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Archive for December, 2009

Ray Colliers Country Diary – Doocots

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

14th December 2009

Doocots, sometimes called dovecotes, are the remnants of a type of farming practice in the Highlands that went on for a long period, around five hundred years. In that period the keeping of the pigeons for food all the year round had a marked impact on the countryside. It eventually led to the large numbers of feral pigeons to be seen in and around Inverness. It also led to the demise of the pure rock dove around the coast and islands because of hybridisation with the feral pigeons. Considering the importance of doocots as historic buildings it is surprising that so many of them are either gone or ruinous. It is also surprising that very few comprehensive surveys have been carried out on doocots, but recently the activities of the Scottish Vernacular Buildings Working Group has been correcting this oversight. Various areas have and are being surveyed and the first survey to be published was “Doocots of Scotland – Moray” by N.A.Brown published in 2004. The second, published in 2006, is “Doocots of Lanarkshire” by Munro Dunn. The third one is “The Doocots of the Highlands” by Elizabeth Beaton, that was published in 2008, and it also covers the Northern Isles.

One fascinating aspect of the doocots scattered throughout the Highlands is how much they vary. Some like the old beehive shape such as one at Gordonstoun that dates back to the late sixteenth century are similar to each other. The same could be said of the lectern shaped ones dating back to the 1600s such as the one at Cadboll near Fearn in Easter Ross shown in the photograph. Otherwise it seems that the basic concept of having nesting shelves inside a structure was the only common denominator and the shape of the outside varied depending on the whims of the designer or builder. Just how many doocots are in the Highlands has in the past been open to speculation although the new publications on them will help. In the area of Moray there are 39 doocots whilst, disappointingly, at least 33 have been lost. The survey of the Highlands has revealed around 45 with a further 14 in the Northern Isles with no figures for lost ones. Let us hope that the further surveys by the Working Group will eventually build up a picture for the whole of Scotland. Meanwhile they have produced two black and white postcards One is a cross section and plan of the “beehive” doocot at Gordonstoun with a background of the interior of the Dalvey doocot at Forres. The other is a cross section and plan of the lectern type doocot at Leitcheston at Buckie with background of the same doocot as Gordonstoun.

Although there are many doocots lost or ruinous there are a few success stories and one is the example at Grange Hall near Findhorn. The building was built around 1802 and is hexagonal in shape. It fell into disuse and was completely refurbished in 1996/97. There are a number of interesting features such as the fact that the pigeons were housed in the upper part of the building that is reached by a ladder and the bottom part was at one time used to keep pigs. Another interesting feature is the very wide continuous ledge around the top of the doocot just below the entrance holes and used for alighting pigeons. Let us hope that the future of the present doocots that are in good condition will remain and not fall into ruin like so many have done in the past.

Ray Colliers Country Diary – First Snow of Winter

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

7th December 2009
First Snow of Winter

On a morning in November this year people around Inverness, and in some cases from parts of the City, saw the tops of Ben Wyvis covered in snow. It was a magnificent backcloth to the Beauly Firth and beyond. Some other hills to the west of the City also had their first snow such as Glen Strathfarrar in the photograph It seemed more than fitting that, on the same morning, skeins of Greylag geese came from the north, perhaps direct from their breeding grounds in Iceland. The fresh snow seemed to be a sign that winter is on its way and there will be great changes in the bird and animal world in the Highlands. What will be interesting is whether the run of relatively mild winters will continue. It does not seem long ago that Ben Wyvis was about to be developed as ski-ing centre because the continual run of cold, snowy winters meant it was viable. There was even talk of a funicular railway similar to the one in the Cairngorms. Plans were well under way with the compromises on both sides from the developers and conservationists as after all it was an important National Nature Reserve. The mild winters started and the plans were, and probably will remain, shelved.

Some of the winters only a few years ago were indeed quite cold and one winter temperatures within a few miles of Inverness went down to minus 25 degrees centigrade and private water supplies froze. Rivers were frozen over in parts. Wildfowling in the firths around Inverness was legally banned as low temperatures persisted and the wildfowl such as the ducks and geese were in a poor condition. Large tracts of places like Udale Bay were covered with miniature ice flows as the tides rose and ebbed and froze. In some years large areas of countryside such as the Dirrie Moor below Beinn Dearg, just north of Garve, were often under snow. The hills are above 3,000 feet and the moor itself quite high so this was not unusual but it was the sheer length of time that the snow laid. The red deer moved down and for weeks and weeks could be seen trying to feed right on the roadside over the moor. The alpine birds of the high tops such as ptarmigan also moved down the slopes but even they with their specialised feather covered feet had difficulty in finding food.

The last few winters have been milder but birds and animals are still faced with some difficulty in finding food and keeping warm. Many birds move to the firths where there is ample food between the tides and there are strange sights such as lapwings, hooded crows, oystercatchers and mallard feeding almost shoulder to shoulder. The aim is to take in as much food as possible between the tides when the very rich food of the mud and sand flats are exposed. Another effect of the mild winters has been the fact that dippers have stayed in territories in the rivers around Inverness. These dumpy water birds are unusual in that they will sing their rippling song between October and July. It is rather strange to hear a dipper singing in the middle of winter. Presumably this is intended to mark their territories until the spring arrives. Contrary to popular belief the only animals that hibernate in winter in the Highlands are the bats and hedgehogs. Red squirrels and badgers, for example, do not hibernate as such although their activates may be curbed. There is even some debate about the hedgehogs as they come awake if there are mild spells. Ironically mild winters are not good for butterflies and moths as their parasites flourish.

Ray Colliers Country Diary – Robins

Wednesday, December 16th, 2009

30th November 2009

With the festive season well under way thoughts turn to wild plants such as holly and mistletoe. The latter is an intriguing one as according to the books it does not grow in Scotland although there may be a few records around the Borders. If that is the case then why did it become the Plant Badge of Clan Hay? The festive season and birds bring to mind the wintering flocks of geese that may well have bred in Iceland and Greenland. Then there are the thrushes, Scandinavian immigrants such as fieldfare and redwings. In the gardens the siskins will be back mixing with chaffinches and greenfinches as they tackle the peanut holders. Despite all these the pride of place for this time of the year must go to what we take as very much a common garden bird, the robin. In the Highlands the robin is a widespread breeding bird as far as the lower areas are concerned. In other parts it avoids the treeless uplands but is found on almost all the islands including the Western Isles. Most robins are sedentary but a few migrate and move south into England and Ireland. Interestingly in the Highlands, and elsewhere, individual robins are highly territorial in the winter with both males and females vigorously defending territory between October to March.

The general image of the robin in the Highlands is the sedentary, comparatively tame bird that sits on the garden spade, takes a variety of food from garden feeders and may even take food such as live mealworms from the hand. However all is not what it seems as some of the robins around at this time of the year and at Christmas may not be the local resident Highland bird at all. There is an influx of Scandinavian robins in the winter, in particular to Scotland, including the Highlands. These birds are not as confiding as the resident robins and may even form small groups which is virtually unheard of with the local birds. One of the reason for this is that on the continent there has been little association with man mainly because in the past they were hunted as food so thy tended to be comparatively wild.

The history of the robin and its association with ourselves goes back a long way even with the tradition of its being drawn on greetings cards. In Victorian days robins were depicted on a variety of greeting cards with some of the earliest being on the Valentine cards. The celebrated St. Valentine’s Day of February 14th and even then the birds often has letters, love letters in their beaks. The transition to Christmas cards did not become a common occurrence until after 1860 and now a large percentage of the cards have robins on them. This is partly because the birds are one of the commonest to be seen around Christmas and partly because of the postmen.

The first postmen, whose uniform included a bright vermilion waistcoat, were known as “robins” which is one of the reasons the birds are on so many Christmas cards. They also often have a letter in their beak , actually delivering mail. The robin has attracted many authors and one of the most well know is David Lack who wrote the famous monograph “Robin Redbreast” published in 1950. His son, Andrew Lack, wrote an up-date, “Redbreast”, published in 2008. Both are a “must read” for people who like robins. Little wonder then that in a national newspaper poll in 1960 the robin was voted to Britain’s national bird.