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.
Perhaps I’m biased, but I think that the stones we have here in Wales provide the greatest challenge of all to wall builders. Some Welsh wall builders refer to these awkward shaped stones as pennau cwn, Welsh for “dog’s heads,” on account of their rough oval shape. Pennau cwn stones generally have been cleared out of the ground, rather than quarried, and they are the bane of every wall builder, as it takes real skill to make a tight, tidy wall with stones like these.
In some parts of Britain, particularly in the coastal regions of West Wales and Cornwall, the stones are so small and rounded that they are made into stone and earth banks (or cloddia in Welsh) rather than actual walls. These cloddia are essentially earth banks with supporting stones built into the sides, often in neat decorative rows, and sometimes with a hedge planted on top. Boundaries like this provide a huge amount of shelter for livestock in windswept areas, as well as a haven for wildflowers and wildlife.
Another completely different type of stone boundary seen in North Wales is the “slate fence.” This fence consists of a row of upright slabs (or lengths) of slate sometimes held together by wire. Usually dating to the 19th century, slate fences are commonly seen in the slate mining areas of Wales, and in a certain light they can look eerily like rows of tombstones.
Modern dry stone wallers
Many miles of stone walls have fallen into neglect over the years. Labor isn’t as cheap as it used to be, so very few new walls are ever made, and farmers struggle to maintain the old ones. However, thanks to various types of funding available, some farmers are given assistance with the repair and rebuilding of dry stone walls. Because of that, large numbers of people in Britain work full time as dry stone wallers, working out in all weather restoring and rebuilding our historic agricultural walls.
It can be painstaking (not to mention back-breaking) work, but most wallers I know love the fact that they are working out in the open, and they particularly enjoy the thought that they are restoring a centuries-old landmark, which, if they do their job properly, may stand for a further few hundred years. Of course at one time wall building was “peasants’ work,” no matter how skilled a job it was, but with grant funding to pay for this kind of work, it is more lucrative than it has ever been.
Some people are so enthusiastic about dry stone wall building that they enter competitions, striving to be the area champion, and many more volunteer to repair walls for conservation groups and the like. We British are really rather proud of our walls, and so we should be, as they are important pieces of our history, and they shape and define our entire landscape.
A dry stone wall is special in that it can serve the exact same purpose today as it did on the day it was finished hundreds of years ago. From an old farm wall we learn about the geology of the land underneath that wall, and we can learn about the social and agricultural history of that region. As well as being an effective and sustainable boundary that will outlive any kind of fence, a dry stone wall also provides shelter for crops and livestock in windswept areas. Dry stone walls are also a haven for small forms of wildlife, often providing a microclimate in and around which flora and fauna will thrive. There really is nothing like a good dry stone wall.
There are walls here in Wales that wind their way up vast mountainsides, and it’s poignant somehow to look at those walls and think of the lives of the men who built them. How skilled they were, how hard they worked, and in such harsh conditions – and I wonder was that achievement ever really recognized in their lifetimes? I wonder too what those men felt, and whether they ever laughed as they worked, and if they sang the old Welsh songs with their fellow workers to pass their time, as they handled one after another of those awkward shaped, timeless pieces of rock. FC
Josephine Roberts lives on an old-fashioned smallholding in Snowdonia, North Wales, and has a passion for all things vintage. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org .