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Neil Rippingale

2010 Askins Achievement Award Recipient

"His ability to inspire, willingness to learn and passion for drystone deserves recognition.  His combinations of skills, gained from an agricultural background and worldwide experience makes him probably the most qualified drystone project manager in the US, possibly in the world."

I wish to propose Neil Rippingale, Training Program Manager with the Dry Stone Conservancy in Lexington, Kentucky for the 2010 Askins Achievement Award because of his personal achievements, contributions to training and enthusiasm in increasing the awareness of drystone technology. His career represents a progression in an ancient craft. A cumulative benefit to the craft, to many individuals and to many sites and organisations round the world.  

Neil comes from a family of farm servants with an outstanding work ethic.   He was top student in his class at agricultural college for three years running, 1976 – 78.   There would be no opportunity to own a farm; the family lacked the capital and the connections but while working on the farm he had the benefit of early exposure to drystone walling and the opportunity to be trained by one of the Scottish legends in the craft – Charlie Jardine. Neil joined the Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Britain (DSWA) in 1989 and within a year worked his way through their four-stage craftsman certification scheme and emerged as a Master Craftsman and qualified instructor. For a while Neil worked on the farm, with evenings at walling.  He learned the realities of being self employed - cash flow, estimation, office work, tax etc etc.  Soon he had the confidence to go full time and formed his own company. Neil trained and certified local drystone wallers while in the Edinburgh area, some became competitors but Neil accepted that and took every chance to expand his skills by moving on to special individual projects. 

In 1993 Neil and a small team built the first Blackhouse (a single storey drystone house with a thatched roof) since the 19th Century on the Isle of Harris in the Scottish Hebrides.   This was his first chance to work with a client who was also an engineer.  Neil’s practical input was essential to realise the engineer’s dream. Plans had to be followed and the design had to allow for modern safety standards.  The client and the builder worked well together to create a unique house, which won the first Dry Stone Walling Association Pinnacle Award.  The Pinnacle Award recognises projects incorporating   the very best of drystone craftsmanship, innovative use of design and inspirational use of stone.  Only the very best craftsmanship can win this award.

Neil’s reputation spread up and down the Scottish Islands, he was employed by the Agricultural Training Board to train drystone wallers in the widespread Scottish Hebridean islands.    Students found Neil an able and entertaining teacher, some started their own stone-based businesses as an important component of their income stream, in a place where life is hard and often has to be based on natural materials and sustainability. Neil took the opportunity to learn Scots Gaelic, he never had more than a few sentences but the islanders appreciated the effort. The DSWA had a series of walling competitions in the 1990’s – the DSWA Grand Prix Circuit.   Neil took part in these, won a few prizes, and learned a lot from the different stone types on the circuit and from fellow competitors.  His skills were recognised, and he was asked to judge some of the competitions.

In 1997 Neil and David Sinclair found themselves working for Andy Goldsworthy (the landscape artist) for 5 weeks at the Cirque de Soleil headquarters in Montreal Canada.  The installation was a 165 metre long curved wall which also served as seating.  The temperatures were sometimes low but the need for accuracy was always high.  There was no more than a 10mm drop in height over the full length.  The work demanded focus and commitment, 35 days at 14 hours per day.  The structure included 1282 hand cut copestones.

Neil returned to his business in Edinburgh but the next overseas opportunity was not long in coming  – Switzerland for a retaining wall.  Neil took the opportunity to introduce a training scheme and get 12 Swiss wallers through the first stage of the DSWA certification.  Some of the Swiss wallers later came to Scotland and advanced their certification while helping complete a local project, a new burial ground wall built with stone from ruined cottages.

A young Australian introduced Neil to a project near Melbourne, Australia.  He designed and built what is now the tallest drystone structure in Australia - 150 metres long and 6 metres high.  Typically Neil shared his skills and trained local wallers who are still building structures on the site.  The client knew what he wanted, - ‘’an architectural statement’’, but Neil had to provide the drystone experience and prove to the local planners and engineers that drystone could be built to such a scale. Drystone wallers may have a unique way of looking at the world. On the way to Australia Neil was asked to look at a site in Bali, Indonesia. He dismissed this island paradise as unsuitable for a drystone walling because the stone was no good, it was friable lava, which had to be mortared.

The next venture abroad was to Nova Scotia, Canada, where Neil, partnered by David Goulder, built a wall designed by an architect in Bristol, England.  This gave the team experience in dealing with constant specification changes by a firm of architects working in a different time zone. In February / March 2001 I worked with Neil on the first Scottish style drystone wall near Seattle, Washington.  The locals were intrigued by this unusual style of construction and even more amazed when the wall survived a substantial earth tremor.  It was quite a sight to watch the earth ripple, the wall moved up and down and settled without dislodging a single stone. We were building a property boundary but Neil’s approachable manner helped make the wall a meeting place for locals to learn more about an unusual construction method they had never seen before.  The wall was not dividing properties, it brought people together.

Luck has been described as preparedness meeting opportunity. Neil’s career and his contribution to drystone walling blossomed in 2001 when he was asked to assist the Dry Stone Conservancy of Lexington Kentucky with a consultation on the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal in Washington DC.  Neil joined the staff of the Dry Stone Conservancy (DSC) to assist in the furtherance of their mission to preserve, revive and promote the use of drystone in Kentucky.   Many of the limestone walls of Kentucky were originally built by Scots and Irish in the 19th Century.  It is therefore fitting that a Scot should help DSC achieve its mission. Neil is employed as Training Program Manager with DSC.  He has helped develop a series of workshops, which are continually improving and diversifying - based on the students’ comments on an end-of-workshop questionnaire.  Specialised workshops can be arranged for any employer or agency with drystone on their property.  The latest development is simulcast training, whereby cameras and satellite technology link a tutor and students, often miles apart. Hundreds of people, in half the states in the US, have been trained by Neil and his team.  Most will not go for certification but will remember Neil’s laminated list of four basic principles and five golden rules for drystone building. 

One very important aspect of Neil’s job was to help develop the DSC’s Certification Scheme, a graded progression from Basic Mason to Master Craftsman.  This was initially based on the DSWA scheme but was adapted to suite the needs of the Kentucky walling styles and the need to produce skilled masons who could run their own businesses.  Kentucky now has 3 Master Craftsmen, 4 Journeyman Masons and has passed around 50 drystone masons at the basic level.  They come from as far away as Oregon and Estonia in Europe. Through Neil’s connections with the DSWA he managed to get 8 masons certified as instructors.  DSC is now self sufficient in a variety of skills from training to consultancy and able to fully justify its place as a one-stop source for drystone walling in the US.The National Park Service and other agencies, including the Kentucky Heritage Council, have acknowledged the importance of the skill of Neil and his team in restoring and preserving some of America’s most treasured places.  Some of these were Civil War battlefield sites where it was important to replicate the old styles of walling to preserve the historic accuracy. DSC projects have varied from reconstruction of culverts, bridge abutments and house foundations to tricky retaining walls in very confined sites. Neil’s skill with machinery and an ability to think on his feet and use initiative is most useful when presented with awkward sites, difficult access situations or safety issues. This contributes to the efficiency of the projects, keeps costs down and quality high. Neil is part of the DSC team who have been consulted on many drystone restoration projects.  Neil provided the practical skill and understanding of an ancient craft, which could have been dismissed by the modern engineer.  His enthusiasm and ‘can-do’ attitude have inspired many engineers and planners. Another important aspect of the DSC work is projects which combine training with local improvements or repairs, thus preserving the built heritage and providing skill training. Neil started the annual DSC walling competition in 2004.  It helped bring drystone to the attention of the public and no doubt helped influence the recent state legislation to protect the iconic walls in Kentucky. Neil is a familiar face at demonstrations of the craft at many locations, including PTN events.  His management of the DSC sponsored drystone bridge at St Clairsville, Ohio, in 2005 was a highlight of the event.

His ability to inspire, willingness to learn and passion for drystone deserves recognition.  His combinations of skills, gained from an agricultural background and worldwide experience makes him probably the most qualified drystone project manager in the US, possibly in the world.

Nomination statement by Nick Aitken, Woodbine, 127 High Street, Kingussie, Inverness-shire, Scotland

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