Flights of fancy: Doo fleein' is more than a sport in Glasgow

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Wherever there is a bit of waste ground in Glasgow, you'll find doocots, standing like modern monuments to a centuries-old tradition – and the men for whom pigeon-flying is more than just a way of life

• A doocot in Garthamlock

"Ah'm a doo man," says Bonzo. "They call us the doo men." Bonzo is Gerald Bonini, a 46-year-old from Garthamlock, in the east end of Glasgow. He's standing shivering in a Celtic tracksuit, speaking gently to the white pigeon cradled in his hands. "Hello, lady," he murmurs. "Hello, girly." Bonzo also owns a dog called Naka, after the midfielder Shunsuke Nakamura, but birds are his first and best love.

Behind him is his 20ft-tall wooden doocot, or pigeon loft, secured with five padlocks to keep out thieves and with broken glass in the bottom to shred the paws of rats. Within a few hundred yards, on a large grassy area of waste ground strewn with crumpled cans, there are maybe ten similar doocots, owned and built by different men. Each is monolithic, yet dwarfed by the two huge, circular concrete water towers for which Garthamlock is known. This network of doocots and towers gives the scheme the feel of a ritual space – a kind of council-house Callanish.

When Bonzo calls himself a doo man, he means that he is one of an estimated 1,000 men in Scotland, the vast majority of them in Glasgow, who spend their days engaged in an activity known as doo fleein'.

Here's how it works. A doo man arranges his pigeons in pairs – a doo and a hen – and they spend Monday to Thursday enjoying intimate companionship. He separates them on the weekend and sends his still horny pigeon out into the sky. A nearby doo man, seeing this, will send up a hen. The idea is that the birds mate and each will then attempt to bring the other back to its doocot. As soon as the birds alight on the landing board, the watchful doo man pulls a wire that operates a trap shaped like a pram hood, and thus takes ownership of his opponent's pigeon. The captured bird is then given to a doo man in another area of the city, who gives a bird in return, and the whole circle goes on revolving as it has in Scotland since at least the Victorian age.

If you want to fly doos, it's helpful to have a plentiful supply of two commodities – spare time and spare ground. It is an ideal pastime if you happen to be unemployed and living in one of the big post-war housing schemes from which whole streets have been cleared. As the saying goes, "A doo man is a buroo man". It doesn't cost much. The feed is cheap, the water's free and doocots can be put together from scrounged and found wood and metal. Doo fleein' also gets you out of the house. On hot days you'll find the doo men sitting out on benches, sharing a carry-out, their faces red with heat and drink, the sky black with birds.

But the doo fleein' has its dark side. "It's a great sport but it's dangerous," says Bonzo. Cheating is not tolerated. "Oh, there's a lot of fightin'. Jeezo, man, there's mair stabbins and slashins through birds than anythin' ah know. Ah've been on the rampage one time masel'."

On that occasion, according to Bonzo, a rival doo man was standing in his own doocot and holding on to his hen, which was visible, thus tempting Bonzo's priapic pigeon – a prized white male – without any danger of losing his own. "Ah scudded him right in the face. Ah took the doo back aff him and said, 'Don't you ever do that tae ma f***in' birds again or ah'll rip the f***in' heid right aff ye.' Don't get me rang, ah lost the rag, but he shouldn't be stealin' aff people. He should let the birds fly free."

What's interesting about the strength and violence of this reaction is that it has nothing to do with money. The birds themselves aren't worth much – around 6.50 for a doo and 15 for a hen – but the men grow very attached to them; they may have had a particular pigeon for a number of years, and it hurts to lose it.

"Aw, it's a drainin' feelin'," says Bonzo. "It's like being bereaved. Ah lost a big silver doo and I went into mournin for two weeks. Ah'd had the doo ten year. It was like ah'd had my wife for ten year and lost her. So ye hit the booze. 'Ah'm no wantin' tae fly any mair!' But ah sobered up efter two weeks and went back to ma birds. Ye've got tae take the good wi' the bad. It's the passion, it's the buzz, the adrenalin rush. It's the best sport in the world."

GARTHAMLOCK, BARLANARK, Dalmarnock, Parkhead and Possil, Blackhill, Cranhill, Barrowhill – there are doocots in them all. These represent a guerrilla architecture in the city, and their rise and fall mirrors the successes and failures of Glasgow's housing policy. Where flats are cleared, doocots spring up; when land is earmarked for development, the doocots come down. Doo men abhor a vacuum; any spare ground is fair game.

If you want to meet doo men, go near some doocots. It won't be long before someone asks what you're up to. They might wander over from a nearby house or pull up in a car. They may welcome your interest or tell you where to go. They'll definitely be suspicious. Stealing is rife. It's common for doocots to get "rattled" and the birds sold in either a distant district or in Edinburgh, where there is also a sizeable scene.

Security is therefore a preoccupation. Doocots are sometimes fenced off or protected by fierce dogs. It has been known for baby monitors to be installed. A while back, in Glasgow's Tollcross, a man called Shuggie, who worked in a foundry, welded steel sheeting right round his doocot. Yet one night thieves climbed the fence and used an oxyacetylene torch to burn through the back and steal his birds. It's said that Shuggie never flew doos again. His heart was broken.

Lilybank, a small district of the east end within sight of Celtic Park, boasts the highest concentration of doocots in the city – no fewer than 25. Among these sits a steel shipping container, covered in graffiti, with a makeshift chimney smoking away on top. This is the headquarters of Matt McConnell, a stocky 51-year-old with a white goatee and peaked cap. He can be found here most days, drinking lager, attending to his birds and warming his arthritic hands by the rusty iron stove.

• Matt McConnell, in Lilybank

The shipping container is within sight of McConnell's doocot and contains everything a doo man might need – bevvy, binoculars and birds. The doos are locked away in their pens behind two steel doors and a wire gate, effectively inside a safe. McConnell isn't taking any chances. A few years ago his doocot was burned to the ground, with all his birds inside, by thieves frustrated that they couldn't break in to it. The shipping container is his response. "This is the Rolls-Royce," says 20-year-old Jason Kerr, a fledgling doo man who has stopped by to top up his supply of birds. "No' everybody's got a place like this."

Though it's Saturday, it's too wet for the doos to fly, and so McConnell has time to talk. He explains that the skill of the doo man comes in selecting just the right bird to go up against whatever your opponent puts in the air. It's like chess, he says; a question of strategy. Also, you have to be willing to sacrifice pawns – pigeons that aren't so skilled – in order to learn the strengths and weaknesses of the champion bird that you really want. This can go on for a long time.

The birds that evade capture for years, capturing other pigeons all the while, become hated and coveted in their particular communities, loved only by their owners. "Ah've got a doo, his nickname's Eliot Ness," says one doo man. "He's untouchable – 12-year-auld and never been caught."

Doo men tend to boast about their own birds and denigrate the stock of their opponents. Good pals through the week, they become deadly rivals at weekends. "When you've got a pigeon in your hand, ready to put it oot," says McConnell, "you don't have any friends."

A few years ago, according to McConnell, doo fleein' was dying, no youngsters coming into it. But the recession and rise in joblessness has brought new blood to the scene. "This is keeping a lot of younger people off the streets. It keeps them away from vandalism because they've got something to do. The council should designate an area where you can keep pigeon lofts, and recognise this as a sport."

Stephen Cairney, 30, is unemployed and shares McConnell's doocot. When he was younger, he was involved with gangs. "See if ah didnae hae the doos," he says, taking a break from smashing up wooden palettes for the fire, "I'd probably be in the jail."

McConnell, a former paratrooper and panel-beater, is unable to work because of ill health. He can testify to the psychological benefits of the sport. "It's quite calming," he says. "I had a quadruple heart bypass when I was 41 and, oh, I was depressed for a long while after. At points I couldnae go oot the hoose. I lay in my bed all day. But this has been a kind of therapy for me, you know."

SUNDAY NIGHT IN Parkhead, the moon a thin pale disc like a communion wafer. On Springfield Road, there's a double billboard advertising McDonald's and Sky. Cut into the wood between these two bright expressions of the modern world is a narrow doorway, leading into a Glasgow of the past. Dim yellow light and harsh laughter spill out to the street. Pass through and you find yourself in a low and dirty room, lit by bare bulbs powered by a generator, fragranced by Silk Cut incense. This is the doo shop.

At one end is a counter, behind which are pigeon pens; the paint is flaking and they are lined with pages from the Daily Record. Every Sunday night birds are bought and sold, and there is a raffle in which others can be won. The place feels ramshackle and temporary, but has been here for more than 50 years. It was built by George Dunn, a 74-year-old who has some claim to being the city's longest-serving and most respected doo man. He retired about a year ago and doesn't keep pigeons now, but he still visits from time to time. Asked what it has meant to him to be a doo man, he can't stop the tears. "It was an important thing, aye," he chokes. "I caught my fair share."

• Inside George Dunn's doo shop

There are about 30 doo men in the small room, and a few young boys kicking a football. The Old Firm match finished a few hours ago with a defeat for Celtic, but the atmosphere is gallus and giddy. Many people are drinking beer or Buckfast, or both. Birds are swapped and insults traded. Wit and aggression are cross-bred here. One man says he used to keep pigeons on his window-sill in Barlinnie.

Someone gives an impromptu lecture on the type of pigeon used for the sport. These are horseman thief pouters, known for their puffed-up chests, a breed that was used centuries ago by the poor to catch other pigeons for the pot. Hens are harder to capture than males, which are easily lured by sexual wiles. Doos seem to favour light-coloured hens, so the men dye their female birds with peroxide. "It's like when ye're goin' tae the dancin', yersel'," explains a young doo man wearing a baseball cap. "If there's a blonde, ye're gonnae find her mair attractive."

Robert McLeish is 54 with short silver hair, a pattern shaved into the sides. He has mixed feelings about the doos. "I caught pigeon lung off the f***ers," he says. "One in a million catch it, and I did. My chest's solid brick-hard." He knocks a fist against it. "I shouldnae even be here. I was told tae get rid of ma doos. But they're awfy hard to get rid of."

Pigeon lung, or avian alveoliti, is a respiratory illness caught from inhaling the dust that comes off the birds' feathers. McLeish was told two years ago that he had just two years left to live. Yet, as someone who has wrung the necks of many diseased pigeons, he is philosophical. "I've killed enough of them," he says, "and now they've killed me."

The doo shop is more a social club than a business. It's a Sunday– night ritual. "People think we do this for money, but that's wrong," says Edward Rutherford, 32, who runs the place with his brother Kevin. "We do it to keep the sport alive."

It's striking that this hidden spot is only a short walk from the huge fenced-off area where the arenas and athletes' village are being constructed ahead of the 2014 Commonwealth Games. Think of all the money and attention being directed at that, and yet this indigenous sport goes unrecognised. Perhaps it's because of the people who do it.

Just as pigeons are widely regarded as dirty and unhealthy, the proverbial 'rats with wings', the doo men come from a social milieu that is not the side of Glasgow the city authorities wish to project. It is the Glasgow of negatives – the jobless, the toothless, the city of scars.

Yet this is also a proud community. The doo men take pride, for example, in the condition of their birds. They keep them fed, watered and cleaned, administer medicines when needed and speak to the doos in a low and tender patois intended to resemble the birds' own calls. "The bottom line," says Rutherford, "is if you look after the pigeon, the pigeon will look after you."

There is also a great deal of pride in the long tradition and a strong sense that this is about family. Several of the doo men have been coming to this shop since they were kids, brought here by dads who came as young men themselves. George Dunn is a godfather to these people. Kevin Rutherford, from Blackhill, says that when he and his brother were children, their dad used to keep pigeons in the coal bunker. Now he brings his own son, also Kevin, to tend the doos.

Young Kevin is only five, cute in a Celtic top and with chocolate round his mouth, but he's already crazy about the birds. He speaks to them, feeds them, cleans their pens. He's also very confident when handling them. If doo fleein' has a future, then Kevin and others like him are it. What's his favourite bird? "A wee blue storry hen," says the boy.

What is it he likes about the doos? "Cos they're good."

And so will he, when he is grown up, build a doocot of his own? At this, as his father sweeps up the raffle tickets, Kevin just nods. p

&#149 This article was first published in Scotland on Sunday, March 7, 2010