Dry stone walls, or drystane dykes as they are known in Scotland, are an important landscape feature in south west Scotland dividing the countryside into a patchwork of fields. However, fields are a modern phenomenon and for many hundreds of years boundaries defining land ownership were marked by natural features such as a river or ridge, distinctive tree or rock outcrop. The unenclosed countryside supported subsistence farming where children herded domestic animals to keep them away from the communal arable rigs.
By the 1750s the drive to improve agricultural practices and increase productivity led to introduction of farm steadings and fields to create the landscape we recognise today. The construction of dykes made from stone was seen as an efficient way to divide the countryside and control livestock now that children were attending parish schools and no longer available to herd cattle and sheep.
After the union of Scotland and England there were new commercial opportunities for progressive land owners who built large fields or parks to fatten thousands of cattle to satisfy the demand for beef. In the 1720s in the Galloway countryside families were turned off the land they farmed and out of their homes to make way for the new parks. The parks were seen as a threat to the old way of life and the pace of the development led to a revolt throughout the Galloway countryside as displaced farmers known as ‘Dyke-breakers’ or ‘Levellers’ began to demolish the enclosures. After a year the disturbance reached its height as large bands of Levellers up to 2,000 strong roamed the countryside pulling down the new enclosures and eventually troops from Edinburgh were called to quell the unrest. After the turmoil of the Levellers rebellion the building of enclosures continued but at a much slower rate partly because landowners realised there were benefits of retaining a rent paying population on their estates.
The early enclosures were made from turf sods and were known as Feal Dykes. Ditches were dug and the excavated soil was compacted to create a core that was faced on both sides with layers of turf. The height of a low feal dyke could be raised by planting thorns or whin on the top and when available the sides were faced by stones cleared from the land. These dykes were cheap and easy to build but required continuous repair and were difficult to build in upland areas where the soils were thin and there were frequent rock outcrops.
In the Galloway Hills there was an abundance of large stones and these were used to construct boundaries known as Single or Boulder Dykes. Stones of a suitable size were selected so that only one was required to form both sides of the dyke. These enclosures were quick to build and although they often looked untidy they were found to be excellent at preventing the athletic blackface sheep from escaping. It was believed that gaps between the stones that let the light through was valuable attribute because it created a ‘tottering’ appearance which sheep avoided.
The dykes varied in construction and this can be attributed to many factors including the prestige of the landowner, preference of the dyker, existence of local styles or the characteristics of local stone. In the lowland areas where the small stones cleared from arable fields were supplemented by quarried stone the most common style of drystane dyke built was the Double Dyke. This type of dyke uses larger stones at the base to make a foundation and then two walls are constructed with ‘building stones’ and the centre is carefully filled with smaller stones called ‘hearting’. Large ‘through stones’ are laid across the two outer walls at regular intervals about half the height of the dyke to tie the two faces together. The double build is then continued to achieve the required height of the dyke where it is finished with ‘cover stones’ that span the dyke which are in turn held in place with larger ‘cope stones’.
Initially the term Galloway Dyke seems to have been used across Scotland for any dyke that incorporated the ‘tottering’ appearance that prevented sheep from attempting to jump over them. However the details of the Galloway Dyke continued to be refined and it became popular to use available smaller stones to construct the lower half as Double Dyke and then continue to build with larger stones as a Single Dyke. The top stones were ‘pinned’ with wedge shaped stones to ‘lock’ the copes together and give extra strength to the dyke. This style of construction had the benefit of providing shelter from wind, rain and snow for the sheep while retaining the ‘tottering’ appearance at the top. This upside-down construction, with small stones at the base, larger stones above and pinned copes, made the Galloway Dyke a distinct style which was much praised by many agricultural improvers. By in the early 1800s detailed specifications were produced for the Galloway Dyke and it became the preferred style of drystane dyke in the Galloway Hills. There are many variations to the Galloway Dyke design depending on the quantity of different sized stone available to the dyker and in some places regular panels of Galloway Dyke separated by short sections of Single Dyke construction were built, a style known as Hudd and Butt.
Drystane dykes are generally built from locally available stone and become an outward expression of the underlying geology of the area. There are two types of rock in the area the light grey mass of hard granite and a brittle sedimentary stone called greywacke that has been twisted and folded so that it rarely breaks evenly. Both of these rock type are a challenging material to build drystane dykes with, however it is the rounded boulders of granite deposited by retreating glaciers that really tests the skill of a drystane dyker who must make the best of what is available.
A craft worth preserving
By the 1930s post and wire fencing was fast becoming the economic alternative to drystane dykes and it was feared that the craft of dyke building was disappearing. On the initiative of Colonel Rainsford Hannay of Kirkdale, near Gatehouse, The Stewartry Drystane Dyking Committee was formed to raise funds and organise competitions to promote dyking skills. The first completion was held in 1939 and by the end of the war the Committee, led by the Colonel, was organising training courses as well as competitions on alternate years. in various locations in the area. Colonel Rainsford Hannay researched and promoted the craft and his Dry Stone Walling is the classic text book on drystane dyking.
After the Colonel’s death Elizabeth Murray-Usher took over as the chair of The Stewartry Drystane Dyking Committee and from 1961 all the competitions were held in Gatehouse in alternate years, drawing competitors from far and wide for 35 years. Local drystane dyking competitions are still occasionally held in Gatehouse and the Southwest Scotland Branch of the Dry Stone Walling Association continues to hold regular training courses.
In 1968 The Stewartry Drystane Dyking Committee formed the Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Britain which continues to be an expanding charitable organisation working to advance education in the craft and heritage of dry stone walling for the public benefit. Today there is a renewed enthusiasm for drystane dyking with an upsurge in interest in a rural craft that continues to be in demand by landowners. and the sustainability of a boundary which can use and reuse the stone employed to build the original construction. Although a drystane dyke continues to be more expensive to build than post and wire fencing it will stand for hundreds of years with regular maintenance and providing a distinct landscape feature not only in the Fleet Valley but in many upland areas across the world.
A short film made during a week-long training course in dyke building for Forestry apprentices. It restored a section of demonstration dyke beside a path in the Cally Woods and was run by the Gatehouse Development Initiative as part of a European Erasmus project looking at the transfer of tradition skills to the younger generation.
A short film recording the restoration of a section of wall on the Cally estate – part of the same Erasmus project but this time a day’s experience for pupils from nearby Kirkcudbright Academy.