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Master Class: Giren

Text by Andrew Brown-Jackson

In 2002 Andrew Brown-Jackson led a British Trust for Conservation Volunteers project on Malta, knowing of his interest in Malta’s stonework I asked him to review an excellent book on Giren, Malta’s own version of dry stone huts, but first I asked him to relate his Maltese experience. Ed

In 2002 and 2003 I took groups from the British Trust for Conservation to Malta at the invitation of the Maltese Government. At that time there were only twelve professional wallers employed by the Department of Rural Affairs. The invitation came through the director of The Limestone Heritage Experience a fantastic exhibition of the quarrying history of Malta. (see www.limestoneheritage.com). I happened by chance to get talking to him on a visit to the attraction while on holiday. He told me that no young people were interested in walling work and the skills were soon to be lost because the youngest waller was forty-two years old, and most of the others were near retirement.

Our visits were sponsored by the education department and tourist board. In the first year we undertook the rebuilding of a six hundred year old heritage wall bounding a rural track to the top of one of the highest points on Malta -fantastic views of the island. We worked with eight Maltese wallers for a week and put up ninety metres of rubble wall four foot six high without copes a little bit like you find around Priddy in the Mendips. What took everyone by surprise was one of our party was a five foot two slip of a young woman. The Maltese wallers could not get over the fact that this young lady was able to work along side them heaving great boulders into position with alacrity. She certainly got their respect and as we were in the newspapers a number of women came up to the plateau to see Lucy working.

One aim of the project was to raise the profile of walling as an occupation, and when we went on Malta’s version of the Kilroy Show there was this audible gasp from the audience when we were announced and she walked on ahead of five blokes all over six foot tall.

The second year we were commissioned to give talks and work with school children of primary and secondary age at the Limestone Heritage over a number of days and got through three hundred in groups building mini walls on the car park. Our final project that year was to build in Maltese limestone a replica field wall of the Peak District which is still there as a tourist attraction.

Girna courtesy © Borut Juvanec

It was planned to return for a third year to rebuild a large Girna in the grounds of a hospital unfortunately my wife contracted cancer and the trip was never organized.  One of my ambitions is still to be involved in rebuilding a dry stone circular hut with a corbelled roof.

As a result of our visit all architectural students at Valletta University have to do an introductory dry stone walling course in their first year and best of all, the professional wallers were given automatic walling tutor status which meant they could run courses of their own and increase their earnings .

Girna – The Maltese corbled Stone Hut by Michael Fsadni OP.

This slim well illustrated volume by Michael Fsadni a Catholic Priest (with the help of architect and historian friends), is the result of a fascination with the style and construction of the corbelled stone huts to be found mostly in the north and west of Malta, generic buildings in a total limestone landscape.

Giren come in all shapes and sizes with the smallest being a few metres in diameter up to five metres internally. There is little recorded information on whether they were permanent dwellings or shelters used by farmers and herdsmen escaping the elements, either torrential rains or 126 degrees F in summer. There is evidence though that they were used for stock rearing as they are associated with stone enclosures.

All are constructed on the double skinned rubble filled wall technique as found on British field walls. What is interesting is the precise use of very random stone from boulders to smaller pieces to create the aesthetic shapes of perfect circles, beautifully cambered right angled corners, truncated circular towers and perfect domes.

When you consider that many of these huts were built on a rock bed where the use of a metal or wooden stake would be impossible, the technical symmetry of these structures is even more surprising.

Malta abounds in a rough limestone rubble which rings to the hammer and shatters very easily if broken. The choice of building material shows a very high degree of skill and understanding of the material to hand.

Each Girna is capped with a corbelled roof either as a truncated tower or dome. The corbelling gives height to the interior and was achieved with the usual one third/two third pitch but on a spiral giving additional strength. The top being covered with thin slabs filled in with crushed limestone and dust,  similar to what we call hoggin in Derbyshire. With dampness this material re-calcifies and becomes waterproof.

One or two chapters are somewhat over laden with measurement details but Michael Fsadni makes every effort through his text to convey the marvelous simplicity of these buildings without masking the technical brilliance of their construction.

An interesting account for the discerning waller’s bookshelf. 
http://www.maltabook.com/folklore.htm
around £6 plus p&p
Andrew Brown-Jackson

Girna courtesy © Borut Juvanec

Our thanks to Andrew Brown-Jackson (Andrew passed away a couple of years ago) for giving us permission to republish the article Giren  which was published in Issue No.22 of Stonechat (Autumn 2010).

This article was first published in Stonechat 22, Autumn 2010