David Lintern builds the right kind of border wall – a dry stone dyke in the Borders.
“I like it here, it has a nice feel. And it’s great that it’s local to me”, says Ellen. With nothing more to add, we slurp our tea in silent agreement as waterproofs steam gently near the stove. We’re in a hut on the edge of a wood a few miles outside Peebles, and we are dirty, damp, tired and happy.
The previous day, I joined Emily, Sandy, Hugh and Ellen to get hands on with drystone walling. Under the guidance of Neil Moffat, a Selkirk based professional with two decades of experience, our training ground is a very dilapidated sheep enclosure, or ‘stell’. Neil dispenses with the theory in less than five minutes, but it’s soon apparent that the practice will be more involved.
There is a ‘batter’, which describes both the angle or slant the wall must take if it is to remain upright, as well as the contraption of poles and a crosspiece that the guiding plum lines are rigged from. Larger ‘face stones’ are placed end to end to give the wall some strength, while the middle or ‘heart’ is filled with smaller stones, which are to be packed carefully, not just tipped in. We move up layer by layer, filling the heart as we go, until we reach the plum line. We are advised to not stray above or outside the line. Once the level is complete and as flat as possible, the cord is raised, its position checked and we begin again. It’s equally important to ‘break the joins’ on the next tier, much like bricks are positioned, to improve strength and water runoff.
The trick is to find stones that fit each other from the debris around us. We slowly come to realise the importance of organising that supply into sizes and shapes for later use. Originally rock for stells like this would have been quarried “from above or across. People ask ‘how did they get the stone up there?’ but they would never have bought the stone ‘up’,” says Neil. This one he reckons is at least 80 years old, maybe more.
The day progresses, and so, incrementally, does the wall. It’s heavy, filthy work, and we’re all covered in mud. Progress is slow but it’s also satisfying. There’s none of the fuss of the twenty first century – no fake news to fettle with, no wrestling with conscience or context – just physics and the weather. We are outside, the sun comes out, there is team work and tea and that is enough.
I decide dyking should be filed under; ‘a minute to learn, a lifetime to master’. At our beginner’s level it’s not rocket science, but still – there is art to this work. It has to do with slowing down and doing something methodically and by hand, and I’m reminded of an Ed Abbey quote which talks about the primacy of the senses; “I am pleased enough with the surfaces – in fact they alone seem to me to be of much importance… the sunlight on the rock and leaves, the feel of music, the bark of a tree, the abrasion of granite and sand, the plunge of clear water into a pool, the face of the wind – what else is there? What else do we need?”
We also comment that it’s amazingly labour intensive. We’re newbies, granted, but it’s taken six of us all day to do a five metre stretch, four feet high. Then again, I’m not really sure what the rush is about. Better to be gainfully employed doing something that will last, surely? Some stones fit together like a glove, in other places there are small gaps, but as Neil remarks “If you can’t see light through it, that’s good!”.
Later, and with my fellow wallers gone for the day, I walk around the site, adjusting my pace to soak up the atmosphere. From the roadside, Glenlude is a rounded, anonymous looking hill which until recently was covered in old forestry. In 2003 it was gifted to the John Muir Trust by Sheila Bell, a latter day Amelia Earhart who purchased the land from the Forestry Commission after leaving Uganda and her own air transportation business. The Trust took the reins fully upon Sheila’s death in 2010. Yes, it’s true – the charity looks after many, more glamourous places. Schiehallion, Ben Nevis, Sandwood Bay may get all the plaudits, but this quiet corner of the Borders has a real and growing sense of purpose.
I last visited 5 years ago, when I came to document a partnership between a drug and alcohol rehab’ charity who were using the Trust’s outdoors education program, the John Muir Award, to reach those who had struggled elsewhere. This partnership had proven success rates, but the people I met on the day told me more than just statistics. They told me tree planting was good exercise, and being outside and working together on something showed them they had choices and could do something positive in their lives. They said they felt safer in an outdoors environment. And that planting something for the future – making a tangible difference to the wider world – was making a difference to them too. That day, I saw roots gently lowered into the ground, earth carefully placed back. Everyone helped each other. It seemed like a blessed relief.
That fledging forest planted by Phoenix Futures has now expanded to around 1600 trees, stretching across most of the hillside to the north of the site. Some of it is now standing 2 or 3 metres tall and has outgrown browsing deer, which allows the recycling of tree tubes elsewhere on the site. There’s a new polytunnel, a seedling germination and hardening off area to prepare the native seed source for planting, and a wood processor and store funded from a People’s Postcode Lottery grant, to allow the processing of spruce and larch that is slowly coming out.
New ‘rides’ are being cut into dense forest that allows light to penetrate, encouraging ground flora and improving access for visitors. Most of the Sitka was impenetrable when I last came, but now I can walk clean through without dipping my head. So too can the local school children, who come for a big end of year celebration with parents and carers to mark their journey to primary to secondary. John Muir Trust’s land manager for Glenlude, Karen Purvis, doesn’t charge; “I don’t want it to just be for the rich kids”, but some schools manage a donation and everyone contributes to the bigger picture – rewilding people, as well as place.
Across the road, the hillside stands bare, long lines of tree stumps and bare earth. Commercial clear-fell, worked with machines. In front of me, pockets of timber lie on the ground to dry before extraction, next to tall brash hedging – thin branches that are removed and recycled to keep the deer from grazing the newly planted native saplings that will eventually cover the hillside.
Just like our dry-stone walling, almost all this work is being done by hand, and everything by volunteers or trainees (with support from professionals). Forestry Commission Community Funding has allowed Karen to put 4 of the Trust’s own volunteers through their chainsaw tickets, and many more have obtained theirs through the courses run by Borders College in nearby Galashiels, for whom Glenlude is now a training site. The wood is sold on site or nearby at a fair rate, keeping transportation costs down and benefitting the locals.
These woods are now a part of the community, not apart from it.
The second day of our build would be much more accurately described as wet stone walling. The rain reigned. We dismantled another section of wall to its foundations, cut and fitted a drain and built an entrance, using much heavier stones maneuvered into place for the ‘gable ends’. The surrounding ground was reduced to a sticky six inches of gloop, in which we wallowed in order to rest our backs and avoid slipping. Neil said it was the wettest day’s training he’d ever run. Hugh said he felt like a hippo.
Eventually, the sun did what it was told and made another appearance. As the group topped the wall with the last of the turf, I asked Karen the obvious: The Trust won’t put sheep back on the site, so why repair the stell at all?
“It’s a piece of archeology, but remade for modern times. It’s a shame to see them fall into disrepair across the country, but even as it is, it’s a focal point for people coming to work and enjoying the space. We’ve rebuilt it lower, so people can sit on it and the youngsters won’t hurt themselves (too much!) if they climb over it, and there’s a fire circle – a place to congregate and share. It’s also providing a training opportunity for volunteers and students from all over… and of course employment for a local craftsman.”
What’s not to like? Glenlude is flying, and Sheila Bell’s legacy is marked. The whole place seems to beg a question about values, about an investment of time and effort. We are not here to grow money or save time. We are here to help grow a community of people, an ecology of plants and animals… and that kind of added value won’t be rushed.
When I got home, I checked my notes. To me it read like good practical advice, and not just for building walls:
Place hearting stones as you go.
Test each stone for stability.
Stand back and look at your work frequently.
Take your time.