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History of dry stone walls

Alice-India Garwood
by Alice-India Garwood on June 27, 2018

All over the world, dry stone walls, some dating back thousands of years, stand strong against the elements.

The oldest of these in Britain are situated in Skara Brae, Orkney in Scotland. Believed to have been built in 3500 BC, they stand almost as if time hasn’t passed. If it weren’t for the grass that has grown up and around them you could almost believe they had been built only a few decades ago.

DryStoneWall Orkney dry stone wall bobtrade construction sustainable[Photo Credit: Wondermondo]

As far as construction materials go, stone is one of the oldest and most resilient to the elements.

A lot of these early examples of dry stone walls are thought to be “clearance walls”. A clearance wall is essentially just a wall made of the stone which was cleared from fields when the land was being prepared for agriculture.

"As far as construction materials go, stone is one of the oldest."

It’s a slow and precise process. Without mortar, these walls rely on careful placement of natural stones fixed together by their own weight. Their survival until now is a testament to the efficiency of this innovation.

history drystone clearance wall bobtrade construction innovation sustainable[Photo Credit: One-Foot]

Famous examples of dry stone walls exist all over the country. Perhaps the most famous of these is Hadrian’s Wall.

Hadrian’s Wall is a piece of Roman construction that runs a 73 mile stretch of England’s north, from the west to the east.

"Without mortar, these walls rely on careful placement of natural stones fixed together by their own weight."

It was believed to have taken 6 years to construct and we don’t have much to go on regarding the purpose of the wall. Based on the date of its construction it was more than likely a means of protecting Roman settlements from the Barbarians.

It’s always exciting to see these incredible historic structures lasting against the elements. Especially examples as old as this, literally thousands of years old.history drystone hadrian dry stone wall bobtrade innovation sustainable[Photo Credit: Hadrian's Wall Country]

As with any method of construction, there are pros and cons.

The process of building a dry stone wall could be a very slow one and potentially quite monotonous. A lot of what makes a great stone wall is careful balance. As each stone is a different size and shape the builder must commit their concentration to careful placement of each individual part.

Satisfying when done well. Infuriating if done wrong.

Sourcing these stones for construction can be tricky. So tricky in fact that many people resort to stealing them from rural dry stone walls across the country.

In 2009 the Telegraph wrote an article about this epidemic of dry stone wall theft. As they are usually found in the deepest and darkest parts of the countryside there is often no one around to witness these thefts and so many walls collapse or disappear altogether.

"Satisfying when done well. Infuriating if done wrong."

Sourcing construction materials is hard enough but something so specific could be near impossible if you don’t live in the right area.

The benefits of setting aside the time to source these construction materials is that you could have a wall that lasts 100 years before needing maintenance.

Or longer than that as we can see from Skara Brae and Hadrian’s wall.

history drystone lake district bobtrade construction innovation sustainable dry stone wall[Photo Credit: Britain Express]

Dry stone wall construction takes far less Co2 than brick walls. In fact it could take none at all. As the stones can be sourced locally and can be built by yourself or local tradesman, you’re not producing Co2 from transporting construction materials or labour to your site.

Equally dry stone walls require no cement. Cement is one of the most used building materials in the world and it creates a huge amount of Co2. Though there are people all over the world creating greener and more sustainable forms of cement and concrete, they are not in wide use just yet.

"Cement manufacturing creates a huge amount of Co2."

And if we’ve said it before, we’ll say it again: If you can make something sustainably, we at Bobtrade are all over it!

History of Dry StoneWall Gloucestershire Bobtrade construction innovation building[Photo Credit: Dan Pearson Studio]

If you’re not sure about these rough-around-the-edges traditional dry stone walls, have no fear! There are architects and builders across the country who build and design sleek modern versions of these dry stone walls for those of us who prefer clean lines and tidy shapes, but still with heaps of character.

They’re beautiful, they’re sustainable and they’ve stood the test of time. Dry stone walls are an incredible innovation and one that we hope won’t die out anytime soon.

Tags: Sustainability

Alice-India Garwood

Alice-India Garwood

Content Marketing Executive at Bobtrade. Interested in design, sustainability and the history of construction. I love all things indie and theatrical.