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CAITHNESS FIELD CLUB BULLETIN
vol. 3 No. 5 October 1983
NOTES ON THREE NINETEENTH CENTURY CAITHNESS DOVECOTES
These notes come as an addendum to The Doocots of Caithness (1), the buildings having been identified during the summer of 1982.
Other than its overall size and shape, coupled with the fact that it is called the dovecote on the estate, there is little to associate this building with a conventional dovecote designed to rear and house birds destined for the table. No symmetrical grouping of flightholes, either in the walls or roof, and no nesting boxes lining the interior. There are two small off centre vents in the south side, and a single one in the east, both without alighting ledges, giving access to the loft at a little above floor level. Two rectangular openings approximately 2' wide by 1' high (60 x 30cm) open from the ground floor chamber in the west side and there is a similar vent in the north. These openings are closed inside with plain shutters fastened with swivel pins.
One of the final phases of pigeon husbandry was to use the captive birds for marksmanship. They were released from traps as targets in order that sportsmen might improve their aim (2), a practice which died out towards the end of the nineteenth century when it was deemed "of lowly origin", or even because the advice given in 1892 that "it is wise to shoot pigeons at recognised clubs only ..... or experience at the trap may be very dearly bought" (3) was not sufficiently heeded! The nomenclature has survived to this day; the catapult used to launch the targets is a trap, while the targets themselves are clay pigeons.
It would have been possible that at Sandside birds intended as targets were housed in the dovecote loft, coming and going and feeding themselves. When needed by the guns, they could be shut in the building, and released through the lower shuttered windows to the marksmen standing in the field outside, with the added element of surprise that it would not be known through which opening the birds would appear. Within the cote the pigeon handler would at least have been out of danger... though not the birds!
STEADING, B0WER PARISH
(map ref. ND283626)
HALKIRK PARISH (map ref. ND064643)
These three dovecotes illustrate the strands of the final stages of pigeon husbandry. Despite the advent of root crops and improved grass which enabled more livestock to be overwintered, making fresh meat available most of the year for those who could afford it, the habit of breeding and eating pigeons lingered. The prestige element of the dovecote, in 1617 restricted by law to landowners, continued with its inclusion as a central architectural feature in the imposing farm steadings built by their successors. In Caithness it appears to have found yet another role to play, on the periphery of the later nineteenth century expanding Highland sporting scene.
R E F E R E N C E S
1. Elizabeth Beaton, The Doocots of Caithness (1978)
2. Sporting Magazine XLI (1813)p.84. "The parties fired
with double barrelled guns at 2 pigeons from a
3. Greener, Breach Loader (1892)
4. H. Stephens, Book of the Farm, 4th ed. (1890) Div.11, p429.
5. Designed by A. & W. Reid, Architect, Elgin, 1852
NOTE Comments and information always welcomed, particularly as I did not get inside all buildings described above.