The reader may well ask what a dovecot is since this structure is rarely seen today although it served an important purpose in times past. They were intended to house the dovecot pigeon which when delicately prepared graced many a serving platter. Dovecots, pigeon cote, columbarium, pigeonnier, or doocot are the same structure while the name varied with location.
Dovecots, or their ruins, can be documented from the Roman occupation of Britain. They were essential from the early Middle Ages through the 18th century and many were still in use during the 19th century. They are found throughout Europe and the Middle East and were in use in the U.S. by the 1600’s. Design varied though most were initially round houses with holes for the pigeons to enter and build nests in openings inside the dovecot. The Medieval larger structures were limited to more well-to-do families who may have had more than one.
[This ruined structure in Newbigging, near Aberdour in Fife, Scotland shows the nesting boxes inside after the facade deteriorated. Photo credit: Kim Traynor.]
Later dovecots were small structures mounted onto a building or pole. Whatever the style, the purpose was the same – the young pigeons were collected from the nests for the table after which the breeding process started over.
[A mounted dovecot, artist William Holman Hunt.]
[Dovecot built into a roof.]
Squab may be a more recognized term than pigeon in farming and cooking circles but only age separates the one from the other. Squab is a pigeon that has reached adult size but has not begun to fly.
Millington and many others noted the dovecot pigeon was the common blue pigeon. He found it hardier and better suited to severe weather. The pigeons fared well on a diet of peas, barley, and buckwheat, many foraging by day and returning to the dovecot in the evening. May or August were said to be the best months for butchering as that is when the young were deemed best, however, this depends on location.
There is an abundance of historical references of statutes governing the building of dovecots in Scotland due to the damage the birds sometimes did to neighboring crops of grain.
[Craigievar Castle, doocot in the foreground, Scotland.]
Pigeon has been kept as livestock and eaten since antiquity. “No farm-yard can be considered complete without a well stocked dovecot, the contents of which make the owner a most ample return, and repay him abundantly for the depredations which the pigeons are wont to make upon his ripening corn. He commands a supply of delicious young birds for his table; and he has the tillage from the dovecot, which is of vast advantage to his barley land. Moreover, the pigeons render him an essential service, by consuming millions of seeds which fall in the autumn, and which, if allowed to remain on the ground, would rise up the following year, in all the rank exuberance of weed, and choke the wholesome plant. . .
[Painting showing dovecot on the right, 1416. One might notice the pigeons on the ground and the bee skeps along the fence.]
Our ancestors generally built their dovecot in an open field, apart from the farm-yard; fearing, probably, that the noise and bustle occasioned by the rustic votaries of good Mother Eleusina might interrupt the process of incubation, where the dovecots placed in the midst of the buildings dedicated to husbandry.”
Not everyone agreed with locating the dovecot in isolated locations, and this logic may have changed through the decades and centuries. “The proper place for the pigeon-house is the poultry-yard; but it does very well near dwellings, stables, brewhouses, bakehouses, or such offices. Some persons keep pigeons in rooms, and have them making their nests on the floor”. Roosting where rats and cats could access the nests usually meant wanton destruction of the young pigeons.
[Mazor columbarium, photo credit: Etan Tal, Wikipedia.]
[Dovecot from Shirley Plantation, Charles City Co., Virginia. 1600’s. Plantation est. 1613. Below is a view from inside this dovecot.]
[Inside nests in a dovecot, location and author unknown.]
[If you are wondering, gentle reader, how the young pigeons were collected from inside the dovecots, this is an excellent reproduction of the system in use for generations. The ladder is attached by wooden arms, at top and bottom, to the center pole and fits just inside the outer wall of the structure. The gentleman can climb up and down, and pull himself around on the ladder without having to come down. It is actually a very efficient retrieval method.]
I wonder how vehemently Dear Husband would object to building a reproduction of one of the smaller older structures, maybe a platform for deer hunting, drying vegetables and seeds, etc. . . . I believe that’s called multi-tasking by those not rooted in the past as we are. Blissful Meals, all. Part II to follow. © All rights reserved.