A. O. Cooke The Pigeoncote

Chapter 18
Scottish Doocot

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Scottish Doocot

We were not able to go to visit Scotland. Perhaps some kind reader will inform us of the state of these grand structures.

"Nor was the court without its ornaments. In one corner was a tun-bellied pigeon-house, of great size and rotundity, resembling in figure and proportion the curious edifice called Arthur's Oven, which would have turned the brains of all the antiquaries in England, had not the worthy proprietor pulled it down for the sake of mending a neighbouring dam-dyke. This dovecote, or columbarium, as the owner called it, was no small resource to a Scottish laird of that period, whose scanty rents were eked out by the contributions levied upon the farms by these light foragers, and the conscriptions enacted from the latter for the benefit of the table."

In the above words, familiar to every reader as part of the description of the entrance-court at Tullyveolan, Scott makes us acquainted with a very common form of Scottish "doocot," as well as with the purpose of its erection. Nor, unfortunately, is the fate which befell Arthur's Oven one invariably escaped by dovecotes, whether they lie north or south of Tweed.

The rectangular variety, equally common, with its single slope of lean-to roof, is also known in fiction. In Mrs. Jacob's story, The Interloper, we are introduced to the dovecote of Morphie, and are made spectators of the fight which there took place between the hero and the would-be pigeon-thieves. It is clear that in this case the building was of the rectangular type, with its gables crow-stepped - "corbie stepped," in Scottish phrase - and ornamented with stone balls upon the summit of the roof. A net is employed by the depredators, who throw it over the entrance-holes in order to secure the birds as they fly out. This was a common method of catching the pigeons in legitimate fashion, and on some Scottish dovecotes iron hooks to which the net was fastened may be seen.

Again, in Neil Munro's novel, The New Road, the dovecote of Drimdorran is a central feature in the scene.

The attack upon the dovecote of Morphie was an offence liable to severe punishment; nevertheless it was, without doubt, a frequent one, judging from the pains taken to render such attempts abortive. As often in England, so also in Scotland the doorways of the dovecote were generally small and low, the doors massive and well secured; we shall indeed frequently find the doors doubled - one on the outside edge, a second on the inside of the thick and solid wall. Not only was the act of dovecote breaking formerly regarded as a serious crime; it was likewise illegal to kill pigeons found outside the shelter of their home, however far away that home might be. Everything points to the great value placed upon the birds as food - a point of view easily understood when we recall the comparative poverty of Scotland.

But the other side of the question was not entirely neglected, at any rate in later times. The baronial right of dovecote building, which was the Scottish parallel to the power vested in the lord of an English manor, received a doubtless necessary check early in the seventeenth century. A statute of 1617 limited the right of building and maintaining a dovecote to those persons who held "lands or teinds of a yearly rental amounting to ten chalders of victual"; the chalder being equivalent to sixteen "bolls" of one and a quarter hundred weight each. The dovecote was to be built within two miles of the owner's land - a provision which seems more liberal to him than to the holders of the intervening fields; and only one might be so built for the amount of land named. No limit was placed upon the size of the building or upon the number of its occupants, though on these points a court would perhaps be open to reasonable argument. A dovecote, once built, was not liable to demolition merely because, in changing hands, it had passed into the possession of an owner who had not the stipulated acreage of land; nor, even if condemned by law as having been illegally erected, need it be destroyed entirely, the simple blocking of the entrance holes being deemed sufficient satisfaction.

It is probable that the statute named was rendered necessary by recent increase in the number of existing dovecotes. More than one example shortly to be seen dates from the closing years of the sixteenth century, and many others are certainly of the same period. Some of those so dated are circular, others oblong; so that it is a moot point which of these forms was first employed. Remembering the case in England, the palm for antiquity would be awarded to the circular examples, were it not that many of the others show clear signs of a great age. Nor, although the oblong and the circular are the main types, is Scotland lacking in modifications of both. To some few Scottish "doocots" the reader is now, without further delay, to be introduced.

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