The invitation: To participate in a trial run of a Kawartha Lakes Arts & Heritage Trail “Experience.” Over the course of a weekend participants are to be introduced to the art of dry stone walling. They will restore a section of the roughly 150-year-old Laidlaw wall that lines a stretch of Balsam Lake Drive.
The invitee: An Advocate columnist with minimal manual dexterity, little aptitude, and the soft hands of a scribe.
The Experience: Orientation
It’s a chilly Saturday morning in late October when we meet in the warmth of the Days Inn lobby: a writer, a museum volunteer, an economic development officer, a travel agent, and a dry stone mason.
Not hard to identify the mason, our instructor. John Shaw-Rimmington is lanky and weathered looking, with a white beard and untrimmed hair. His handshake is strong, and the hand that wraps around mine is roughened, reddened, one fingernail black.
Before we climb into an SUV for the drive north we learn a little about our instructor. John’s been building and repairing dry stone walls for decades (he’d been a guitar maker before that, so for sure a handy fellow). To learn the art he trained with master dry stone masons in Scotland and Yorkshire.
Though based in Port Hope he has completed projects across Canada and beyond (in the winter he takes on commissions in California). He designs, teaches, demonstrates and writes a daily blog about walling.
John has been involved in the restoration of the Laidlaw walls for 20 years now and is an enthusiastic admirer. “They’re fabulous,” he says, “Rivalled in Ontario only by the ones along the Niagara Parkway between Queenston and Niagara-on-the-Lake.”
He’s pleased to be doing our workshop at this time of year, too. “In the fall we get a better view of the beautiful dry stone work. There is less foliage covering the walls.”
On the drive north open fields give way to forest, scrub and marsh, and the soil becomes thinner, the limestone underlying the area pushing up to the surface. We pass through Glenarm and turn near Kirkfield (place-names that are reminders of a 19th century influx of Scottish immigrants).
Our first view of the walls is through SUV windows. The walls stretch for over a kilometre along both sides of the road.
Our destination is “the Fort,” the Laidlaw homestead. We’re met by Doug Paterson, fifth generation Laidlaw, the great-great-grandson of George Laidlaw, the man responsible for the wall. Doug and his wife, Donna, own the renovated Laidlaw ‘bunkie,’ originally a three-room dwelling for workers. (Other Laidlaw descendants, Doug’s sister and cousins, own nearby property).
Before John leads us along the wall, Doug fills us in on its history. George Laidlaw was a grain buyer for Gooderham and Worts and a promoter of narrow gauge railways. Over time he purchased 4,000 acres on the shores of Balsam Lake.
In the 1870s he brought over stone masons from Scotland to construct walls. The walls served the important function of fencing in his Highland cattle and sheep. They also defined the borders of his property. The raw material was all there: mostly limestone that could be moved about with horse-drawn stone boats, but also blocks of granite left by the receding of glaciers.
Over time, some sections of the wall fell into disrepair. Lots of things there do not like a wall: snowploughs travelling at high velocity, tree roots, and livestock. Twenty-five years ago the work of fully restoring the walls began.
A Wall Walk
The wall is meant to be experienced up close, rather than through a car window. Walking along the wall you appreciate the scale and the solidity. It’s chest-high, and surmounted by ‘coping stones’ set vertically, each leaning against a neighbour. Beneath them are layers of overlapping stones, lichen encrusted, almost black with age. The occasional chunk of squared-off granite lends variety.
John points out features we might have missed and begins to share some terminology. “Lunkies” we learn are narrow openings to allow, say, a border collie to get in and out.
Walking the wall we get a feel for the terrain. Sheets of limestone and shale appear and disappear underfoot and give the wall solid support. You can see that the base extends below the surface. “It goes maybe an extra two feet down,” John tells us. “Soil has built up around that base.”
Sections of the wall have remained intact since the 1870s. It’s a tribute to the craftsmanship, and to help us understand the construction techniques that contribute to a strong wall, John goes over some basic principles.
The first is that walls taper from the base to top on both sides (“batter” is the term). The two sides leaning into each other lends strength. Overall the base is two units wide, the top one unit, and the slope from top to bottom three units.
“Bonding” is another principle. Stones must overlap — one stone over the two below it or two stones over one. There can’t be any towers of stones, any vertical seams.
“Bundling” also contributes to the strength. These are smaller, fractured pieces that serve a number of purposes. John explains, “Sharp wedge-shaped pieces are probably the most useful for shimming and wedging.” The other term for the bundling is “hearting,” and that suggests the other purpose: these smaller pieces fill the core of the wall. They’re the heart.
The last principle is “building into the wall” rather than “veneering” (thin rows that can easily be dislodged). The wall should include the occasional “through stone,” a stone that spans the wall from side to side.
Employ all these principles and you have a wall for the ages, a wall that, paradoxically, is stronger than a mortared wall. Where a mortared wall is subject to the pressures of frost and heaving, a dry stone wall allows moisture to pass through and can flex and move. It has the equivalent of expansion joints.
Repairing the Wall
Together we inspect the short section of wall we’re to repair. It’s adjacent to the mortared gate at the Paterson’s entrance. The foundation is already there; in fact it’s just the top two feet and the coping we’re to build.
The raw material is strewn on the ground and John introduces the few simple tools that are all a dry stone waller requires. First is a mason string line that he runs along both sides of the wall to establish both the taper and a level, then hammers and buckets. The hammers, maybe three to four pounds in weight, are walling or lump hammers (the walling ones distinguished by a wedge shape on one end, flat face on the other). The buckets are for hearting (but can also hold tools or be inverted to make a seat).
Gloves are available but using them is discouraged. John himself only works with gloves if it’s too cold or the stones are wet and muddy. For the weekend he recommends the same for us. He wants us to feel and appreciate the stone.
Before we begin breaking up limestone to make our hearting, John sets out two virtues that define a good dry stone mason: patience and honesty. In our digital age we measure out time in seconds, minutes, hours. In constructing a stone wall’s life that will be measured in decades and centuries, he wants us to slow down. We are encouraged to step back and assess the suitability of each stone placement and gauge progress.
The “honesty” has to do with avoiding shortcuts which inevitably lead to instability. A few shortcuts can compromise a wall, so exacting standards need to be set.
We set to work, some working on one side, some on the other. Occasionally we swap places. It’s not a competition, and John doesn’t want us to feel proprietorial about any particular bit of wall.
Much time goes to locating the right stone for the right place. It’s deeply satisfying when we place a stone that seems meant to belong. More often, a stone finds its place when a bit of hearting is used to shim. Occasionally a little trimming with a walling hammer will do the job.
A decent dry stone waller can, we’re told, complete eight feet of wall in a day. Over the course of our two days that’s about what eight of us accomplish (the museum curator’s husband, John and Doug, as well as Doug’s brother-in-law, Cam, pitch in to help as well).
There are breaks that enrich the experience. On both days a very posh version of a Ploughman’s lunch is brought in by Quaker Oats Farm: the fare includes four kinds of cheese, charcuterie, baguettes, and a curry squash soup.
On the second day sheep, shepherds, and border collies arrive and we have a demonstration of herding. John’s comment as he takes a photo of the small flock, two stone walls in the background, is, “Who’d believe we’re in the City of Kawartha Lakes and not Scotland or Yorkshire?”
Once the wall is capped with the coping stones, we all line up behind the wall for a photo, under the bemused eye of the Paterson’s yellow lab.
On the way home we reflect on a satisfying experience.
Will I ever construct a stone wall? Almost certainly no. But I will probably take friends and family to see the Laidlaw wall I’ve made a very small contribution to, and I will never look at a dry stone wall again without casting a critical eye and without due appreciation for one properly made.
And I’ll take time to enjoy a memento. Before we leave each of us is given a book entitled Stone Transformations, by John, full of photographs of dry stone walls, bridges and other projects. Craft elevated to art, and just the thing for a wall-appreciator’s coffee table.