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You are here: Information & History | Miscellaneous - Spital Dovecot

Spital Dovecot
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Miscellaneous - Spital Dovecot

From the 16th century doocots, or dovecots as they are more commonly known, provided a valuable source of fresh nutrition to many fortunate landowners. Pigeon supplemented their diet in the latter months, when lamb was unavailable and food scarce. The younger pigeons, ’peezers’, were the main ingredients in pies and stews. Pigeon eggs were also eaten. The birds themselves, fed on the surrounding vegetation, much to the annoyance of local farmers, as doocots could often house up to 2000 birds.

The doocots were mainly the privilege of landownership, as the construction of such were controlled by land regulations in Scots law, often in relation to the acreage of the land held by the landowner. The oldest surviving doocots in Scotland date to the 16th century. There were principally two types of doocots; the Beehive and the Lectern. Beehives were the earlier of the doocots, resembling as the name suggests beehives. Most were made of stone, with a small doorway at the base of the structure, and a circular vent at the apex to allow the pigeons to fly in and out. Beehives, like Lecterns, had several ‘rat courses’ projecting around the circumference of the building to deter rodents. The stone nesting boxes within, numbered some 300-500. Lecterns were the most common of the doocots, found only in Scotland and Southern France. These date to the early 17th century, and were generally rectangular in construction, with a monopitch slated roof. They came in either single or two roomed structures, with several flight holes in an upper wall to allow the birds access. Some of the larger lecterns housed up to 2000 boxes.

Today the ruins of a doocot (probably a lectern), can still be found 50 metres from the Stonehouse to Lesmahagow railway line, near Westtown farm. The doocot dates to at least 1816, when it was listed as a ‘pigeon cot’ on William Forrest’s, map of Lanarkshire. The doocot would appear to have been the property of Spittal House, as a path is shown on the map leading from the house to the doocot. In 1862 the site was listed as Dovecot, but it is unclear when it fell into disuse. All that remains today are the ruins of a structure approximately 5m square by 1m high with walls about 1m thick.

Another area of Stonehouse where there may have stood a doocot, is Dovesdale, not a mile from the doocot at Spittal House. Again, the former Dovesdale House dates back at least two centuries (Bovensdale 1821, John Ainslie). As the names suggests, Dovesdale House may have retained a doocot. Some prominent houses and farms of the period, had flight holes incorporated into the construction of the building, for the occupants own consumption. A newspaper article from 1866 stated that a Doocot was present, adjacent to West Mains Mansion.

In times of superstition and more popular natural remedies, pigeons were believed to retain medicinal powers. What was more unusual however was the belief that ‘doo dung’ rubbed into the feet, claimed to cure the sufferer of fever. The ‘doo dung’ was also used as a fertiliser into the 19th century. In 1625, Charles I issued an order that doocots should have stone floors, as the doo dung was a rich source of potassium nitrate, an ingredient of gunpowder. Pigeons are still eaten as a delicacy, though the breeding of such is confined to ‘homing pigeons’ for racing. The term ‘doocote’ or ‘pigeon hole’ is still in use, as a distribution system for mail in the work place, but now a distant memory of its origins.

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