Respect the skill of the dry stone dyker

Recent examples of dry stone dyking can be found at the Forfar Botanists' Garden.
Recent examples of dry stone dyking can be found at the Forfar Botanists' Garden.

Last time we talked of Doocots, but we live in a land of buildings which have had many uses.

So this time I want to think about the common drystone dykes that are so prevalent throughout Angus and Scotland.

We think of them as part of what we consider our landscape.

There are great examples all around the county and I’m sure any person you might ask will know more about the building of the pyramids than the tens of thousands of miles of dykes in Scotland.

They have even crept into place names such as Dykehead, Cortachy; Dykenuek, Glenesk and Dyekends in Glenisla.

Nowadays there is a growing awareness of the merits of drystane dyking and each year there is a practical demonstration of the art at the Kirrie Show.

We tend to think of the landscape always having dykes, but this of course is a relatively new landscape feature as enclosures were uncommon before the turn of the 19th century.

I’m glad they were built before the current council planners who curtail developments in the countryside.

We are fortunate in having craftsmen who still practice their skills in restoring the many miles of broken dykes, but equally can also provide decorative examples, such as that being built now in Forfar for the Botanists’ garden (pictured).

We don’t have the massive tall ancient brochs here that they have on the west coast, but we have just as many impressive structures built of stone.

Some of the earliest locally are the weems or Picts houses which are found across Angus. They may be underground, but are no less impressive for the size of the stones used in their construction.

In Scotland a dyke is a wall, but in a clear distinction with our southern cousins a dyke is a ditch, but both meanings can have the same function of dividing parcels of land.

Dykes can have many advantages over the modern post and wire preference which is the cheaper option.

Nevertheless dykes are permanent and unaffected by the elements.

They are impervious to fire in the case of muirburn and they offer shelter to livestock in bitter winds especially at lambing time and can be built on bare rocky surfaces.

The greatest challenge some farmers will say is a flock of determined black faced sheep who can be hooligans if they find a weakness as they can easily jump anything less than five feet three inches.

The cross section of a dyke or drystone wall is usually “A-shaped” for strength with throughband stones (going from side to side) and are finished with a cope stones or even turf.

Earlier walls were often made solely of turf, called ‘fealdykes’ but over the years they simply melted back into the landscape and will have now been ploughed back into the soil - lost forever.

Stone walls vary in appearance according to the nature of the local stones and I’m sure you can recall the many variants you have seen as you travel across Scotland, whether it be the huge ‘consumption’ dykes you find in Aberdeenshire or the various colours of sandstone in Angus. Many of the local estates had their own distinctive styles.

I can tell you that my own family records show that the dykes in Glen Ogilvy were built around 1820 by my forefathers and one of the walls contained a dated stone carved with that date.

So next time you clamber over one of these walls, do so with a degree of respect and pause for a minute to examine the craftsmanship and think of the men who built that legacy which has already outlived them and will undoubtedly outlive you.

Yours aye,