The earliest dry stone wall discovered to date is at the Ness of Brodgar in the parish of Stenness. This extensive neolithic site lies between the Ring of Brodgar and the Standing Stones of Stenness and recent excavations have revealed a series of large complex structures.
Surrounding these buildings are two dry stone walls known affectionately as the great and the lesser walls of Brodgar. The greater wall is massive at just over four metres thick and an enormous quantity of stone was used in its construction.
The walls are extremely well made and they must have looked impressive to people approaching the site during its lifetime. Radio carbon dates established in October 2011, from samples taken below the lesser wall, show the site was occupied from 3200 to 3100BC.
All over Orkney there are earthen banks and turf dykes. Many have disappeared over the years, but these early enclosures and boundaries can still be seen in some areas.
As well as the stone walls a substantial earthen bank runs along the Ness in Stenness. This boundary has never been dated, but recent geophysics data suggests that the bank may be contemporary with the Ring of Brodgar.
Cattle have worn away a portion of the dyke and this revealed stone flags. Known as the Dyke of Sean, it may mark the outer boundary of the henge. If this is the case, this would make it the earliest known stone and turf dyke in Orkney.
Most of the dykes we know about are dated to the Pictish period. These ‘Picka’ or ‘Pickie’ dykes were made of turf with stone foundations. Evidence of these can be seen in many areas of Orkney.
It is thought that these are land division and parish boundaries and show how the land was divided up between those in power.
The island of North Ronalday is separated into three unequal parts by the Matches Dyke and the Muckle Gersty. It is said that this reflected the udal system. A man had three sons and the land was divided into three as part of their inheritance.
Evidence for these old dykes can also be found in place names. The majority of these are Norse in origin. Gersty is a variation on gorsty or gard-stadr, the Old Norse word meaning fence. Grad bok is Old Norse for a length of dyke.
Another place name is treb, found in some of the north isles. The word treb is related to tref, a Welsh word meaning homestead.
Treb-dykes are particularly common in Sanday and it is thought that this term may be Celtic in origin. The land around treb farms is usually fertile and it is believed that these may mark the centres of Pictish settlements.
These ancient dykes have divided the land and created boundaries. The most important was the hill dyke, which kept the animals out on the hill and away from the growing crops. The community were responsible for the maintenance of these hill dykes, and each spring everyone was expected to turn out to repair any damage done to them.
Once the crops were gathered, the dykes were breached and the stock were allowed to roam freely. Their droppings would remain on the ground to fertilise the land for the following year.
These dykes were made from turf and stone. They were large and would have required a lot of on-going work to keep them in good order.
In 1761 part of the community known as Bryascow, in the parish of Stenness, was to be enclosed. An agreement between the heritors and the tenants stated that the turf dyke would be six-feet high and that an area 30-feet wide to the south of it was allotted for its building and repair. This gives some indication of how much turf was used in the building and repair of the dyke.
This system remained until the 1760s when Thomas Balfour of Huip in Stronsay stated that the hill-dyke of earth should be allowed to fall into disrepair. He was keen to improve the agriculture of the island and feared the use of turf for building dykes and for fuel was creating poor soil conditions. The only dykes still maintained were the ones across the headlands to prevent the sheep from straying.
How much easier it must have been then, when people began to build dykes made of stone. This only became fashionable when farmers began to embrace agricultural improvements. The success of the kelp industry meant that the lairds had money in their pockets.
By 1777 the lands at the Bu, Burray, had been enclosed and sub-divided into fields with dykes made of stone and earth.
A little later Major Balfour of Shapinsay completely changed his estate. He enclosed and squared off the land and introduced modern agricultural practice such as crop rotation and the use of fertiliser. Modern agricultural tools were used and he built a fine house with an enclosed garden and built the village of Balfour for his tenants.
In 1828 Mr Graeme of Graemeshall in Holm and Paplay cleared the land of the old run rig system. The land was laid out in farms of various sizes and the tenants were given 15-year leases. When people felt they owned a bit of land they were much more inclined to work it. Some were keen to make improvements to their land. In the first part of the 19th century they did not have to pay much heed to their farms, but when the industry collapsed it was clear that their farms had to be profitable.
As agricultural improvements spread throughout Orkney, there was a need to build good solid stone dykes to keep the animals out. Most of the dykes we see today were built in the 20th century.
It was hard work. The stone had to be gathered and transported, good foundations needed to be built and the walls had to be strong to withstand wild weather and enthusiastic rubbing by farm animals. They also had to be high enough to keep animals in and to provide some shelter.
However, once built, the maintenance proved to take up less time than the constant herding of the animals, morning and night!
Some field boundaries were made using flagstones. In some areas around Stromness a row of upright flags were embedded in the earth. This is also seen below the farm of Smoogro in Orphir.
Many dykes were built using the stone gathered from the hills and from the land which was to be enclosed. Dry-stone dykes are built using stones, which are skilfully interlocked together to make it stable. No mortar is used, so the foundation needs to be particularly well built for the growing wall to take shape.
Dykes were also built using boulders from the beaches. These walls are usually built using large boulders with smaller stones placed within and around to give stability. There are many wonderful dykes around Rackwick, which are all built this way.
In addition to these, there was also the double wall. This consisted of two rows of wall made of flattish stones. The walls are built layer by layer until they reach the desired height.
At intervals tie-stones are placed in the body of the wall. These stones span both faces of the wall and `tie’ them together. Finally, a row of cap stones or cope stones are placed along the top across its width to help prevent it from coming apart.
Making a dry-stone wall is one of those crafts which is sadly fading in our society. With the arrival of barbed wire and fencing posts, it is rare to see a dry-stone dyke now being built as a preference. However, the skill has been recognised as one of value and now there is a nationally recognised certification scheme which is operated in Britain by the Dry Stone Walling Association.
It has four grades – from Initial to Master Craftsman – and one of the Scapa Flow Landscape Partnership projects has been to encourage people to take part in traditional craft courses.
All around Orkney you can see these dykes. On Hunda there is a very long dyke, which must have taken many, many man-hours to build. It is not only the building that takes time, but gathering the amount of stones required would have been a back-breaking and laborious task.
On the island of North Ronaldsay the sheep live and feed on the shore. Grazing on seaweed gives North Ronaldsay lamb a distinctive taste and this product is sold worldwide. The sheep are kept off the land by a 12-mile long stone dyke, which extends all the way around the island.