With so many changes in the countryside it is now difficult to imagine some of the practices that at one time affected the traditional ways of agriculture. Even in the early part of the 20th century these traditions affected not only the landscape and its agriculture but also very many people either directly or indirectly. Fortunately, for various reasons, there are still reminders of the past despite the fact that the actual memories have gone with the passing of the generations of people. For example there was one agricultural practice that was critical in the management of livestock. Until refrigeration became the norm and farmers and crofters managed to grow crops in the winter there were problems over livestock, cattle in particular. There was no choice but to move the vast majority of cattle away from the Highlands for the winter hence the establishment of the drove roads along which drovers took cattle south, often as far as Smithfield Market in London.
Lack of refrigeration also affected the great salmon industry as there was no means of sending the fish to the southern markets. So the fish were packed with ice from Icehouses that were scattered over the Highlands with the majority of them being along the east coast. It is difficult to imagine just how many salmon were handled in this way but then, of course, there were far more wild salmon in the seas and river systems. Another way of coping with the lack of fresh food in the winter months was to use buildings to keep pigeons in and purpose built structures, called doocots, were to be found in various areas but many were where there were large estates that based their systems around agriculture such as growing crops. Doocots enabled landowners, only the wealthy were allowed to keep them, to have fresh meat and eggs all the year round.
This week I will look at the doocots and we are fortunate in that some landowners and local authorities have retained and maintained some of these that are still to be seen in many areas. Perhaps the one that people see the most is the one in the photograph on the side of the road at Culloden on the east side of Inverness or the one on the old battlefield at Boath near Auldearn to the east of Inverness. There are less well known ones, although equally impressive, such as the two that are quite close together in the grounds of Gordonstoun School. Then there are some smaller ones that can go un-noticed such as the one in the photograph I took at Broadley near Nairn where it is on the top of a barn but still used by pigeons. In the larger doocots the pigeons nested inside in rows of specially designed nestboxes around the sides and some of them had hundreds of nests in each doocot. Some are still occupied by pigeons but naturalists are increasingly looking at these buildings as some have been colonised by other birds. Jackdaws, starlings and even tawny owls are using them and also bats.
There are two invaluable books on doocots, both by Elizabeth Beaton namely “Doocots of Scotland – Highland Orkney and Shetland” 2008 and “The Doocots of Moray” 1978.