What is a Dry Stone Wall?

A dry stone wall was built to last. They are a feature of the British Isles in areas where stone is readily available, like Cornwall, Scotland, and Ireland and parts of the North and South of England, like the Pennines and the Cotswolds.

Called dry stone, sometimes drystack, and in Scotland, drystane, stone walls are an indelible rustic feature across the UK. However, they are not confined to these shores—dry stone wall constructions in northwest Europe date back to the Neolithic Age.


Further, afield in Africa, Great Zimbabwe is a city complex made entirely from dry stone and constructed between the 11th and 15th centuries. In County Mayo in Eire, there is a complete dry stone wall field system now covered in peat, which dates to 3800 BC.

The Dry Stone Wall Association estimates that there are around 200,000 km of dry stone walls in the UK, with many in poor condition.

 What is Dry Stone Walling?

Dry stone wall
Dry stone wall near Tal-y-sarn, Rachub. The stones in upper part of this dry stone wall are believed to be a later 19th Century addition to the lower much older part of the wall. Credit: Meirion

Stone was a readily available building material in certain parts of the country and made a solid field boundary in less time than it took to grow a hedge or trees.

Dry stone walling is a building method where stones interlock together to make a wall without using mortar. Carefully chosen stones create a load-bearing façade so the structure is completely stable.

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The wall is held together by the weight of the stones and the skill of the builder who selects the stones and puts them together. Dry stone walls define field boundaries, control livestock and delineate other areas like churchyards.

Constructing or Repairing a Dry Stone Wall

Different techniques and terminology are associated with building a new dry stone wall from scratch or restoring a wall that has fallen into disrepair. Here are some of the different stages.

Stripping Out

Stripping out is the process of collapsed but usable stones being removed from the wall and put to one side. An experienced dry stone waller puts stones like coping stones used at the end of the construction process furthest from the wall, so there is a sequence to how the craftsman sorts the stones ready to be used again.

Dry stone wall
Boundary Stone in Dry Stone Wall, near Canyards. Credit: Terry Robinson

The largest stones are kept nearer to the wall for obvious reasons and because they are used early in the reconstruction process. A gap of 60cm is left alongside the wall as a working space. If the stripping out is just for a section that has collapsed, the gap is stepped at either end to help tie in the new wall.

Batter Frames

Batter frames are a type of A-frame used as a guide to help ensure the work is accurate. Stone walls are usually wider at the bottom and taper towards the top, making them stronger. A batter frame is set at both ends of the section, and then guidelines run between the two.


If foundations are required, they are dug a few centimetres wider than the proposed wall. Soil type dictates depth: foundations can vary from as shallow as 3cm to a depth of 30cm.


Which stone to use where is part of the dry stone waller’s craft. Stones should be stable and not slip when put in place. Roundbacked stones are hard to build on top of, so they are not a good choice.

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Big stones are the best choice for the base of the wall, with some put aside for coping and wallheads. Putting the biggest stones at the bottom and the smallest at the top produces a tapering design which is strong and easier to build.

Dry stone wall
Sheep crawl between fields, Rachub. Credit: Meirion

Throughstones straddle the wall and pin all the stones below them, holding the two sides together to stop it from bulging out and collapsing. They are usually slightly longer than the width of the wall and set with the longest dimension perpendicular to the wall’s face.

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Throughstones must not be shorter than the width of the wall as this risks making it less secure. Hearting stones fill in the gaps between the face stones. Coping stones straddle the wall like throughstones and hold the sides together, specifically holding down and protecting the upper courses. Fitting the coping stones is usually done with a line to keep them even.

Dry Stone Wall Construction

A stone wall is built up in horizontal lines with stones of an even height; the lines are called courses. This provides the most robust and stable design and a pleasing aesthetic appearance. Stones are placed on the wall rather than dropped or forcibly wedged, which only dislodges other stones, and the long edge is placed into the wall where this is possible.

Dry stone wall, cross-section
Dry stone wall, cross-section.

The section of wall above has been built to show visitors the method of construction of dry stone walls. The information note beside it explains the earliest walls would have been made using stones found when clearing the field for cultivation.

A later period of wall building occurred in 18th and early 19th century when landowners ‘enclosed’ their estates. They often created small quarries nearby to supply the stone needed for the walls. There are over 2 miles of dry stone walls marking the boundary of Dyrham Park. Credit: Linda Bailey

Pleasing Outcome

Each joint in the particular course should be bridged by a stone in the row above it. The face of the wall is designed to be smooth to discourage climbers. A stone wall should have a wall head, a pillar designed to support the construction. Wall heads make use of the largest and most rectangular stones.

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Filling in a gap follows the same principle, but the ends of the gap should be stepped first so that the new wall is tied in properly.

Most stone wallers adhere to guidelines that help ensure a professional, sturdy and aesthetically pleasing outcome.

  • Follow the rule that each stone should rest on two others, and two stones should rest on it
  • Where possible, put the longest part of the stone into the wall
  • Build up both sides at the same rate, so this means swapping from one side to the other
  • Never drop stones on the wall or hammer them
  • Step back at regular intervals to see what the wall looks like

Regional Variations

Dry stone walls are different depending on the location; this means the stone used and the construction style. The Cotswolds is an area well-known in the south of England for its traditional stone walls, which criss-cross the landscape and are used to construct pretty villages in a telltale honey hue which J B Priestley said knew “the trick of keeping the lost sunlight of centuries glimmering upon them”. In the Cotswolds, the stone is Jurassic limestone quarried from a layer about a foot below the subsoil.

Dry stone wall

In Lincolnshire, the limestone of Lincoln Edge is only a few miles wide, so there is a sudden and abrupt change from hedgerows and brick and timber buildings to stone. Walls throughout central and southern England tend to lack the variety of openings, a feature of their counterparts in the Pennines, Lakeland and Scotland.

The Pennines is the single most significant area of walled country in England. The walls reflect the geological variation in terms of colouration. In the limestone districts, the stone is clean grey-white and a dark, dirty grey/brown elsewhere.

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In some parts of the UK, dry stone walls are relatively uniform in stone choice and design. In other areas, the walls can vary significantly between two neighbouring farms, so defining one style as representative of a locale or broader area can be challenging.

The choice of stone type, weight and size are some of the factors which dictate wall design, but there are many other influences at work.

Not Just for Walls

Walls are the most common use of dry stone construction, but there are also examples of buildings, bridges and even dry stone sculptures.

Regional Terminology

In Scotland, dry stone walls as field boundaries are called dykes and professional stone wallers are known as dykers.

Dry stone wall
Barr Wood, boundary dyke. They use big stones in these parts to build their dykes. Credit: Robert Murray

Further afield in the USA, dry stone walls are a feature of several areas, including the bluegrass region of Kentucky, where they are referred to as rock fences or stone fences. The art of construction was brought to America by immigrants from areas of the British Isles where stone walling was commonplace.

A cripple hole is a small rectangular opening at the base of a wall to allow sheep to pass through and is a common feature of stone walls in the north of England.

Cripple holes are also known as lonky or lunky holes, hogg holes, sheep run, sheep smoose, smout holes, thaw or thirl holes. Some walls have smaller holes to permit the passage of rabbits and even water.

A crown is the top of a bank or hedge; hedges are relevant because in the south west, especially in Cornwall, dry stone walls are known as Cornish hedges. In Devon, the term ‘crown’ becomes ‘comb’.

The Dry Stone Walling Association

The Dry Stone Walling Association (DSWA) was founded in 1968 and is a registered charity that works to preserve the existing stone wall structures in the UK through correct repair and maintenance and to advance education in the craft of dry stone walling.

dry stone wall
Large stone in wall bridging stream – Lehanagh South Townland. Credit: Mac McCarron

Unsurprisingly, the central office of DSWA is based in Cumbria, and there are 18 regional branches spread throughout the UK.

As well as being a helpful resource for landowners with dry stone walls, the regional branches organise various activities, including training courses in the craft, practice days and demonstrations at rural events like country shows. The DSWA have a national training site at Crooklands in Cumbria and offers a recognised training path.

The DSWA Craft Certification Scheme runs in conjunction with Lantra Awards, providing a series of nationally recognised qualifications in dry stone walling up to Level 3 and the highest award, a certified Master Craftsman.

Dry stone walls are a protected feature of many rural landscapes across the British Isles, and landowners are not allowed to remove a dry stone wall or take the stone from it other than in exceptional circumstances.