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Caithness Field Club Bulletin
NOTES ON F0UR CAITHNESS DOOCOTS
Dunbeath Castle doocot - Latheron
Rubble built with traces of harling. Caithness flagstone roof. New sarking and removal of skews of crowsteps indicate that this roof has been re-laid in recent years. Traces of new mortar work show repair where skews/crowsteps were previously.
Small square pinnacles of rubble at each end of the back wall. Two square pigeon ports with alighting ledges over the centrally placed doorway on south front - not really sufficient entrance for the birds, and a swept dormer may have been removed when roof repaired. The alighting ledges extend a couple of feet on the outer side of each port, an attractive symmetrical detail.
Inside the 428 boxes are on the east, west and north walls of the cote only, and start three foot above floor level. There is a square vent on the north wall. No rat ledge.
A homely little cote, probably dating from late eighteenth century. Very unpretentious for such a castle! The setting is most attractive. Good condition.
Forse House - Latheron parish
Three rat ledges of thin flag stone, the topmost runs across the rear wall only, the middle across rear wall and gables, stepped down twice to join the wall-head while the third runs right around the cote between the doorways and the wall-head with one step down.
Square pedestal on each corner of back wall, topped with a ball finial and a centre pedestal between these capped with a thistle which carries what might have been a metal weathervane. Two swept dormers, each with four pigeon ports, one dormer serving each chamber. Both doorways have a plain chamfer finishing with a simple triangular stepped stop. There is a well graded stone slab roof.
Inside there are good quality nesting boxes starting at 1.07m from the ground on all four walls. The transoms or horizontals protrude four inches more than the mullions or verticals, thus providing each box with a continuous alighting lodge.
This is a grandiose cote in reasonable condition (vertical crack on south wall) which must be early 18th century in date and which precedes the present Forse house. It would merit fencing off from the cattle and livestock in the field.
Stemster House - Parish Of Bower -
Roofless and in poor condition, it is built of thick flags (much in evidence in the fine farm steading and the dykes) with clay mortar and traces of harling. Doorway, splayed, centre of south wall with two pigeon ports approximately 0.53m symmetrically placed above and a little to one side, using the rat ledge for alighting. Two rat ledges, the one above the door and one at wall-head height. Square vent on back (north) wall 0.46m x 0.46m (as Dunbeath but lower down). Wooden door lintel and step up.
Internally there are about 800 nesting boxes of a rather rough and coarse slab. Each corner has brick buttresses built in with the boxes - probably a repair. Given that this cote is late 17th or 18th century it is unlikely that even field fired bricks (which these appear to be) would be in use. There are no large quarry stones used in the fabric, even the door lintel is wood, and possibly the corners gave way, making repair and strengthening necessary. The state of the fabric internally makes more precise diagnosis difficult.
The cote would have had gables and pitched roof, probably with swept dormer for birds' entrance and would have resembled the Stroma cote, though smaller.
Nice site, dyked with some trees, the view, a pond, tank of large stone slabs and small dyked kaleyard.
Stroma - Parish of Canisbay -
This cote resembles that at Stemster and like that would have had a gable roof, sloping north end south and probably the south side would have been pierced by a swept dormer with ports. It is of coursed flagstones of varying thickness, with red sandstone quoins, door jambs and lintels. The crow-steps, now lying within the vault, were also of this sandstone, probably from Evie in Orkney. Inserted by the quoins in the south west corner of the building is a block of red sandstone with the date 1677 in relief. A similar stone, with I.K. lies within the vault, the initials of John Kennedy of Carnmuch or Lairnmuck in Aberdeenshire, who obtained a wadset of Stroma from the Earl of Caithness in 1659. The date stone is not symmetrical - it must surely be one of the south side skewputts, the I.K. stone being the other, and both together suggesting valid evidence for the correct date of this building.
The doorway to the pigeon loft has a relieving arch over and the red sandstone jambs have a simple two inch chamfer with run-off stops about six inches above the sill. It is badly cracked. The doorway to the vault has a bead and hollow moulding with low run-off stop. There is a second lintel above the first, very worn - either as an extra-relieving element or did it bear an inscription?
The vault itself has a ledge along both sides and merited reference by early writers (Pennants 1769 and others) for the preservation of dead bodies by natural means, which all seems to have been more interesting than the doocot!
The doocot on Stroma is the only building left that dates from the Kennedy ownership of the island and that is earlier than the 19th/ 20th century nature of the island's architecture, much of which shows a very high standard of masonry and carpentry. Its combination with the burial vault and the graveyard must have deterred its destruction when pigeon farming was no longer carried out.
Photos Of Caithness Doocots in the A - Z
The author of this article has a great little book on Caithness that includes details on the Doocots and many other buildings in the county -
Covering buildings old, new and occasionally demolished and including many historical anecdotes about the personalities connected with the area, this guide should be of general interest to tourists and locals, as well as those with a specific interest in architecture.