Dry stone walls in Scotland: Here’s how two craftsmen are fighting to save ancient skill
Heritage and RetroHeritage
When Martin Tyler and Luke De Garis stop for lunch, they look back at their morning’s hard work across the field and know that it will still be there by the turn of the century.
Sunday, January 10, 2021, 7:00 a.m.
Updated on Sunday, January 10, 2021 at 2:22 p.m.“/>Martin Tyler (top left) and Luke De Garis (right) are some of the youngest dry stone walls in the country who are working hard to keep the old profession alive: Martin Tyler and Kristie De Garis
For the two, they work together to build and restore dry stone walls, an ancient skill that lives on to this day thanks to a handful of artisans.
More commonly known in Scotland as dry dykes, these walls have been part of the country’s tapestry for thousands of years, defining its landscape and providing an important resource for highland farmers.
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However, heritage skills are being lost at an alarming rate as fewer young people consider a career in traditional border preservation.
“/> Martin Tyler stands next to one of his drywall projects Image: delivered
In an interview with The Scotsman, Martin and Luke, both at the beating heart of a new generation of drywall, talk about their passion for the old craft and how they want to secure their place in Scotland’s future.
“Preserving the country’s heritage is important to my work and to me,” said Martin, 34, who has been in the profession for more than two years.
The craftsman from Kintore runs his own business in Perthshire, where Luke, also 34, has been an apprentice since this month.
“The skill is technical and complex to learn, but it has walls that will last for hundreds of years,” said Martin.
“/> Luke De Garis, who has just started as an apprentice at Martin’s company Dry Stone Walling Perthshire Image: Kristie De Garis
Mastering the craft goes beyond building a stone wall.
Features such as lunkies and smoots – holes for drainage or the release of livestock – are important to learn in the restoration of historic structures.
Knowing how to handle catches and pennines – different sized hammers – is also important for sculpting stones if needed.
“A special architecture that takes some time to master is what keeps it going for so long,” said Martin. “That is why it is important that drywall work is done by someone who is qualified.”
“/> A dry stone wall that Luke De Garis worked on: Kristie De Garis
He described the structure of a typical dry stone wall as a form of capital A; large, heavy stones at the bottom with small, lighter stones at the top and carefully selected stones to fill the holes in between.
No earth or mortar is used to tie the rocks together. The sturdiness of a wall relies on a careful balance between skill and stone.
“It can be a bit of a giant puzzle,” Martin said, “except you don’t have a picture to work with and the pieces can fit in about 20 different places.”
But the dwindling profession has resulted in many of those old borders collapsing across the country.
July 10, 1936: Mr. McLaughlan of Dalry is a master of the art of dry stone dyke construction and the last member of his family to trade. Unfortunately, dry stone walls are quickly being replaced by wire mesh. (Photo by Fox Photos / Getty Images)
According to the Dry Stone Walling Association, more than 70 percent of Britain’s historic structures have fallen into disrepair.
The decline is due to a mix of reasons; a lack of funding, a change in farming practices, and an aging population of artisans who are well suited to the job.
With only 31 official DSWA contractors in Scotland, the majority of whom are working part-time or nearing retirement age, Martin and Luke are a glimmer of hope for keeping traditional skills alive for future generations.
“I’m so glad I made my career change to drywall,” said Luke, who is originally from Guernsey but moved to Perthshire 12 years ago.
“I was in nursing before, but I attended a training weekend organized by the DSWA last year and I didn’t look back.”
It was here that he met Martin and discovered his newfound passion for the art with which he will work on some of the oldest features in the country.
“I really went on the artisanal side,” he said.
“You used to only have a hammer to get the job done, but now there are more tools to work with. The world is your oyster.
“And it’s not just about restoring old dry stone walls.
“With the same skill, you can do so much, building modern structures, stone circles and walls for people’s gardens.
“It is fascinating to see the bare bones of the architecture, a structure that has been in use for centuries and is still used today.”
Luke trained with the Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust and the Allchurches Trust, organizations that support British craftsmanship through funding that has secured him a two-year apprenticeship with Martin at Dry Stone Walling Perthshire.
“We plan to continue working together after my training,” said Luke.
“I’m just starting out, working on walls that I think only admire sheep at the moment, but there is a lot to look forward to.”
The two artisans, who are among the youngest in their profession, hope their work will provide a solid foundation for future generations of dry stone walls to build on.
“It’s important to keep interest in the skill that gushes away,” said Martin.
“I am currently building a 30m stone circle that is eight feet high in places for the Innerpeffray Library, one of the oldest in Scotland (dating from 1680).
“It is used for reading poetry and storytelling, and the community asked me to speak to younger people in the area about my job.
“Some youngsters are non-academic and don’t want to work in an office. I know this because I was one of them and I look forward to this opportunity to tell young people about a job that is challenging and creative, where you can use your hands and which doesn’t limit you to a desk.
“There’s so much to do with this ability, and it’s about informing the younger generation and letting them know that we still exist.”
DWSA offers beginner training through a network of offices including four offices in Scotland. The association runs an accredited certification system for those wishing to acquire a formal qualification in drywall.
The National Lottery Heritage Fund previously helped provide educational scholarships to young people looking to become dry stone walls. One of them was Martin in 2018.