hundred in the higher or north wall of each compartment, rather fewer on the south wall and upon the sloping walls that form the sides; the two compartments hold, together, some two thousand nests. The party-wall appears above the roof.
This dovecote, probably but little short of some four centuries in age, belongs to the Inch, a neighbouring mansion said to contain the oldest inhabited room in Scotland - an ancient dining-room with bare stone walls.
Here perhaps may be discussed a question which has not improbably arisen in the reader's mind. What is the object of dividing the dovecote of this form into two compartments, an arrangement as common in Scotland as it is rare in England?
The solution is probably that given by the present holder of a dovecote of this type. He points out that, as may be easily imagined, the taking of a large number of squabs from the nests causes a certain discontent and restlessness among the parent birds; so much so that they will sometimes desert the house for a short time. If the dovecote be in two compartments, having no internal communication, they can be "raided" alternately, one thus being always undisturbed. If this explanation be accepted it carries with it the conclusion that the Scots were more advanced in the theory and practice of successful pigeon-rearing than their English neighbours, and indeed than their French friends. Yet it is strange that the religious orders of both France and England, skilful dovecote-builders as they were, should seemingly have missed this point.
There is indeed an alternative theory, which, much as it might have suited Dr. Johnson, is not one to hazard lightly, much less to accept. Still, is it possible that, Scotland possessing more thieves than England, care was taken that at least all the eggs should not be placed in one basket; that dovecote-breakers should be faced by two good sets of doors, and not one only, if they wished to "sweep the board"?
From Liberton it is a short and pleasant stroll to the beautifully placed ruin of Craigmillar Castle, where, however, the small nest-lined tower in the outer courtyard wall is of no very striking interest. The nests have doubtless been in place for many years; but it is questionable if it was for pigeons, rather than as a look-out station or advanced-post, that the tower was designed.
For those who care to see, not a true dovecote, but an ancient tower which has been adapted to that use, the walk may be continued down the Dalkeith Road until the little town is nearly reached. Upon our left, at Sheriffhall, among a group of pleasant houses, is a high square tower which has certainly formed part of other buildings.
It has been fitted as a dovecote, being lined from floor to roof with wooden nests. Further, not only is the woodwork ingeniously arranged in octagonal form, but a potence, still in excellent condition, will be found. Unlike the more orthodox pattern, however, it carries its ladder in an absolutely perpendicular position, not upon a slope.
This dovecote is quite populous. Asked whose the pigeons are that make their exit with no little tumult as we open the old rusted iron door, the lady of the house at which the key is kept replies that she would fancy they must be "the Duke's." They are not hers - of that she is quite sure. Nobody feeds them, no one seems to own them; nor do they prey upon the gardens close around. Dalkeith is in a highly cultivated district, and we feel that here again is room for doubt respecting any harm that a few score of birds may cause.
For those who can spare time to wander farther south to classic Hawthornden, birthplace and home of Drummond the poet, there is a very curious dovecote to be seen. A doorway in the cliff upon which stand the remnants of the former house, gives access to a passage leading to a group of chambers hewn out of the solid rock. In one of these we find the well which once supplied the house; while in a second, through whose broad low window we look out upon the lovely glen and hear the rush of the swift Esk, there are six tiers of rather shallow recesses, thirty in a tier, all quite obviously pigeon-holes. The chamber goes by the name of "Bruce's library," and many a less delightful place for study might be found; although what Bruce was doing at Hawthornden, and how extensive was his travelling library, are questions it is hard to solve.
Ignoring this proposed digression to Dalkeith and Hawthornden, the visitor may, from the Nether Liberton dovecote, take the hill to the Upper village; noting on his way, it is to be hoped, the experimental stone causeway on the left side of the road, which, while it gives a smooth and easy surface for the wheels of an ascending cart, provides security of grip for horses' feet. It was suggested and laid down by Robert Stevenson, grandfather of Robert Louis, a century and more ago.
From the hill-top a road upon the right will lead us to the Braids and Morningside. A short half-mile along it is a dovecote on the left; one similar in style to that just seen, but covered with rough-cast, and having a well-groomed and somewhat modern air.
Beyond it, on our right, is Liberton Tower; not a dovecote, but an ancient "peel," though pigeons have been quartered in its upper story now and then. Still farther, where the Braid Burn flows in a deep glen between the Braid and Blackford Hills, there is another dovecote, snugly hidden from sight. Indeed the house at which it stands - the Hermitage of Braid - is hardly seen, so deep the glen, so dense the screen of intervening trees. The house is full of history, even though the present one is but a century old; its predecessor stood a little higher, on the glen's north bank. But Skelton, Mary Queen of Scots' defender and apologist, lived in the present house, and Froude has sat and talked within the walls that Adam planned.
The dovecote stands in the large sloping kitchen-garden, rare rock-plants from Salonika flowering at its doors. It is of oblong plan, with two compartments; but, built at a later period, when desire for ornament had grown, is pleasingly ornate in style. The coping of the high north wall slopes slightly downward from the middle to each end, and bears three decorative urns, another being at the south end of either gable-wall. The comparatively moderate age of the building is further proved by the small thickness of the walls - two feet.
Returning towards the city, we might perhaps enquire for East Morningside House, a dwelling dating from a time before the present suburb had surrounded the large garden in the midst of which it stands. Here is a dovecote, tall and square; the lower part now used as a hen-house, and the whole so draped with ivy that it is almost impossible to ascertain the shape of roof. But still some fragment of its ancient purpose clings about the place; from time to time a pair of pigeons settle in it for a season, rear a brood, and presently depart.
If we now take a west-going car we shall reach Murrayfield. Thence it is little more than a full mile to where, beyond the gates of that Zoological Park which is the pride of Edinburgh, lies the village of Corstorphine, with its quaint squat-towered, stone-roofed church. Some fifty yards beyond it, in a garden which was once a field, stands an exceptionally fine example of the other type of Scottish dovecote, circular in plan.
It is a large building, over eighty feet in circumference, and holding quite a thousand nests. The walls are about three feet thick, the domed roof has a central opening, and the occupants were offered a second means of entrance by a curious little window-shaped group of holes placed above the midmost string-course of the three around the house. Above each of the two lower string-courses the walls receive a slight "set-back"; the third is just below the roof.
This is an exceptionally handsome dovecote, and we love it none the less that from its ancient walls the voice of pigeons falls upon our ear today. Quite out of keeping with its peaceful purpose is the knowledge that, close to the building, now the sole remnant of the former castle of Corstorphine, jealousy provoked a certain George, Lord Forrester, to kill his wife.
From the Murrayfield tramway terminus it is but a short walk to Ravelston, where, in a garden unrivalled in Edinburgh, among vast yew hedges, spreading cedars, dolphin fountains, relics of antiquity of every kind, we find the last of Edinburgh dovecotes there is time to see. It is of oblong, two-compartment type, and very large; quite twenty-five feet high, and long and broad in proportion. The walls are three feet six inches thick. The one compartment is still open, though no longer occupied by birds; the doorway of the second has for years been closed by a thick growth of ivy.
Inside we notice that the vaulting of the roof is of remarkably fine workmanship, and very well preserved; the small round central aperture is perfect as when made. A tiny dormer in each section of the roof contains a pair of entrance-holes. The higher wall is ornamented by stone balls on upright shafts.
The scene at Ravelston is altogether so delightful that it is to be regretted that this splendid dovecote, so well fitted for a "garden ornament," should be unfortunately placed; the front in close proximity to a thick hedge, which makes a full appreciation of the building quite impossible.