The Grand Tour: Fife and Beyond

Ramblings of an inveterate cyclist

The last day of April dawned. I needed milk and bread so popped out early to avoid having to queue to get into Tesco. Above the empty St Andrews streets, the black skies look down and weep.

Breakfast over I decided that the trip down and along the coast was not on for today, but what had taken my interest over the last few days were dovecotes. Dovecotes were originally built by lairds to provide secure accommodation for flocks of rock doves. The dovecotes, or in Scotland, doocot’s purpose was to provide estates with a delicacy for the table, but of course only for the laird’s table. Rock doves were prolific, needed little space, living in nesting boxes that lined the inside walls of the dovecot. Even the guano made excellent fertiliser and they foraged for their own food, mainly the tenant farmer’s crops, – some of these doocots housed upwards of 2,000 birds so did not endear them to the tenant farmer, often causing friction when the freshly-sow seed was eaten. Dovecotes increasingly fell out of fashion during the 1700s, largely because of the problems created for the community when the birds decimated crops.

However, many continued to be built for purely decorative reasons well into the 19th Century, seen as a status symbol and possibly why so many are still with us, There is a fine example of one such dovecot in the grounds of Glamis Castle. As ever there was this old wives tale that demolishing a dovecote brought bad luck to the household.

We know the Romans kept pigeons, (sometimes used for a sacrificial offering to their gods) but it was the Normans who introduced doocots to Scotland in the 12th and 13th centuries. Today, Fife has the largest number, with East Lothian a close second. It has been claimed there were 360 doocots in Fife during the 18th century and 106 examples exist today and form an important part of Scotland’s rich heritage, but since they are difficult to put to any other use it begs the question “For how much longer?”

I decided to visit an A listed dovecote near here, once the doocot for Leuchars Castle. The wind was slack when I set out and since my trip to Leuchars and back was around 10 miles in total I decided to dial up my cadence to jig-time and went beadling off along the cycle track for Guardbridge. As I left Guardbridge behind a wind rose out of nowhere and tore at the skies sending the clouds scurrying off up the Fife coast. I had been to the site of the castle and dovecote last summer but the field was planted with barley then so I could not get close to the structure, situated as it is in the middle of the farmers’ field. This time I was lucky, the field was being used to grow silage or hay.

Now canvas deck shoes are brilliant on a yacht’s deck and make a good pair of cycling shoes too, but they have their limitations and walking across a field of foot-high grass, wet through with overnight rain, is not one of their attributes. By the time I had reached my destination they were waterlogged, still, I had my pictures. The building was seriously in need of restoration, with large cracks running from foundation to roofline in both the front and rear. Large steel bands have been placed around the structure to preserve it from further damage until funds can be found for its reconstruction. The cost of repair will be high, although possibly not as high as the surveys and technical reports that will be required before the National Lottery pays up.

Whilst here I snapped a couple of photographs of Leuchars Castle (Motte). The best way to see the Motte is to go to the roundabout and down the side of the hotel that leads you along the old railway embankment. You can’t get to the castle from here but it is clearly visible only a hundred yards or so into the adjacent field. The site consists of a man-made oval, flat-topped mound, about 80 metres long by 50 metres wide and standing 8 metres high. Originally it was topped by a mediaeval wooden tower dating to the 12 century and would have been the work of one of the Norman lords, who were given lands in Scotland by King David 1. Later the wooden structure was replaced by a stone castle itself demolished in the 18th century.

Homeward bound and into a crosswind all the way to Guardbridge, the smoke from the chimney at Eden Mill was never going to be given the chance to rise, it was torn from the stack almost as soon as it broke free. The smoke signals were clear to read, headwinds all the way home, ho-hum. Knowing it would be a short day I was able to push hard all the way there and back, very exhilarating.  

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