The Maltese ‘girna’ or corbelled stone hut, is perhaps the most primitive vernacular structure in the Maltese Islands. It is normally found in the Maltese countryside, and is basically a single room erected using undressed unplastered stones, with the aim of providing shelter for farmers and herdsmen and/or their livestock. The ‘girna’ is generally very small, having only one single plain room. Many ‘giren’ are even incorporated into rubble walls surrounding fields.
The ‘girnas’ ceiling is generally shaped like a dome, while the external wall is usually circular, though in rare cases it can also be square, rectangular or oval-shaped. The convex-shaped roof is covered with fragments of rotten rock, stone and sand. It usually has a single entrance facing East, in order to get as much sunlight as possible, and generally has no windows.
The stones used to build the ‘girna’ are usually local stones found in the vicinity of the field; loose coralline limestone rocks. ‘Giren’ are built without having any foundations, but are still quite solid as this solidity depends on the skilful laying of the stones. The ‘girnas’ style of architecture is known as corbelling (‘kileb’ in Maltese), in that the weight of the stones of the upper course rests on those of the lower ones, precluding any need for the use of plaster or any other kind of cementing agent. Corbelled stone-huts often have double walls whereby the space in between is usually filled with rubble and gravel, in order not to let any rain water seep on its inner side. Some ‘giren’ may even have stone steps leading up to the roof of the structure, in order to provide a vantage point to survey the land and crops.
The interior of the ‘girna’ is usually very spartan, comprising perhaps of a bench to sit on, niches for lamps, and at most, space for a small built-in shelf. Despite the total lack of sanitary facilities, some ‘giren’ have even been used for human habitation, whereby cooking was usually carried out in a separate hovel, or using a portable stove.
Establishing the origins of the Maltese ‘girna’ is not easy, however it is a fact that the ‘girna’ is not only typical of Malta, since it is also found in countries like Italy, Sardinia, Spain, Portugal, France, and even Ireland and the Hebrides. Only the corbelled stone-huts of Italy and Malta are flat-roofed, as the rest have conical roofs.
One must appreciate the need for these simple, yet also intricately-constructed shelters, in that farmers would not only use them as shady resting places during the hot scorching Maltese summer, but also as shelter for their livestock during the rainy season. They could also serve as a place of storage for crops, or else to dry certain kinds of fruit and vegetables before selling them at the market, like figs, tomatoes or carobs.
Although the ‘girna’ looks extremely plain, its beauty lies in the skill of its construction. Some of the largest circular ‘giren’ in Malta can be found between Mellieħa and Ċirkewwa, while the largest square ‘giren’ are found at the limits of Manikata.
Today, the ‘giren’ no longer have any practical use. Many of them have degenerated into mere rubble or simply caved in due to weather, erosion, or neglect. Yet, the ‘girna’ is definitely an important feature of the Maltese landscape, one which should be cherished and protected.