Dry-stone walling

Since the start of the year I have been getting in some practice at repairing a section of dry-stone walling at Scarth Wood Moor, a National Trust property on the NE edge of the North York Moors National Park.

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.

The wall BEFORE repair

The section of walling which I have been working on was initially in pretty bad shape, as can be seen above, requiring some temporary timber fencing to keep in livestock on an adjacent field.

Our first task was to dismantle the wall to a suitable level to start rebuilding (known as ridding out, or stripping out), and to clear the immediate area to allow enough room to work in…

The dismantled wall

Sorting stone as you dismantle helps significantly, as it is then easier to find the stone you need, and to choose the right size stone at the right time. This avoids the irritation of, for example, uncovering a large stone buried beneath a pile of smaller ones when it is too late to use it…

Stones in order, large to small

Dry-stone walling is a little like solving a giant puzzle. A wall contains no mortar and is held together merely by the weight of stone, and by how the stones are fitted together layer by layer.

When building, or rebuilding a wall, there are eight basic principles that you should try to apply to the placing of each stone.

1. Place the biggest stones at the top, except for throughs (which straddle the wall, connecting one face with the other) and copestones (which are placed on top of the wall).

2. Place the stone lengthways into the wall where possible, and try to avoid ‘tracing’ it, that is placing it with its long axis along the wall.

3. Try and make sure each stone is touching its neighbours below and to the side for as much of its surface as possible.

4. Place stones in such a way that you can subsequently build on top and alongside of them without too much difficulty.

5. Taper the wall. Using a batter frame can help with this.

6. Break, or cross, the joints.

7. Place the stones so that they fit solidly on those below, with minimum wedging.

And finally…

8. Set the stones to the true horizontal, rather than with the slope. This keeps the weight and forces within the wall perpendicular, reducing the potential for movement.

The finished wall AFTER repair

Walling is not as easy as it looks and can be very time consuming. It can also be extremely frustrating at times (especially at my level of skill, being only a beginner), when stones REFUSE to go where you attempt to put them!

In the end, I was very pleased with the finished job. In repairing the wall I gained some valuable practice, especially at trying to put in place some of the principles above.

I will continue to hone my skills in the future. Practice makes perfect…

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