A Book of Dovecotes
The following is from A Book of Dovecotes by A. O. Cooke (Annotated by Helen Bresler):
Chapter 21 - Elsewhere in Scotland
Gathering into our concluding chapter a miscellaneous collection of dovecotes from various districts of Scotland, we will begin in the extreme north by a visit to the island of Stroma, lying off the north-east corner of Caithness. Here will be found two examples of interest.
The first is an old bell-shaped dovecote of two stages, standing near to Freswick House. It is about twenty feet in height, has a circular opening in the roof, and contains stone-built nests which begin at a height of seven feet from the floor. This, by the way, is in accord with the advice of Waterton, who tells his readers that the walls should be solid to a height of six feet from the ground as a security against the "Hanoverian rat."
The second Stroma example is both interesting and unusual; a now roofless building in the middle of a graveyard on the south shore of the island, it is rectangular, constructed of grey flags, with sandstone quoins. The walls, some thirty inches thick, are twenty-five feet long by eighteen feet six inches broad, and twenty-two feet high. There is a doorway with a bead and hollow moulding in the western wall, and another at a higher level on the opposite side. On a stone in the south wall the date "1677" is carved in relief.
The building is two- storied. The lower chamber is vaulted, the vaulting rising from a six-inch ledge two feet above the level of the floor. This was quite clearly a burial-vault; while in the chamber above are stone nest holes for pigeons. This curious combination is quite possibly unique.
At Stenster House, near Bower, is a somewhat dilapidated dovecote, seventeen feet three inches square, with a span roof and crow-stepped gable-walls. The walls, three feet thick, are twenty-six feet high to the roof ridge; the nests of stone.
Other Caithness examples include a beehive shaped building in the garden of Dale House, near Halkirk, with three string-courses, a height of seventeen feet, and a diameter of sixteen; and a pair of eighteenth century dovecotes at Ackergill Tower, Wick, oblong, with lean-to roofs. Calling for more detailed notice is the interesting oblong dovecote of two compartments in the "policy" of Forse House, Latheron. It is twenty-eight feet long by sixteen broad, the main wall being twenty-five feet high. The lean-to roof is broken into two planes half-way down, two sets of entrance-holes being placed beneath the upper slope. The crow-stepped gable-walls have balls as ornaments, while in the middle of the higher wall is a thistle. Finally, the arrangement of the string-courses is somewhat unusual, there being three on the main wall, two upon the sides, and one in front.
Now coming south as far as Forfarshire, an unusual dovecote awaits us in the policies of Pitmuies, a mansion near Guthrie. Is it perhaps needful to inform the English reader that the Scottish "policy," or "policies," is what the southron calls a park? By a "grass park" the Scotsman means a piece of meadow-land.
The Pitmuies dovecote stands among trees beside the Vinny burn. The form of the main building differs from many other Scottish examples only in being square instead of oblong, the inside measurement of each wall being twelve feet. The lean-to roof is of interest, being covered with large shield-shaped slabs of stone. The dovecote is of stone, the high back wall being rough-cast; this wall is fourteen feet in height, the front one six feet less. The thickness is two feet. The two side walls are corbie stepped, and round the back and sides is a ledge or string-course four inches broad. On the back wall appears a shield with coat-of-arms, the latter so defaced that the owner of Pitmuies has so far been unable to decipher it. But the date -1643 - is clear.
The house is entered through the south wall by a doorway with a pointed arch. Above this doorway, just below the eaves, there is a row of fifteen entrance-holes, divided from each other by stone slabs. Inside are about five hundred nest-holes.
The most curious feature is the presence at each end of the front wall of a small circular tower, with a battlemented top rising slightly above the lower edge of the roof. Externally the towers are identical in form, each being lighted by a small glazed cruciform window. But while the western tower is entered by a small door from inside the main building and is lined with nests, the other is only accessible by an external door, has no communication with the dovecote, and contains no nests.
That the designer should construct two towers for the sake of symmetry is easy to be understood; less obvious is his reason for connecting one with the main building and inserting nests, while leaving the other empty and cut off. This dovecote thus presents us with another of those problems met with in our pilgrimage.
In Perthshire a single example must suffice us - one which atones for youth by its unusual shape. It is the first sexagonal dovecote seen since leaving the Herefordshire mansion of Foxley, and dates from the eighteenth century. It stands in the courtyard of Megginch Castle, near Errol, a seat of the Drummond family. The building is an upper story only, raised on six pointed arches which enclose an open space. The wide-eaved slated roof is of an ogee curve, culminating in a point, above which is a ship as weather-vane. The entrance for the birds is by a row of holes, placed at the bottom of a "dummy" window with a pointed top.
Pigeons are still the tenants of this most attractive cote. About fifty pairs occupy it in the breeding-season, reinforced by new-comers towards autumn, when, as the owner tells us, wild pigeons seem glad to take refuge from the attacks of the numerous peregrine falcons then on passage.
Coming to Fifeshire, we find a county still rich in dovecotes, though many have disappeared since the close of the eighteenth century, when the number existing is stated to have been three hundred and sixty. There was a local saying that the usual possessions of a Fifeshire laird comprised "a puckle land, a lump o' debt, a doocot, and a law plea" - no very rich inheritance. Two of those still remaining shall be noticed here as being readily accessible.
The first is in the immediate vicinity of Rosyth Castle, an old tower which, formerly standing on a strip of land which was an island at high water, has now been absorbed into the vast enclosure of the new naval dockyard, and looks forlorn enough, surrounded as it is by as containers, giant cranes, and miles of granite quays. But happily the dovecote stands on the mainland in a little wood which slopes down to the shore; and the visitor can examine and even photograph the building without risking liberty or life.
It is an exceedingly interesting specimen, rectangular in form, and covered with a ridge roof formed of large stone slates. The gables are corbie-stepped, and - a very unusual feature - each "step" is itself gabled, forming what architects call a "gablet."
Over the door is a very curious ornament, resembling a wide-spreading pair of buffalo horns, but with the addition of a loop in each such as is seen in those of rams. The spread is far too great for them to be intended for the horns of sheep; unless, indeed, the mason-artist drew on his imagination, or upon his patriotic pride.
Our second dovecote stands at the top of Pittencrieff Glen, Dunfermline, the public park presented to the town by the late Andrew Carnegie. It is a large circular building with a projecting cornice, above which the walls are battlemented There is a cupola upon the roof. Over the pointed doorway is a window-slit in the form of a Greek cross, on each side of which is a quatrefoil opening, now blocked up with stone - if, indeed, they were ever open. Inside the nests are made of wood; this fact, in spite of the quite usual style of roof and cupola, make it permissible to doubt whether the tower was not originally intended for an outlook rather than a pigeon house.
In Stirlingshire we will pass over a good circular dovecote at Dunipace, near Denny, in favour of something still better to be found at South Bantaskine, a house on a hill-side two miles from Falkirk. The house itself is not a century old; and the adjoining quarry whence its stone was taken has been turned into a most charming water- and rock-garden, where a small stone Cupid smiles upon the scene. But it is on the lawn beside the house that we shall find the dovecote, which was spared from demolition when the former mansion was pulled down.
It is an upper story only, placed upon the arch that formed the entrance to the former stables, and is octagonal, with a fine ogee roof. In each of its eight walls there is a pointed window; "dummy" ones on every side except the south, where holes give entrance to the birds. On this side there is also a small dormer in the roof. The interior, lined with oblong nests, is reached from the archway by means of a trap-door in the floor.
Standing on shaven turf and backed by a wide-spreading cedar, with clumps of rhododendrons and azaleas in full boom, this South Bantaskine dovecote would be hard to match. And the last needed touch is given by the snowy fantail pigeons that for ever flutter round the roof and windows, light the shadowy archway with their graceful forms, or make a dazzling contrast with the emerald of the sunny lawn.
Two Dumbartonshire dovecotes deserve inspection. One occupies the middle of a field at Dougalston, Milngavie. The shape is sexagonal, the walls of stone, although the nests are brick. The total wall-length is sixty-six feet; the height to the eaves, where there is a good corbel-table, twenty feet, and the thickness two feet. There is a cupola upon the slated roof.
Each of the six walls, except that in which is the doorway, is broken by a tall arched dummy window, with another one of similar shape above. The arches are rather awkwardly cut off from the main body of the windows by the string-course that runs round the walls. But the building is of striking appearance, and a small defect in the design can be excused by the unusual shape. It probably dates from the middle or latter half of the eighteenth century. It should be noticed that a potence is in place.
The second specimen is in they yard at Drumry Mains, near Drumchapel, and is a tall stone building with hipped roof. Eighteen feet square, it measures thirty to the eaves. About twelve dozen nest-holes occupy the upper story only, the room below being perhaps intended for a larder or a slaughter-house. The walls are three feet thick, the doorway large - eight feet by three.
Drumry Mains was formerly held by Paisley Abbey, and the dovecote has been stated to be seven centuries old. This is a rather liberal estimate, but the building is no doubt of ripe old age.
Turning still farther towards the west and south, we shall find that a dovecote makes part of the still remaining portion of Crossraguel Abbey, Ayrshire. It stands at an angle of the outer walls, and is of very unusual form, the main beehive-shaped structure being raised on a comparatively small round tower, partly overhung by what it carries. Inside there are about nine hundred nests.
The county of Berwick offers several dovecotes of interest. Foremost of these is that standing in the old garden of Mertoun House, near St. Boswells, for upon its lintel is carved the earliest date found on any Scottish example 1576. It is a large circular building of stone, with three string-courses, and an open centre to the roof. The height to top of walls is thirty feet, and the diameter eighteen. The buttresses have probably been added at a later date.
In the corner of a cottage garden near to Chirnside church is a circular stone dovecote sixty feet in circumference. There is a string course half-way up the walls. Round the central opening in the vaulted roof is a spiked iron rail, evidently intended as a defense against thieves.
At Edington, a village in the Chirnside district is a large oblong dovecote of dressed sandstone, with walls three feet thick, a tiled roof, and crow-stepped gables. It stands in a market garden, where may be seen some traces of a former castle.
Here, then, our present quest must end. Should this slight and imperfect survey of existing British dovecotes bring about an increase of interest in these buildings, and lead to the more careful preservation of the many which now stand, forlorn, forgotten, and neglected, up and down the land, then the chief object of this little volume will have been attained.