This thread was originally written and published in December 2019. It has been edited and corrected as applicable for this post.
The Edinburgh and Leith themed Twelve Days of Christmas started with a thread about The Pear Tree House.
On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me; Two Turtle Dove(cots); we have no Turtle Dove Streets in Edinburgh or Leith, but we have a number of dovecots and dovecot-named streets (just make sure to never embarrass yourself by pronouncing the V or the E!). My local dovecot is the Lochend Dovecot, in Lochend Park, beside Lochend Loch and which at one time served the fortified house of that name.
The pigeons that lived in dovecots were a source of meat and eggs for those rich enough to own one. And very importantly, a source of guano; a vital industrial feedstock for the production of saltpetre for gunpowder. This dovecot dates from the mid-16th century, and is shown in the “Petworth House Map” of the 1560 Siege of Leith. It is calculated to have had a capacity to have housed over 1,000 birds at any one time.
Written records and archaeology suggests that the dovecot was used in the 1640s as a “plague kiln”, to incinerate the clothes and possessions of the infected and perhaps to create lime as a disinfectant. This may be why the top courses were altered to form something approximating a wide chimney. In recent times it gave its name to a short nearby street as Kilnacre.
The Loch and its dovecot were a common subject for Edinburgh’s romantic landscape painters of the late 18th and early 19th century, one of the finest pictures of it being produced by the deaf artist Walter Geikie, who was also a skilful sketcher of crowds.
In 1830, the dovecot was re-purposed as a “boathouse” by the Edinburgh and Leith Humane Society, at which point the door was enlarged. In actual fact what was kept in here was not just a boat, but also a set of equipment for ice rescues; this was the tail end of the “Little Ice Age” and ice skating and curling were a tremendously popular – but occasionally lethal – winter pass-time. Such rescue equipment was first stationed at Lochend in 1817 after a tragedy in December 1815. A Royal Navy officer, Lieutenant John Gourlay, saved the lives of 3 boys who had fallen through the ice but died retrieving a 4th and final boy, who also perished.
The equipment consisted of a rope loop that was kept around the skating area and if anybody fell through the ice it was pulled closed by an attendant; the theory being the person through the ice could grab a hold as it drew within reach. Long grappling poles could be used to try and grab the victim’s clothes and haul them out, and an extending rescue ladder could be slid across the ice to the break and somebody would crawl along it to assist the victim directly. Skaters were each asked for a shilling per season to maintain the equipment and pay the attendant. A similar set was procured for Duddingston Loch, scene of that famous painting. Notice in the painting below by Skene that the men at the table in the foreground have a ladder, a coiled of rope and a long, hooked pole to their right.
The Lochend Dovecot was later used as a storehouse for the park keeper’s equipment and has more recently been structurally restored, but is gated off and abandoned to the rats and pigeons of the park.
The Edinburgh and Leith themed Twelve Days of Christmas continues with a thread about Little France.
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