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A. O. Cooke

Chapter 20

Haddingtonshire (East Lothian) We were not able to go to Haddingtonshire on our visit, but the kind reader, John Jenkins has provided wonderful information about some of these grand structures. We are indebted to him for these annotations and photographs. 
For those who would see something of the dovecotes to be found outside the capital, yet lack the time to journey far afield, no better plan can well be recommended than a little tour in Haddington, a county where an ample harvest may be gleaned. With this in view we leave the train at Prestonpans.

First comes the circular example close to Northfield House, a delightful building of the early seventeenth century, the date upon the lintel of the door being 1611, to which is added the motto, "Unless the Lord build, in vain builds man." In truth the house, with gables, overhanging turrets, and quaint corners upon every side, is more attractive than the dovecote, which presents no very special charm. It is a large, substantial, circular building of stone, with three string-courses and a vaulted roof.

On turning to the right a few yards down the road, we come to Preston Tower. Its gaunt ruin stands in a market-garden in the northeast corner of which is a dovecote worth a pause. It is of oblong form, with lean-to roof and one compartment only; the higher wall adorned by three stone pillars capped with balls. The gable-walls are crow-stepped; pains were evidently taken with the appearance of the whole.

Now down the hill until we reach the winding tramway running between Musselburgh and Port Seton. Here, in a brewer's yard upon the very margin of the Firth of Forth, are two more dovecotes; tall, not specially attractive buildings, one of which at least is sliding down the easy road to ruin. They are of interest from the fact that they stand close together - barely fifteen yards apart; a situation possibly accounted for by the fact that two different abbeys Holyrood and Newbattle - formerly held lands in the district.

Returning to the station, Tranent church is visible upon the hillside, lying a mile away to the south-east. As we approach it we shall see the dovecote just below the churchyard wall. This is of special interest, being one of the oldest dated examples in Scotland; 1587 is the date upon the lintel, where we also make out the name "David Sitoun." There are the traces of another name upon a stone a little higher up, which has all the appearance of being a fragment of gravestone.

The dovecote is of stone and oblong, with but a single chamber; The door has been walled up, and entrance is impossible. An ugly gaping crack beside it tells of the damage wrought by subsidence, coal-pits being now on every side, and one of the largest coal-washing plants in the kingdom a prominent feature of the foreground.  Unfortunately, this is now very dilapidated and proved too difficult to photograph.

It is a rather long and uninteresting road which runs east from Tranent, changing from one side to the other of the railway line by level crossings, and leading through the village of Longniddry, with its Veterans' dwellings just a shade too studied in their effort to be picturesque. At a large homestead half-a-mile beyond Longniddry station we find cottages much pleasanter to look upon than those too often seen on Lothian farms; and a large dovecote occupies a chamber over the main entrance to the yard.

We are rewarded further when we come to Redhouse, the tall ruin beside the line. The dovecote here is one of the familiar oblong type, but has some special features of its own. The pigeons were accommodated on an upper floor; the lower story, with a very massive vaulted roof, is now used as a hen-house, but was probably intended for a store.

The upper story is of two compartments, each originally furnished with a separate door placed eight feet from the ground. One of these doors has been blocked up, an internal communication being made between the compartments. Each is still lined with oblong nests, and each has in its vaulted roof an aperture. This is a very rare example of an upper story dovecote being in two divisions. The building was constructed with unusual strength and obvious care, the vaulting of both floors being specially worthy of notice.
From Drem station an undulating walk of some three miles will bring us to the village of Athelstaneford. On looking up the slope that faces us as we descend the hill we see a dovecote on the right.

It stands below the churchyard wall; a building about sixteen feet square, and seven feet six inches high to the lower of its two string courses. Its material is rubble stone of all shapes and sizes, an opportunity for examination being only too well afforded by the fact that the north wall now lies in ruin upon the ground, leaving the nests inside intact. This disaster occurred during the winter of 1919-20, and it is to be feared that unless steps are promptly taken to repair the damage, the whole house will presently be down. A villager bemoans the coming loss, but adds that "with so many war memorials folk have little coin to spare."

The walls are over three feet thick, the door no more than two feet six in breadth. Over the latter is a stone which carries the date 1583, enclosed in an oblong knotted design. Here, then, we have another dovecote of well-proved and definite antiquity. The gable-walls are corbie-stepped, and the roof is in two planes, with entrance-holes below the eaves.

Inside there are about a thousand nests. As in some other square Scottish dovecotes there is a potence - or a rather poor attempt at one. The central post revolves, but carries a rough framing, with no sign of a true ladder
.

John Jenkins reports that this doocot has had an interesting recent history.  In 1997, an organisation called the Scottish Flag Trust renovated the building and opened an exhibition in the restored doocot.  A booklet provided by the Trust notes that "Athelstaneford has a special place in Scottland's history.  Tradition records that near this East Lothian village in 832AD, a battle was fought which led to the adoption of the St. Adnrews' Cross, or Saltire, as Scotland's flag.
An army of Picts under King Angus, and aided by a contingent of Scots, was invading Lothian (at that time still Northumbrian territory), and found itself surrounded by a larger force of Saxons, led by Athelstan.  Fearing the outcome, Angus led prayers for deliverance and was rewarded by seeing, against a blue sky, a great white cross like St. Andrew's.  The king vowed that if, with the saint's help, they gained the victory, then Andrew would thereafter be the patron saint of Scotland."

I may say that the above quoted legend is similar to many other ones.  A similar tale is, I think, connected to the conversion of the Roman Emperor Constantine to Christianity.

So in 1997 a Heritage Centre was opened in the restored doocot ,and nowadays it is used for an audio-visual dramatization of the alleged origin of the flag.


Descending the hill at right angles to our line of approach, taking a turn to the left and another to the right, we are soon at Gilmerton House, or rather at the steading, screened from the road by a small plantation. In the middle of this is a fine circular dovecote of brick, which the grieve is far from unwilling to exhibit on request.

More modern than the one just visited, it is in some ways more pleasing; for, far from being deserted and in semi-ruin, it is well populated and in excellent repair. As the door opens to the turning of the key, pigeons swarm out through the small cupola that tops the dome-shaped roof; through the three curious little windows immediately above the upper of two string courses; even through the door itself, so urgent seems their haste.

The building, fifty feet in circumference, contains about eleven hundred nests, with a potence in good working order. The storms and frosts of winter have worked havoc here; the coat of plaster recently applied has parted from the walls in places and hangs loose. But there is here no danger of the dovecote's most-feared foes - indifference and neglect. We notice the effective ornament attained by the bricks immediately below the string-courses being laid obliquely, with a corner of each projecting.

A winding unfrequented by-way leads us up a hill and into the main road between Dunbar and Haddington. Following it eastward, we shall reach the pleasant little town, or rather the large village, of East Linton, with its bridge across the Tyne.

Here, time permitting, we may turn aside from our main route and pay a visit to two dovecotes which stand not far off. One, seen from the north end of the village street, is on the slope of Drylaw Hill as shown in the colored drawing below.

East Linton drawing

It is a large and substantial stone building of three stages, with a conical roof, built on an outcrop of rock in a field. There is a low broad dormer window in the roof, and further access for the birds by a row of holes immediately below. A description of the interior is not possible, the key being kept some distance away.


The Drylaw Hill doocot is still in a good state of preservation.

A second interesting dovecote will be found at Preston Mains, a farm about a mile along the road to Tyninghame. It is a very large square structure' flanked on either side by lower buildings. Unfortunately these have been converted into cottages, and a chimney now defaces either corner of the dovecote's higher side. But, even with this unwelcome addition, the building is imposing. The slope of the tiled roof is on two levels, with the entrance-holes, as usual in such cases, at the "break."
Resuming the main road we cross the river and reach Phantassie, a large farm upon the left, a short half mile beyond the bridge. At the bottom of a lane leading to fields lying northeast of the steading is a very curious dovecote. This doocot is rather curious because it is of beehive design, but with a sloping lectern type roof.  It is now in the care of the National Trust for Scotland.

The background is well worth a glance before we give attention to the pigeon-house itself. Beyond the fields that lie before us is the winding river, and upon its farther bank is Prestonkirk, snugly ensconced below a ridge of hill. That hill-slope is a curious sight to eyes accustomed rather to the verdant pastures of the English Midlands or Welsh Borders than to Lothianlands. Field after field, without a break of intervening green, is red in spring with the bare soil of Britain's finest land; golden in early autumn with the ripening grain. The eye may weary at so long a stretch of cultivation, but the heart rejoices at the thought of such a grain-producing land.

Now to the very curious dovecote standing here. It is of stone and circular - nothing uncommon about either point, considering where we are. But circular dovecotes are most often covered by a circular domed roof. Not so the one before us. Its builder clearly knew the benefit of giving to its occupants a sheltered southern slope, and this is how he set himself to carry out the plan.

The height of the round wall is varied, highest towards the north and lowest to the south. The roof is therefore sloping, slightly horseshoe-shaped, and is a foot or more below the summit of the walls, thus affording additional protection from cold winds. Entrance is given by a curious low broad dormer window, also by a row of holes below the eaves, which give a happy effect of miniature arcading.
It is difficult to set aside the opinion that the designer of this dovecote was a Scotsman who had been in Southern France, or who had perhaps received advice upon the matter from a French visitor or friend; so strikingly does the unusual style of roof remind us of those raised against the mistral's blasts. The lean-to, southward-facing roof so often seen upon an oblong Scottish dovecote, but so rare in England, gave a welcome shelter in a land where chill winds blow; but here we have one which combines the shelter of the lean-to roof with the main building's rounded form.

The dovecote is a large one, the circumference being sixty feet; massive in structure, for the walls are four feet thick. The doorway measures five feet high by two feet broad. Inside are about five hundred nest-holes; also a not uninteresting substitute for the usual potence, perhaps deemed too difficult of nice adjustment in a house which narrows markedly as the walls ascend. There is a fixed post rising to the roof. Against it is secured a ladder giving access to a large proportion of the nests. Those at a still higher level are reached from a shorter ladder fixed in the reverse direction from that taken by the one below. In short, the dovecote at Phantassie is one well worth seeing.
Following the main road for two miles or more, the railway ever on our right, we take, directed by a finger-post, a lane which leads us towards the Lammermoors and Spott. Spott is a place with interests of more kinds than one. From Doon Hill, just above it, David Leslie once descended, on a wild September morning, to take part in Dunbar Drove. Witches were burnt at Spott in 1705; and at this village, on a Sunday just three centuries and a half ago, the Reverend John Kello, parson of the place, strangled his wife with a towel, hanged her on the chamber wall in order to suggest the death being due to suicide, and then, leaving the manse and entering the church, preached calmly to his waiting flock.

The dovecote, easily discovered, is a well kept, typical example; oblong and of two compartments. The doorways seem modern enlargements, but the ornamental pillars standing on the higher wall are probably original.  Unfortunately, the double lecturn design doocot at Spott is now  (2001) in a sad state of repair and there are holes in the roof.

A short walk takes us to Dunbar, and if the time is summer and the weather hot it is most likely that an inn and tea will be the visitor's first thought, for we have covered many miles today. But, nature sufficiently refreshed, there is a dovecote close at hand that should not be passed by. Leaving the High Street, let us take the turning marked as Edinburgh Road; keep a look-out upon the left, or ask to be directed to the Friar's Croft, a piece of land which once belonged to the old abbey of the place. Here, rudely shouldered bye telegraph post, is a large dovecote which is surely the ugliest in Scotland! This doocot was evidently part of an old friary, and now looks even more incongruous, as it closely adjoins the car park of a modern supermarket!

Ugly indeed, but curious; for it is an oblong building, not, as usual, with a lean-to roof, but one which slopes both north and south. Moreover, the ridge runs across, and not in the direction of, the length. The slopes originally met at a gable-ridge, still clearly to be seen. But at some unknown period an extraordinary addition has been made. The ridge was "capped" by an immense square-topped inverted wedge of masonry. It was doubtless to support this formidable addition of weight that there were introduced within two massive arches, crossing from side to side, and built of a greyer stone than that of the main body of the house. The lower ends of each arch take the form of a well finished roll.

The nests are to a large extent filled in. An ordinary ladder gives access to most of them; but, high in the gable-ridge and in the addition already described, there is a small potence, carried by a beam which runs across the house.

It is difficult to suggest an explanation of the curious addition to this dovecote. It adds very little to the accommodation; it is exceedingly clumsy and top-heavy in appearance; and, as seen by the introduction of arches, it called for drastic measures for its safe support. There, however, it is, defying conjecture, silently hiding its strange origin.
If, in returning from Dunbar to Edinburgh, we keep as far as possible beside the intervening stretch of iron coast, we shall soon come upon a dovecote which is probably well known to many a visitor - that at Tantallon's still imposing although ruined hold. Here, opposite the castle's entrance, in a field still guarded by a ditch and mound, we find a fine old dovecote of the oblong shape; placed but a stone's-throw from the edge of the sheer cliff on which Tantallon stands, above the shore on which the North Sea thunders without pause.

Simple and homely, the Tantallon dovecote has a beauty of its own; for its old roof is grass grown, and upon its crumbling string-course blooms the gorse. It is of two compartments, one still showing all its nests intact, while in the other only those which lined one wall remain. Each chamber has an oblong opening in the roof. The building is some five and twenty feet in length by seventeen feet broad. A rather unusual feature is that the two doors are not, as usual, side by side, that of one chamber being at the end.
This old and rugged doocot is now looked after by Historic Scotland, the Scottish equivalent of English Heritage. The roof now is neat and tidy as can be seen in the photograph.  It shows the edge of the castle building and the Bass Rock in the background.  The rock is a well known feature at the entrance of the Firth of Forth. East Lothain is a good place for doocots  I myself have a total of 43 East Lothian doocots in my database, and have photos of 25 of these at present

The Tantollon doocot is an example of the lectern type of dovecote, mentioned above, known also in France, but very uncommon in England.  Another doocot, not mentioned by Cooke, in East Lothain, is located at Dirleton Castle only a few miles to the west of Tantallon.  This is one fine example of an earlier Scots type known as a beehive.
There is a good dovecote of similar form in the neighbouring town of North Berwick, near the station; another in a field below the Law; but neither need detain us long. Passing west, we come, after a walk of two miles, to Dirleton, a really picturesque Scottish village, where the old gardens of the castle, with a splendid holly hedge as one of their attractions, should be seen. The dovecote built into the castle's garden wall is best viewed from the village green.

It is a good example, circular, and buttressed to a point some half-way up. There are three string-courses, and a domed roof with central circular entrance. Within are nearly nine hundred nests, but no traces of a potence.

A continuation of the walk will bring us to that heaven of the golfer, Gullane, and, pursuing the road across the links, we come in time to Aberlady, half a mile short of which is Luffness House. Here, just within the entrance-gate and forming a delightful ornament to a close-shaven sloping lawn, is a very similar dovecote to the Dirleton specimen. It is perhaps slightly less massive in build, has only two string-courses, and a flattish domed roof crowned by a small lantern which is obviously a later addition. Inside are five hundred and fifty nests, with a potence slightly the worse for age.

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