Darwin said that if you put several breeds of domestic pigeon in
an aviary, within three generations the birds would resemble their
ancestor - the wild rock dove.
This observation holds true today. The wild rock dove is an andangered
species because most have visible mixtures of pigeon blood.
The true form looks just like a street hawker, but with a clear
I have been reminded of all this over the past few weeks, as I have
spent a lot of time discussing and working with pigeons.
They fascinate me, as they do many people from all walks of life.
Even the Royal Family were at one time well-known for their quality
In the urban areas of Scotland, and especially the central belt,
the hobby of " flying the doos " still flourishes.
In the rest of Britain, except for places such as Corby, with a
strong Scots contingent, and parts of the north east of Scotland,
it is unknown.
Visitors to Scotland - from England in particular - must wonder
about the 4 metre high structures sited in gardens and on wasteland
in urban areas, particularly in the Central Belt. I was told, on
enquiring, that they were 'pigeon huts'. for 'flying the
told they are doo-cots, I would guess that 99% believe this means
a place where pigeons live.
Most are astonished when they discover the birds are usually kept
elsewhere, frequently in individual hutches in flats and sometimes
in cages in the bedroom.
English people, this immediately suggests racing, homing pigeons,
of which the most celebrated participants are the Royal Family:
H.M the Queen (although she no longer, apparently, maintains any
at Sandringham) and H.M. the Queen Mother. At a guess, this goes
back to the World Wars when providing homing pigeons for communication
purposes was considered a very patriotic thing to do and officially
recognised as such. Nothing could be further from the truth. 'Flying
the doos' is a particularly Scottish pastime. It involves a
breed of pouter pigeon known as the Horseman. I'm not sure of the
spelling, which could be derived from the German Horsmann. I was
told they were descended from pouters (e.g., the Norwich cropper
and racing pigeons). In any event, they are true pouters, tall,
with large, apple-sized crops which they inflate in flight. Unlike
the modern Norwich cropper, they can fly very well, and that is
the secret; these birds are flown.
to the 'Encyclopaedia of Pigeons' they are referrred to as
'thief pouters'! Developed in France in the fifteenth century,
this pursuit has never waned in popularity and perhaps entered Scotland
from France, as part of the 'Auld Alliance' and the brandy
and wine trade.
consists of flying a bird from one of these 'doohuts'. This
bird, male of female 'entices', by a variety of strategems,
a rival bird back to its home hut, where it lands on a small varandah
(clearly visible in some of the photographs). On entering the hut,
it is captured and becomes the property of the capturer. Huts are
usually sited 200 metres from the next one. The birds are kept elsewhere
in lofts, bedroom, outhouses, etc. They often live one bird to a
rabbit hutch-sized cage. Preparing a bird for flying is meticulous,
utilising females in an 'interesting condition', birds with
added colouring, very aggressive males, etc. Particularly skilful
males become famous, and eventually may be moved out of the district
(e.g., from Glasgow to Edinburgh) to give other people a chance.
Breeding is usually done elsewhere by specialists who utilise other
breeds, such as garden fantails and homers, as feeder-foster parents.
Flying the doos consists of letting one bird out to bring a neighbour's
bird back to your doo-cot.
All sorts of techniques are used, of which seduction is one of the
A female in a particularly attractive condition seduces another
person's amorous male back to her loft or to his, depending which
If seduction doesn't work, then aggressive males will bully another
bird back to their loft, often with heavy blows from the leading
edge of their wings.
Pigeons developed for flying in this way are bred to fly round and
round in wide arcs above their point of release.
They don't home, like racing pigeons, and are traditionally described
as thief pouters.
Flying pouters in this way goes back to the 15th century at least,
and is believed to have originated on the continent.
It could even be yet another manifestation of the Auld Alliance
. Perhaps it was brought here by workers in the wine and sherry
Whatever the history - and as yet I haven't unravelled it, but would
be very interested to hear from readers who have - the rest of Britain
is blissfully unaware of a very, very Scottish pursuit.
an old episode of Taggart recently – the one where the Maryhill
butcher did it – I wondered again what non-Scottish audiences made
of the scene where the butcher crawls in and out of his "doo-house".
In England, and many other parts of the world, pigeon huts or lofts
are regarded in general by non-fanciers as for homing or racing
pigeons. But not here in Scotland. Here nearly everyone knows they
are for doos, which means pouters.
the reports of Mike Tyson's infamous visit to Glasgow, I was struck
by how his expedition to an East End of Glasgow pigeon loft was
shrugged off by the media as some sort of inexplicable aberration.
are two cities in the world famous in pigeon circles for the competitive
flying of high-flying pigeons from the roofs of tall tenement buildings.
These two cities are New York and Glasgow.
are dozens, if not hundreds, of different breeds of domestic pigeons
in the world today. Every country and nearly every region in every
country has its own favoured variaties.
Italy, the Modena was developed as far back as the 14th
century as a flying bird which enticed the birds of rivals
back to its own loft where they could be either held to ransom,
or kept. Horsemen, the breed Tyson wanted to see, fly in
roughly the same manner today in nearly every corner of urban Scotland.
New York, the favoured breed is the Domestic Flight, derived
from a variety of German Roller.
almost certainly grew up flying up the Domestic Flight pigeons of
New York just as young Scots do today with the Horsemen.
No wonder one of the major attractions of Glasgow which he wanted
to see when he visited was a "doo-house".
Racing Homer which crossed the Atlantic twice happily ensconced
on the QEII recently after losing its way on a 1000-mile flight
back from Nantes, in France, also had Horsemen blood in its distant
then, the Horsemen was a variety of carrier pigeon. Homing
pigeons are almost a national sport in Belgium as anyone visiting
Euro 2000 may have noticed. In Brussels Airport is a vast poster
containing paintings of a dozen or so of the most famous Belgian
Scotland, it is reputed that at one time fotball results used to
be sent back from Hampden Park to newspapers in Hope Street by pigeon.
I would love to interview anyone who knows about this or, better
still, has any photographs.