The Lost Gardens of Orkney, 9, Doocots

Once an indispensable feature in the grounds of all big houses, The Doocot (Dovecot) provided a source of meat for the laird’s table.

In ‘Doocots of Scotland, Highland, Orkney and Shetlar Doocots or Dovecots’, Elizabeth Beaton lists 11 doocots in Orkney.

  1. Berstane House, St Ola
  2. Cleat, Westray
  3. Holland, Papa Westray
  4. Dishan Tower, Shapinsay
  5. Hall of Rendall, West Mainland
  6. Skaill House, Sandwick, West Mainland
  7. Woodwick House, Evie, West Mainland
  8. Lopness Farm, Sanday
  9. Scar, Sanday
  10. Warsetter, Sanday
  11. Melsetter House, Hoy

In many cases the doocot is all that is left of either the big house and/or the grounds it stood in.

These were prestigious buildings. They marked you out as a person of property who could afford to eat a meat which was considered a luxury.

The doves were culled at about 4 weeks with there being two seasons: April to mid June and August to early November. Although doocots were the preserve of the wealthy, nothing was wasted. The droppings (guano) were collected and used on the gardens as fertiliser. Guano could also be used in the tanning, bleaching and dyeing processes. Mixed with black earth and sulphur it made gunpowder. The feathers would be used for stuffing pillows and mattresses. Another sign of the wealthy as most people would have mattresses stuffed with straw.

The doocot at Rendall is unique in Orkney being of a Beehive design. It is all that remains of the Hall of Rendall and dates to about 1648.

This attractive beehive dovecote with its four external string-courses is unique in the Northern Isles. The nests for the pigeons are simply irregular gaps left in the rough masonry of the internal wallface.

Information from ‘Exploring Scotland’s Heritage: Orkney’, (1996).

Rendall Doocot Image credit Bell

In ‘Antiquities of Rendall Parish’ by John Fraser in 1928 it is described as follows:

“Adjacent to the Hall of Rendall is a quaint old structure. The Hall dove-cot is built in five stages, the upper stage being now incomplete, and the opening at the top wider that what it was originally. The external diameter at the base is about 30 feet, that of the four upper sections considerably less. The doorway is on the south side of the structure and the interior of the wall is lined with stone nests. The opening at the top was for the coming and going of the pigeons. The Hall of Rendall was once the havbitation of the Rendalls and later of the Halcros.”

Rendall Doocot with wind turbine in the background Image credit Bell

The doocot at Woodwick House Evie dates to the late 17th (1648) or early 18th century. In the 17th century Woodwick House was owned by David McClellan, the Depute Sherriff for Orkney. In 1728 it became the property of James Traill. Nothing is left of the early Woodwick House, except the doocot. See The Lost Gardens Of Orkney, 5, Pilgrim House

Woodwick House Doocot Image credit: Bell

In the grounds of Woodwick House is a rectangular dovecote of harled rubble, measures 19ft 9in x 21ft 2in. The flanks are crow- stepped, and the slated, lean-to roof has a dormer on the S, through which the pigeons entered. A doorway below has freestone jambs and lintel, all three rounded at the arris, while the lintel bears a chevrons and flanked by the date 1648, and the initials D.M.C., probably for David McCellan, a former proprietor. The dovecote does not seem to be quite as early as this. Possibly door-piece has been removed from house of Woodwick of which no trace remains.

Dovecote converted into an Episcoplian chapel in the 1970’s and still in use as such.

Information from Orkney SMR (RGL) Jan 1988.


The doocot is no longer in use as an Episcopalian chapel.

Berstane House was designed in 1850 for David Balfour by the renowned architect David Bryce. The doocot is a much earlier building, c1700, and in the early 20th century it was converted into a stable for ponies.

In the corner of the wood SSE of Berstane House.. is a much-altered rectangular dovecot, which may be of late 17th – or early 18th century date. It measures 11 ft 10in by 9 ft 10 1/2in. The flanks are crow-stepped. RCAHMS 1946.

The dovecot at HY 4700 0997 in the grounds of Berstane is still roofed. Visited by OS (NKB) 6 April 1964.


The House at Cleat, Westray, owned by the Stewarts of Brough, was burned down on June 3rd 1746. This was part of the many brutal reprisals which took place in Orkney to Jacobite supporters after Culloden. See The Gentleman’s Cave, Westray

Central doorway to S (principal) elevation. Continuous flight ledge above; 2 rectangular openings; remains of 2 arched flight holes in right opening. Projecting eaves cornice above. Plain W elevation; crowsteps. Small opening inserted (now blocked up) in N elevation ground floor, to left. Attached to adjacent garage to E. Missing slate roof. Stone partitions for nest boxes remain inside. Opening in rear suggests later re-use of building; possibly to house other farm animals.


Dishan Tower in Shapinsay is a scaled down version of The Bishop’s Tower in Kirkwall. It is an early 19th century building and possibly also served as a lookout tower. It was later converted to a bathing station for the Balfour family.

Holland Doocot, Papa Westray is another early building from the 17th or early 18th century.

A lectern-type dovecot. A Ritchie 1985.


The doocot at Lopness Farm, Sanday is today used as a lambing shed but dates to the late 18th century.

Melsetter House, Longhope, Hoy, has the only example in Orkney of an upper storey cote and built directly above what was possibly the gardeners’ bothy. See The Lost Gardens of Orkney (8) Gardeners. It dates to about 1800.

The south wing of Lethaby’s house is the original 18th-century house with its vaulted morning room, and a contemporary square dovecote was incorporated inro the south-west corner of the old walled garden, balanced by a Lethaby tea-house on the south-east corner. He also adapted an 18th century outhouse into a chapel, dedicated to St Colm and St Margaret in 1900 and using fine contemporary stained glass. Above the door are carved a sun, a cross and a moon to symbolize Christ as Lord over the heavens, and the east gable is surmounted by a cross carved as an anchor, as a metaphor of the church as the ship of salvation.

Information from ‘Exploring Scotland’s Heritage: Orkney’, (1996).


The earlier house which was owned by the Hanoverian supporter Moodie of Melsetter was built in about 1738. It came under attack by Jacobite supporters which you can read about here: Janet Fea and the Burning of Sound In 1745, “MacKenzie of Ardlock was dispatched from Caithness and sailed to Longhope, Hoy but succeeded only in plundering some effects from Melsetter House, residence to the Hanoverian supporter, Moodie”

Melsetter House was built in 1899 to the design of W.R. Lethaby and it is reputedly Lethaby’s only complete work in Scotland. Lethaby’s design incorporated the south wing of a former house built in 1738. Measured drawings were made of the house in 1943 by J. Brandon-Jones FRIBA. The Chapel was built by Lethaby in c.1900 to the southwest of the house. The walled garden, incorporating a tea house and doocot is thought to date from the 1738 phase of the design. The walls of the walled garden are thought to have been heightened in the 1900 phase of work. The steading and outbuildings are by W.R. Lethaby circa 1900. The walls which form the boundary of the designed landscape are important features in the landscape. There is a mid 19th century, single storey South Lodge. The gates and other ornamental ironwork are distinctive by their Arts and Crafts design. A sundial stands in the flower garden.

Historic Environment Scotland

Scar and Warsetter in Sanday both had doocots. Scar belonged to the Traills of Westove and dates to the late 18th century. Warsetter is much earlier. Sir William of Warsetter had a huge estate in the 16th century. The doocot is c1700 but with alterations made in both the 18th and and 19th centuries

DOOCOT: 1 1/2 storey lectern doocot, disposed at right angles to mill complex with doorway at ground to SE elevation; flight holes above; doorway, set high to SW elevation. Large lean-to projection to rear (NE) elevation.


The Warsetter doocot is described as:

A 19th century dovecot, still intact. An armorial stone of the Sinclairs, dated 1613 is inside. The dovecot is built on the remains of a mound of uncertain purpose, which Mr Mackay, headmaster of Sanday school believes to have been a Norse beacon stance, but it is in a good position for a cairn. Visited by OS, 8 July 1970.


Skaill House Sandwick can be visited with a joint ticket with Skara Brae. The doocot dates back to the late 18th century and was one of many additions made to the building and grounds over the centuries.

Skaill House, Sandwick

Skaill, still occupied, is as described by the Commission. The dovecot, at HY 2348 1854, is still in use and is in excellent condition. Visited by OS (NKB), 25 May 1967


And this is what it was all about, but only for the lairds: Pigeon Recipes

The Doucot Up The Braes by Violet Jacob

BESIDE the doucot up the braes
The fields slope doon frae me,
An fine's the glint on blawin days
O the bonnie plains o sea.
Ablo's my mither's hoosie sma',
The smiddy by the byre
Whaur aye my feyther dings awa
An my brither blaws the fire.
For Lachlan loes the smiddy's reek,
An Geordie's but a fuil
Wha drives the ploo his breid to seek,
An Rob's to teach the schuil;
He'll haiver roond the schuilhoose wa's,
An ring the schuilhoose bell,
He'll skelp the scholars wi the tawse
(I'd like that fine mysel!)
They're easy pleased, my brithers three-
I hate the smiddy's lowe,
A weary dominie I'd be,
An I canna thole the ploo.
But by the doucot up the braes
There's nane frae me can steal
The blue sea an the ocean haze
An the ships I like sae weel.
The brigs ride oot past Ferryden
Ahint the girnin tugs,
An the lasses wave to the Baltic men
Wi the gowd rings i' their lugs.
My mither's sweir to let me gang.
My feyther gies me blame,
But youth is sair an life is lang
When yer hert's sae far frae hame.
But i' the doucot up the braes,
When a'tumn nichts are mirk,
I've hid my pennies an my claes
An the Beuk I read at kirk,
An come ae nicht when a' fowks sleep,
I'll lift them whaur they lie,
An to the herbour-side I'll creep
I' the dim licht o the sky;
An when the eastern blink growes wide,
An dark still smuirs the west,
A Baltic brig will tak the tide
Wi a lad that canna rest!
Rendall Doocot Image credit Bell

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