Dry Stone Walls of Britain: Ancient Boundaries Still Defined by Stacked Stone Walls

Tractor Tales from Wales

| June 2010

The oldest surviving dry stone walls (those built without the use of concrete or mortar) in Britain are to be found in Skara Brae in Orkney, Scotland.

These walls are thought to be about 3,500 years old. Very early field boundaries are important because they serve as a record of a crucial moment in the history of mankind. They mark the transition from a nomadic and hunting-based lifestyle to a farming-based existence, so their relevance cannot be underestimated.

Tracing the history

Most very old walls are actually “clearance walls,” in that they were made from stones that were first cleared from the land in order for agriculture to take place, and they tend to mark the boundaries of small, ancient fields. Clearance walls served two purposes. They contained stock and marked boundaries, and they gave people a convenient place to get rid of all of the stones that they kept digging up with spade and plough. In some areas it’s possible to see clearance walls that are several feet in width, made up of numerous large and small stones.

At first sight you may wonder why anyone would want to make a wall that wide, but the answer, of course, is that the land must have contained far more stones than what you would require for a standard width wall, and rather than carry the stones away, early farmers just made their walls extremely wide. These walls are sometimes referred to as “consumption walls,” on account of the number of stones they can be said to consume.

Not all dry stone walls are as old as the clearance walls. Most conventional agricultural walls in Britain date to the 18th and 19th centuries, when huge areas of land began to be enclosed, that is, given private ownership and therefore requiring a boundary. Small amounts of land had been enclosed since around the 12th century. The Inclosure Acts (notably the General Inclosure Act of 1845) resulted in huge poverty and crippling restrictions for the poor and the working classes. These acts of parliament meant that traditional rights to graze livestock on common land were suddenly ended. That caused a massive de-population of the countryside, with the poor folk heading toward urban areas, desperate for employment. Some stayed to become tenant farmers, but they were often left without rights and suffered much hardship.

Ireland’s “famine walls” have an extremely poignant history. During the Irish famine of the 1840s, the starving masses built enclosure walls for wealthy landowners, often working for just a few scraps of food a day. Ironically, the purpose of these walls, today referred to as “famine walls,” was usually to keep the desperate and hungry masses out of the great estates. Some might view such building schemes as a form of slavery; others might see it as something that kept the starving hordes alive until the famine ended. Either way, the walls are monuments to a very sad time in Ireland’s history.

Types vary by region

Every region of Britain is home to a different type of agricultural wall. The differences depend on the type of stone found in that area, and the building styles can also vary, subject to local traditions. Some walls are based on huge boulders, and some are made from numerous tiny pieces of flat shale, depending on what was available. In places like Derbyshire the walls are often made out of blocks of warm-colored brown sandstone, and then in other areas, like some parts of Wales, walls are made out of random size, almost round stones.