The History and Art of Building Traditional Dry Stone Walls

The definition of dry stone walling is a wall made with stones that fit together firmly without being stuck together with mortar.

The history of dry stone walling dates back to time immemorial. The ancient Mayans and Incas built enormous temples and  places of sacrifice to worship the gods and observe the universe using this method. Machu Pichu in Peru was the sacred home of the Incas where this highly evolved and spiritual civilisation extensivly terraced a whole mountainside so that they could farm the land and grow their crops.

The Romans built Hadrians wall in the far north of England to fend off the marauding barbarians, and farmers in Cornwall built double-sided walls filled with soil and hedging plants planted along the top, to act as windbreaks and protect their corps from prevailing winds. Coincidentally, this is also known as a Cornish hedge.

Fig 1: Machu Pichu, the sacred home of the Incas in the Peruvian Andes.

This very traditional method of building walls is still alive and well today, and has been passed down from one  generation to another. Landscape gardeners who are skilled in this ancient art can create beautiful gardens using natural rock to effectively retain and terrace difficult slopes, which makes gardening a great deal easier. Aesthetically speaking, dry stone walls are  often considered a lot more attractive and natural than modern  concrete structures and (providing they are built properly),  they will stand the test of time. These walls are also free draining, provided you back-fill with fine soil and coarse sand, not clay. It is also imperative that you compact each layer of soid behind every course to avoid susidence, or the wall will collapse.

Dry stone walls provide a wonderful refuge for wildlife. Skinks, lizards and amphibious creatures inhabit these walls  and live between the rocks. Drought-resistant succulent plants such as sedums, echeverias, crassulas and vygies will happily grow between stones and enhance and soften the face of the wall. Architectural plants such as Aloes, agaves and other indigenous or Medittanean typ plants look great planted in the level terrace above the wall.

Fig. 2: Hadrians wall on the border between Enland and Scotland, built duirng the Roman's occupation

Finally, if you wish to build one of these walls for yourself you should prepare a shallow foundation:

Approximately 200mm deep x 300mm wide

Hand source a selection of large, medium and small boulders or rocks that are a uniform square or rectangular shape.

Place the largest ones on top of your foundation - either in a straight line or in a cureved manner, depending on the shape
you want. Then backfill with your soil and compact

Repeat the process as you build up layers, using medium size rocks and then your smaller stones at the top - always           maintain your levels.

Dry stone walls should not exceed a height of 1.5 meters. If you have a much higher gradient to retain, you need to create level terraces between walls.  these       are normally 1-1.5 meters wide.

Fig. 3                                                                        Fig. 4                                                                        Fig. 5

Figure 3 above shows a very creative circular dry stone wall using much thinner pieces of slate, top-dressed with individual pieces lying on their side along the top of the wall. This wall incorporates a circular cobblestone feature, show garden and a sphere.

Figure 4 shows the construction of a dry stone wall.

Figure 5 shows a traditional dry stone wall in the Yorkshire dales in England.