Dry Stone Walling: A Living Craft for the Present Day

logo: DSWA

Dry stone walling in Britain stretches back thousands of years, to the village of Skara Brae in the Orkneys, and the Iron Age brochs of northern and western Scotland.     Dry stone walls, built without mortar, are found mainly in upland areas of Britain where soils tend to be thinner and rock much nearer the surface and where trees and hedges do not grow easily, due to altitude and/or climate.

Training course (DSWAPL/A Shaw)
Training course (DSWAPL/A Shaw)

A dry stone wall is an amazing structure, having numerous benefits over other boundaries. A wall is built using stones placed tightly together with the length of the stone going into the wall for strength, and the middle being filled with smaller stones, known as hearting.   Walls form a strong, load-bearing construction that not only bears the load of its own weight, but can withstand the forces of weather battering it and livestock pushing against it.   As the wall settles, the stones knit together making the structure even more robust. A dry stone wall is also a very effective shelter against the elements for animals and crops, and indeed humans.   How many times have you sheltered in the lee of a wall for a picnic whilst out in the countryside?

Dry stone walls also provide valuable habitat for a range of small mammals, plants and insects.   The middle of the wall is usually quite dry so an ideal place for voles, birds and even stoats to make a home.   Lichens and mosses colonise the outer surfaces, which in turn offer a foothold for other plants such as stonecrop and ferns to establish themselves.

The Dry Stone Walling Association (DSWA) is often asked the following question “Isn’t dry stone walling a dying art?”   In recent years there has been an increase in the interest in the use of dry stone walling, whether for field boundary repair or for landscape gardening. There is also a small increase in the use of dry stone walling for civil engineering projects, although the individual nature of dry stone walling can make engineers and architects slightly wary of its capabilities.

Field wall near Hawkshead, Cumbria (DSWAPL/A Shaw)
Field wall near Hawkshead, Cumbria (DSWAPL/A Shaw)

There are opportunities to gain recognised qualifications in dry stone walling. Some colleges offer specific dry stone walling courses whilst others teach the skill as an additional option to courses such as horticulture, landscaping or land management. There is also an apprenticeship in dry stone walling, accessed via the Environmental Conservation Apprenticeship.   Currently, the DSWA also has five bursary trainees funded through the Heritage Lottery Fund. The DSWA has a network of local branches stretching across the country and many of these branches offer short, beginner weekend courses, an ideal way to gain a basic insight into the skill.

Like many traditional crafts, dry stone walling is perhaps perceived as something carried out by “the older generation” but there is no reason why young people cannot make a successful career out of dry stone walling, providing they are willing to work hard and take time to learn the skills and understand the materials they are using.  

Further information is available from the DSWA website, or by contacting the office on 015395 67953.

Alison Shaw, Dry Stone Walling Association, Lane Farm, Crooklands, Milnthorpe, Cumbria LA7 7NH

First published in CJS Focus on Countryside Skills (traditional & modern) with Field Studies Council (FSC) on 23 May 2016