Growing up in Ireland, I’ve been surrounded by history ever since I was born. I’m not talking about recent history, I mean ancient history. Most of it was wasted on me as a kid, but now that I’m older I can appreciate it. Looking out the window of my house I can see the crumbling stone ruins of a monastery that’s been around since the ninth century Viking invasions, and a short drive down the road is Newgrange, an ingenious stone passage tomb that has a small slot in the wall that floods the space with sunlight on the winter solstice. It’s truly astounding, even more so when you hear that it’s over 5,000 years old.
Stone surrounds me here in this part of the country that’s known as “Ireland’s Ancient East” and the more I travel abroad on hiking and biking trips, the more I notice it when I return. Above all, I notice all of the dry stone walls. These structures are such a common part of Ireland and the United Kingdom's visual landscape that they blend into the surroundings as much as telephone poles and traffic lights. But their diminutive stature tells an important story as they mark a civilization’s place in history and represent a fading cultural identity.
The Origins of Dry Stone Walls
Dry stone walls have been around for thousands of years. At the most basic level, a dry stone wall is made without the use of any binder like mortar or cement; they’re free-standing structures held up by the way that they’re built.
The practice of dry stone walling can be traced back to ancient civilizations in the Neolithic era when they were first used to block off sections of land for farming. County Mayo’s Céide Fields is one of the largest and oldest examples of Stone Age farming in Ireland, with some of the walls dating back 6,000 years. Now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the walls there represent the beginning of farming in Ireland.
The ancient Greeks saw more potential in dry stone walls and began to use them to fortify buildings and support heavy structures. One of the world's most well known dry stone walls is Hadrian’s Wall in the UK, a behemoth that runs for 73 miles across the middle of the country from the east coast to the west, marking the former northern boundary of the Roman Empire.
Since the Middle Ages, the dry stone wall has become synonymous with farming in Europe, mainly used to section off plots for livestock to stop them wandering. This practice became the norm in many places and as farming became more and more popular, so did the walls.
The Cultural Importance of Dry Stone Walls
The cultural importance of dry walls is seeing renewed attention in Ireland thanks to groups like Common Knowledge. This non-profit social enterprise on the west coast teaches people the skills of dying crafts like foraging and lime rendering, and offers a weekend course on dry stone walling with a master stonemason. “Dry stone walls are as much a part of the Irish landscape and culture as a creamy pint of Guinness and a warm welcome,” says Common Knowledge co-founder Harrison Gardner. “So much more than field dividers, these building blocks have defined the landscape for centuries, tell stories of the past way of life, and give hope for a sustainable, culturally rich future.”
UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage
UNESCO agrees with Gardner, and in 2018 the organization inscribed the "Art of Dry Stone Walling, Knowledge and Techniques" on its list of intangible cultural heritage. This recognition highlights the traditional knowledge and craftsmanship associated with dry stone walling and its transmission from generation to generation.
Dry stone walls represent the rural identity; they’re symbols of how our ancestors learned to work with the land, they show how communities have come together to survive, and they’re a feature of our country that disappears as you move into urban areas. In the west of Ireland where some communities are isolated on poor farming land that’s littered with rocks, the people living there had to clear the land to farm it, and they made walls with the rocks they gathered. Nowadays, stone walls are one of the first things that spring to mind when people think of places like Connemara or the Aran Islands.
Saving Disappearing Crafts
“In an age of specialization and perfection, we are in danger of losing the skills and knowledge that’s been historically passed down from generation to generation," he says. "It's our duty to break that cycle and encourage the kind of knowledge exchanges that once made Ireland and its people the resilient, creative force that it is.” Teaching people about lost crafts like dry stone walling is one way to give people the skills to live sustainably and build communities while preserving the knowledge of the past.
Modern Applications of Dry Stone Walls
One of the ways to keep the art of dry stone walls alive is to find space for them in our modern lives. Rather than being part of the past, they can be part of the construction toolkit in the 21st century and find a place beyond the world of farming.
Landscaping and Erosion Control
Each passing year seems to have a new host of weather phenomena, from California getting so much snow that houses cave in, to Europe smashing skin-sizzling summer temperature records. Each season has become more and more unpredictable, but dry stone walls can help—they retain soil on slopes, helping prevent erosion and washouts when heavy rains fall. Sections of the Great Wall of China and the Inca Wall in Peru are dry stone retaining walls, but these days they’re more commonly found in gardens where they're used to create terraced planting beds and different levels.
Dry stone walls are also eco-friendly, as they require no cement or mortar, reducing the carbon footprint associated with construction. Bonus points if you can source the stones locally or repurpose them from a derelict building. This also helps with keeping the cultural significance of the stones alive—using local stone for local buildings continues the close relationship between people and the land. Using local stone can also create a strong cohesive architectural style; New York’s brownstone buildings are a great example of this.
How to Build a Dry Stone Wall
The two most common types of walls are the single dry stone wall and the double dry stone wall. Single walls are much harder to build as there’s no extra layer to help support them. So we’ll look at how the double walls are made instead.
Double stone walls have two faces and in between these faces, smaller hearting stones are used. Through stones straddle the wall and help provide more structural rigidity and prevent the wall from collapsing. Finally, coping stones are used on the top layer. These stones help keep the wall in place and can be created in a number of different ways. The cow and calf technique, in which the wall is finished with an upright row of stones, is popular in Ireland.
A word from the masters at Common Knowledge first: There’s no better way to get started than just starting. “I think it's important for people to practice the skill of dry stone walling," explains Gardner, "to not be afraid of getting it wrong and to take the opportunity to connect with the history and the landscape.”
First things first, you need to find the right place to build the wall. Clearing the site from any debris will make the task easier and you might find some extra stones in the process. Clear the ground of large stones by hand and use a rake to remove smaller ones and level out the ground.
Make a Batter Frame
Stone wall builders use a batter frame to ensure that the wall is even, level, and built with the correct slope. Batter frames act as a guide, and can be simply made of two pieces of wood that are joined together at an angle, or they might also be made of rebar legs with a wood crossbar on top (there are plenty of different examples online). The frame is then placed upright in the ground where the wall will be built to provide an outline of the wall's future shape. Multiple batter frames can be used in tandem with string lines to create an armature for the entire project.
Build a Foundation
Dry stone walls aren’t often freestanding on the land, instead, a foundation layer is used where the biggest stones available are placed in a trench up to 12” deep.
Begin Building the Wall
Choose suitable stones based on size, shape, and strength. Use the biggest stones possible for the lower layers, keeping the smaller ones for the higher-up layers as the wall tapers inwards. Another use for smaller stones is as hearting stones. Hearting stones fill in the interior gaps between the larger face stones and provide structural support to the wall that helps to prevent it from collapsing inwards. There are countless ways to design a wall, depending on what look you're going for, and your build will vary depending on the choice you make.
Finishing the Wall
Once the wall is built, it's time to finish it. The top layer of the wall is called the coping. Coping stones are typically large stones, and they are often placed so that they overhang the wall slightly. This helps to protect the wall from weathering and from animals climbing over it.
Maintaining the Wall
Dry stone walls require regular maintenance to keep them in good condition and help them stand the test of time. This may involve removing loose stones, replacing damaged stones, and cleaning the wall to prevent weathering. Inspect your wall for any signs of damage and clean it regularly to remove any dirt, moss, or other debris to prevent the wall from weathering prematurely. Remember, well-built dry stone walls can last for centuries.