Sunday, 21 July 2013

THE STONE BLOGS #1: Throughs, Covers, Hearting & Rags

Two weeks ago I went on a dry-stane dyke course. Why? you may ask! Well, I have recently moved into a new wooden house with a lot of stone on the site and I would like to use it to build some dykes. The photograph above is of a section of a dyke that I, along with five others, had a hand in repairing.

The craft of dry-stane dyking has a language all its own: foundations, builders, hearting, throughs, covers and rags; all the kinds of stone used in the construction of a dyke. And you have to get the batter right and make sure the stone you use presents a bonny face to the world.

This cross-section diagram has different names from the Orkney ones we were given by Brian of Orkney Training Group. 'Filling stones' just doesn't have the same resonance as 'hearting'; and 'rags' is more interesting than the more common 'coping stones'.

The dyke we repaired was at the Bu in Orphir. It had suffered through various phenomena: kye shouldering it down; the angle not being right, so that one side pushed the other over; and likely frost, rain and wind had played their part too. But it may well have stood for a couple of hundred years: it is said that many of Orkney's dry stone dykes were constructed by sailors from the time of the Napoleonic Wars during the longueurs between battles.

Robert Frost knew all about dry stone dykes too and their significance in the affairs of people living close to one another; though his stones - some are loaves and some so nearly balls/ We have to use a spell to make them balance - are somewhat different from the Orkney stone that falls so obligingly into flat grey slabs.

Mending Wall

Something there is that doesn't love a wall, 
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it, 
And spills the upper boulders in the sun, 
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast. 
The work of hunters is another thing: 
I have come after them and made repair 
Where they have left not one stone on a stone, 
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding, 
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean, 
No one has seen them made or heard them made, 
But at spring mending-time we find them there. 
I let my neighbor know beyond the hill; 
And on a day we meet to walk the line 
And set the wall between us once again. 
We keep the wall between us as we go. 
To each the boulders that have fallen to each. 
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls 
We have to use a spell to make them balance: 
'Stay where you are until our backs are turned!' 
We wear our fingers rough with handling them. 
Oh, just another kind of out-door game, 
One on a side. It comes to little more: 
There where it is we do not need the wall: 
He is all pine and I am apple orchard. 
My apple trees will never get across 
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him. 
He only says, 'Good fences make good neighbors'. 
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder 
If I could put a notion in his head: 
'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn't it 
Where there are cows? 
But here there are no cows. 
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know 
What I was walling in or walling out, 
And to whom I was like to give offence. 
Something there is that doesn't love a wall, 
That wants it down.' I could say 'Elves' to him, 
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather 
He said it for himself. I see him there 
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top 
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed. 
He moves in darkness as it seems to me~ 
Not of woods only and the shade of trees. 
He will not go behind his father's saying, 
And he likes having thought of it so well 
He says again, "Good fences make good neighbors."

Robert Frost

Watch this space in blogs to come for news of some dry stane dykes that predate the Napoleonic wars by a couple of Millennia. And we will return to the Bu in Orphir as well, to its Viking history.


  1. I did this course a couple of years ago, Alison. Very informative. Like you, I am hoping to put it to good use at our new house. Haven't come up with a suitable poem mind.

    Best wishes

    Lynn Johnson

    1. Yes, me too, Lynn. A bit daunted though - don't know where to start. Think I might need some rabbit fencing first, so I can get a few things planted. Then I can take my time with the dry stane dykes!

      All the Best


    2. In the early twentieth century, in his series of lectures entitled Pragmatism, the philosopher and psychologist William James advanced the thesis that, broadly speaking, people can be separated into two general categories of personality – tough minded and tender minded.

  2. Amber Connolly23 July 2013 at 23:41

    Remember this Robert Frost poem well...have been meaning to get a collection of his work for some time now, he was one of the first poets to really strike me in my teenage years!

    1. Hi Amber, thank you for your comment. There are collections of his poems in Orkney Library & Archive to borrow, till you get your own! A lot of interesting poems in his work apart from the really famous ones.

  3. nice article and the poem of robert frost is too good.

    1. Thank you, Lena, and apologies for taking so long to reply.


Tell me your stories about reading; share your experiences of Orkney Libraries; let me know your favourite books and tell me why you like them.