I was standing in the reception area of the National Wallace Monument, waiting for Liisa and Kyle to descend from the Crown. We had walked up the 71 stairs to the room where Wallace’s sword is kept, and I went back downstairs as they continued up the rest of the 247 steps to the top of the monument. In reading the large poster about the construction of the Monument in the lobby, I came across the terms “whin stone” and “free stone” and asked the person behind the counter what the terms meant. She didn’t know, but was as curious as I was to find out, so she searched online for both our benefit.
Whin stone is used for dry stone walls. The term ‘whin’ derives from the sound it makes when struck with a hammer. A free stone is used for “molding, tracery and other replication work required to be worked with a chisel.” Free stone must be fine-grained, uniform and soft enough to be cut easily without shattering or splitting.
I lightly touched the interior walls of the Monument and could feel the sandpapery surface of the free stone, and how minute bits of it rolled off on to my fingertips. Rich in color, and obviously easily sculpted, I saw how the Scottish weather would deteriorate the stones should they be used as an exterior surface. And, I was reminded of how, when Kyle and I tried to find my Great-great Grandmother’s grave site in Gamrie, the headstones of long ago that had been made of free stone, had been washed away by the driving rains and the strong winds. (A few days later, we would see the exquisite beauty of sculpted stone at Rosslyn Chapel.)
My favorite part of the trip kept repeating itself: driving in to small towns, with their narrow streets (originally built to accommodate horses and carriages) lined with granite buildings rich in hues of the colors of the local earth. Each time it was significant of driving in to the pages of history.
Stone has undoubtedly been the most widely used building material throughout Scotland’s history, from ancient times through to the present: from the dry stone masonry of Maes Howe, built 5000 years ago on Orkney, to the great cathedral of Elgin, and all the houses and buildings built in between times and since.
The diversity of geology of Scotland is reflected in the variations of color and texture of the buildings: on Orkney monuments were erected using local flagstone harvested from the bedrock of the foreshore, and on the mainland buildings were built in the silver grey granites of Galloway, the deep reds of Ross of Mull and Peterhead, and the salmon pink of Corrennie, mulit-colored Aberdeen granite, red sandstones of Dumfriesshire and the white used in Edinburgh’s New Town. Prior to the industrial age when stone was not hauled a great distance, small towns and villages had their own local quarries and much of that local color and character can be seen in their buildings.
Dry stone is a building method by which structures are constructed without any mortar to bind them together. Dry stone structures are stable because of their unique construction method, the load-bearing taken on by carefully selected interlocking stones. Dry stone technology is best known in the context of wall construction, but dry stone artwork, buildings, bridges, and other structures exist all over the country. Dry stone walls, or drystane dykes as they are called in Scotland, are an integral part of the Scottish heritage and landscape. Thousands of miles of dry stone walls can be seen forming field barriers throughout the countryside, forming lines in shades of grey though the deep green fields dotted with white sheep and red Heiland Coos.