Stone walls are a defining feature of many landscapes, not just in the UK but worldwide; yet we take these monuments to life and to lives gone by for granted. We drive past these ancient works of art without noticing; we climb over them when out for a walk, carelessly dislodging stones without a thought. We singularly fail to appreciate the omnium gatherum of construction styles, the variety of rocks used, the assortment of stone shapes, be they tablets or slabs, blocks or boules. We fail to wonder about their age, their purpose, or their original height. We don't stop on our journeys to admire the skill of those who have arranged a pile of stones into a form that divides, creates and enforces differences, parsing the land into finer, more tamed segments.
Stone walls effectively change everything from the soil level upwards. Think about the shade, the sunlight and the wind and how that impacts on moisture and temperature: walls become both a storage heater and a ventilator. The base of the wall might be cool and damp, holding the moisture close, with crevices between the stones that are like tiny, dank caves. The top, by contrast, might be a desert: dry and barren, small tufts of lichen and stonecrop hodden doon by drying winds.
But look closer. Every wall, wherever it exists, is host to its own tiny ecosystem, utilised by all types of animals, amphibians, birds and insects. These rodent-friendly superhighways increase biodiversity when those higher up the food chain start to arrive for breakfast, then lunch, before taking up permanent residence on the promise of dinner. I was fortunate, when out early one misty autumn morning to see a large dog fox standing alone, ruddy and magnificent, atop a stone dyke, his rabbit entree in his jaws. A little vignette both natural and grotesque but replicated by different animals thousands of times a day worldwide.
If we zoom back from this close-up view of these tiny worlds playing out their dramas every day, it is possible to see that stone walls are, however, more than just a natural expression of the conversion of untamed wilderness to farmland. One need only to think of famous walls to understand that walls also serve as barriers or as a mark of ownership. Stone walls are surely the most ubiquitous signal of our authority; think of the Great Wall of China or Trump's infamous wall at the Mexican border with the USA. Closer to home we can walk Hadrian's Wall, the most visible land frontier of the Roman Empire, its presence still imposing a dramatic feature on the landscape over 1,000 years after the Romans departed these shores. Then there is the Antonine Wall, which stretched from the Clyde to the Forth, and was probably the most awe-inspiring building project Scotland had ever seen. Sadly, no account remains as to whether it came in over budget, as seems a prerequisite for public building these days.
Alternatively, one can traverse Offa's Dyke which runs the 177 miles along the border between England and Wales. It would appear that these emperors, kings and presidents were certainly keen to keep out the 'marauding hordes' of Mongols, Mexicans, Celts and Welsh, and simultaneously avail themselves of an effective means of collecting taxes. Walls, it seems, can be profitable. Just don't tell Nicola Sturgeon.
There are many regional differences in stone walls throughout the UK, each as fascinating as the next, but nowhere is more fascinating than in Scotland where due to something known in geology as the 'Grampian Event', approximately 480 million years ago, we have an abundance of stone materials on hand to build our drystane dykes and walls. These walls will often reflect the type and size of stone in the locality, as well as particular walling techniques. Who could resist finding out more about 'blonks' and 'nickers' or 'locked tops'?
Similar to English walls, Scottish double dykes are well supplied with openings for the use of the shepherd or trapper. As well as gateways and stiles, there was often the delightfully named rabbit 'smoots' or 'lunkie-holes', formed to allow wildlife to pass from one side to the other and, hopefully for the hungry shepherd, into the trap that awaited them.
More common in Scotland than elsewhere is the single dyke, built only one stone thick. This developed as a way of using large, heavy stones such as granite, fortuitous given the rugged nature of the Highlands. Quick to build and repair, it was said sheep were dissuaded from trying to climb over anything through which they could see. In the north-east of Scotland, the predominant form is the 'rough rubble' dyke of untrimmed field stones, designed to fence cattle but still artfully arranged with no projections that cattle could rub against. Interestingly, Raithlin Island off the Antrim coast of Northern Ireland takes this concept to a whole new level, where the impressively unsteady looking walls mean the animals give them a wide berth when they collapse at a touch.
In the south-west of Scotland, Galloway dykers were known for their innovations in dyking and invented the half-dyke or Galloway dyke, designed to use a variety of medium and large shaped stones when little 'heart fill' material was available. Despite no mortar or cement, they have incredibly stood the test of time and the vagaries of the Scottish weather – no mean feat.
No-one knows how many miles of walls exist in a county, let alone a country or continent but they are as vulnerable to human activity as anything else is. If our walls were to disappear, there would be a flux of earthly and biological changes which would rip through the landscape: woodlands would meld, soil erosion would increase and the loss of creature life would be immense. And the consequence for us unnoticing, unappreciative humans? Would we miss those symbols of a permanence that we ourselves do not have?
We have forgotten our reverence for stone and the reason why stone is used for gravestones. Stone is our touchstone to the elemental and the eternal.
for the winning paper by May Bruce
for the joint runner-up paper by Markus de Blieck