Building with dry stone is one of the earliest skills developed by man, used for building shelters, fortifications, burial mounds, ceremonial structures and animal enclosures. The Neolithic village of Skara Brae, in Orkney, built in about 3000 BC and buried in sand for thousands of years until rediscovered, demonstrates the early development of skills in dry stonework. The magnificent Iron Age fortified buildings of Scotland, called brochs, which have stood for thousands of years, are proof of the durability of this ancient craft.
Dry stone walling is so durable because it contains no mortar to crack and fail, but is held together merely by the weight of stone, and by the skill of the builder who selected and fitted the stones together. Dry stone structures are constructed in such a way that as they slowly settle with time, they become stronger and more closely bound. A correctly built structure of durable stone contains nothing which can deteriorate or fail. Dry stone structures use only natural material, with many walls and other structures built of stone gathered at the surface or by quarrying outcrops. Dry stone is infinitely recyclable.
Dry stone walls dominate the rural landscape wherever stone is near the surface. The thin soils and exposed conditions limit tree growth, and so the characteristic landscape of fields and dry stone walls has developed. In most of these areas stone provided a fortuitous building material in the absence of timber for fencing or bushes for hedging, but where surface stone was over-abundant, walls were an essential way of clearing the ground for grazing and cultivation.
In areas such as parts of Wales and the South West, where soils are deeper and surface stone less abundant, stone-faced earth banks are the traditional method of enclosure. These banks provide shelter from the wind for both animals and crops, as well as using up surface stone. Sometimes a hedge is planted along the top to provide additional shelter. Various combinations of stonework, bank, ditch, hedge or fence are used according to the site and the circumstance.
The skill of dry stone walling has a fairly continuous history, being practised by farmers wherever land needed enclosing or walls repairing. At times of agricultural change, notably during the enclosure era, there was an expansion in the amount of walling, with a large number of skilled workers employed during the late 18th and early 19th century. By 1820 the walled landscape was largely complete, and was kept in good repair for about a hundred years until the mechanisation of agriculture brought the next wave of change. The latter part of the 20th century has been characterised by a huge reduction of the numbers of people working on the land, and the demise of the multi-skilled farm labourer. Craftsmen wallers had only been needed in times of agricultural expansion, and by the 1960s walling as a full-time occupation had virtually disappeared. It was then that the conservation movement gained momentum, in time to learn the skills from those who remained.
The Dry Stone Walling Association started in 1968, and is a thriving organisation with about twenty local branches, a recognised Craftsman Certification Scheme, and a register of qualified, skilled wallers throughout Great Britain. The Conservation Volunteers continues to play an active part in introducing volunteers of all ages to the craft of walling, in developing skills, and in helping to rebuild this important part of our upland landscape. There is a still a huge amount to be done. A survey in 1994 revealed that of a total estimated length in England of 70,000 miles (113,000km), only 4% are categorised to be in excellent condition. 50% are no longer stockproof, with most of these remaining only as derelict or remnant walls. At current prices, it is estimated that it would cost £3 billion to restore them all to excellent condition.
Dry stone walling is not just a skill to be used in the rural uplands. In the last few years, dry stone wallers have become involved in designing and building garden features, sculptures and other structures, bringing the skill of dry stone walling into community gardens and other urban sites. Wherever it is built, dry stone work can be useful, aesthetically pleasing and a valuable wildlife habitat.
In the text measurements are given in imperial, with the metric equivalent in brackets. Diagrams are annotated in imperial. Technical words are defined in the Glossary.