Ray Colliers Wildlife in the North – Urquhart Castle

doocot muscovy apr13 002One of the most popular tourist attractions in  the area is Urquhart Castle nestling on the side of Loch Nessat Drumnadrochit.   The history is well documented in the excellent booklet published by Historic Scotland  and there is an all embracing account of the  chequered history of this famous landmark.   To a certain extent the position of the castle and its design indicates that it was in many ways self supporting in that it would be able to withstand any sieges.   This is indicated by the massive “Trebuchet”, a medieval siege engine, and the modern replica that looks  very forbidding.  This defence and armament would have been boosted by the fact that supplies  could be brought in by boat on Loch Ness to a help the  beleaguered occupants.    Unusually there is a further, albeit small,   supply of food in the fact that there is a doocot within the outer walls of the fort.  This is unusual in the doocots of the Highlands as very few, Kilravock Castle, near Croy, east of Inverness,  is another one, where the doocot is attached  or in the immediate grounds of the castle.   The doocot would have been an invaluable supply of fresh meat from the young of the doves, and to a certain extent eggs, at all times of the year.        

The Urquhart doocot is one of the very few that I had not visited  before so it was with some anticipation that I went there recently.   The doocot is of the old type in that it was built  in the 1500s and its age and design is similar to the older of the two  in the grounds of Gordonstoun school.  The design is called the “beehive” as it resembles the shape of the old bee hives.   The Urquhart Castle  doocot is  almost certainly the one described as the “dove-grove” referred to in the charter of 1509.    The doocot is at the west end of the Castle site, within the walls.    All that remains of the doocot are rubble walls standing nearly a metre high and the only signs of the  dove nesting boxes are the four incorporated into the wall.  Apart from the ruinous doocot  there is a good interpretation  of the castle and the doocot in the fine display inside the Visitor’s Centre.   Historic Scotland  has a  model of the castle before it became a ruin and it gives a much  better idea of the former layout of the site.  The photograph shows the  doocot in the foreground and the main part of the castle in the background with the great expanse of Loch Ness as a backcloth. 

Doocots are scattered far and wide in the Highlands and at one time was an important source  of food at all times of the year although, by law,  only the wealthier people were able to have them or had the finances to build and maintain  them.  Some, such as the well known one at Culloden in Inverness, are in good order whilst others  have fallen into disuse.  The ruinous doocot at Foyers on the  side of Loch Ness is a good example.   Doocots also had a multipurpose such as  the lower part of the one at Grangehall near Findhorn that was used  to house pigs.  The one at Foyers had pheasants in the lower part and others  have similar multi-purpose uses.   At a  time when fresh food in the winter was scarce  such buildings as doocots and structures  such as fish ponds were essential before refrigeration came into being.