Robyn Emerson

Preserving History One Stone at a Time

Alistair Tune’s profession dates back millennia writes Robyn Emerson.

It’s not often you meet someone who works at a profession that has been practised right across the globe, unchanged for thousands of years and whose products last for lifetimes, but Alistair Tune is such a person.

Alistair Tune says stone walling takes patience

He is one of the few people in Australia who still works creating and maintaining drystone walls in the volcanic plains and farming country of Western Victoria.

The areas around Camperdown where he was born and lives are part of a large volcanic plain, peppered with rocks and ideal for building the drystone walls. The only material used is the rocks themselves, without any form of mortar.

“The wall worked two fold – as a way of clearing the land, and as a way of enclosing the land. The material to build them cost nothing and labour was cheap” he says.

”If maintained, a wall will last many lifetimes as opposed to a post and wire fence. They have endured many bushfires and even proven to be a significant firebreak.”

Tune began helping a third generation stone waller in the Western District, Bill Harlock, build and repair walls for the local farmers after learning about the craft in bis horticulture course, and bis career grew from there.

“As a kid l jumped over walls, drove past them hundreds of times, but it wasn’t until I did the workshop with Bill and then worked with him that I began to realise the significance and the effort taken to construct them,” he says.

Camperdown and surrounds are part of Australia’s largest network of dry stone walls. It’s a proud tradition in the area as the walls are ideally suited to the local conditions and Tune is mindful of the history in what he does.

“Patience is the key, knowing there is a spot for every stone. There are a few important fundamentals that, no matter what scale of wall or structure, are critical to a well-built wall and are techniques that have remained unchanged for hundreds if not thousands of years,” he says.

Many think, as they drive past the walls enclosing the paddocks in the area that they were built by convicts, but this isn’t the case.

“The walls we see in this area are very similar to those of the UK, and many of the original walls were built by the Scottish, Irish and Cornish immigrants who to the area after the gold rush,” he says.

Tune now runs classes on the fundamentals of building drystone walls himself to pass on the tradition to others, and has a thriving business landscaping and repairing the walls.  

The happiness he finds in his profession and the carefully-built dry stone walls ensure bis work will last for generations.

“I often think whilst repairing a wall that may well be 130 years old, of the effort the builders went to. I gain a great sense of satisfaction and joy in repairing them, knowing I’m maintaining part of history.”

First published in The Age – click here to view