Friday, 11 December 2009

Stilts and Stiltsmen

There are few boys who have not attempted to walk on stilts, and fewer still who have felt comfortable when doing so. Stiltwalking is not very exciting as an amusement, except it be from the ever-present danger of falling; but if it were not for this fear of falling the walking would come easier, for astonishing as it may seem, it is nevertheless true that the longer the stilt the easier it is to use.

The ordinary stilt is a stick about five feet long, with a block of wood screwed to its side about a foot from the ground, This is the safest kind, and the most difficult to walk with; for as soon as the boy thinks he is about to fall, instead of bringing the other leg to support him as he would if he were walking, he simply jumps off.

Another kind has a leather strap fastened to the stick  in the form of a loop. This is not so safe as the former, and quite as difficult to manage unless the loop be much higher up; it is, as the tradesmen say, "not recommended."

The easiest stilt to walk with is that which has the block about a yard from the ground, and has the upper end attached to the leg below the knee, so that the stilt becomes the prolongation of the lower half of the leg. With a pair of stilts strapped on in this manner, and a long stick as a rest and balancing pole, it is astonishingly easy not only to keep one's balance, but to move along freely. However, we do not suppose that everyone will believe this, or have the pluck to try it, and as much of the skill in stilt-walking depends on individual aptitude, we must be content to leave the matter very much as it was - after duly cautioning our readers against the very dangerous loop system. And now for a few words on stilts in general.

It is a remarkable thing that stilts are peculiar to no clime or country. They are like the British dominions on which the sun does not set. Wherever there are low lands there seems to be stilts. Even in the centre of the Pacific Ocean, the South Sea islander, though guiltless of boots, has worn the stilt for ages.

One of the Marquesas is the small island of Santa Christina, which is flat, and in the rainy season marshy; and from her a collection of stilts has come which is in the British Museum. The footrests of these stilts are in the form of an idol wearing a mitred cap, and these hard wood carvings are lashed on to bamboo poles about six feet high and three inches thick. On these stilts in the rainy period the natives settle their differences, and a free fight is not unusual.

In some of the islands stilts are used for ceremonial purposes only, the idea being to make the people taller; in much the same way as ladies wear high heels to their shoes. This is a very old device, which we hear of on the Pacific coasts of Asia and America as well as in Italy and Greece. In China, Japan, and India, there have apparently been acrobats on stilts from time immemorial. But we nee not keep so far afield.

The Stilt Fight at Namur

At Namur in Belgium, owing to the periodical floods of the Sambre and Meuse turning the roads into marshes and streams, it has been for years the practice for people to go about either in boats or on stilts. And concerning this practice there is a story and an anniversary. It appears that in the days of the Archduke Albert, the Governor of Namur promised to send that great man a troop of men-at-arms who were neither on foot nor on horseback, and made good his word  by ordering up two companies of stiltsmen, who went through their drill so well that the delighted Archduke took off the town beer-tax, very much to the gratification of the aforesaid stiltsmen and their relatives. And in memory of this there is every year held in Namur a stilt-fight, in which two companies of men in mediaeval costume fight a more or less sham battle, their sisters and cousins and aunts acting as an ambulance brigade, and setting them up on their stilts whenever they topple over.

Namur is not the only place with a stilt anniversary. At Brive LA Gaillarde, the schoolboys have a holiday on which they go out into the country with stilts and long sticks and hunt for snakes, returning to terrify the women and children with their captures caught on the end of the sticks.

The Snake Hunters of Brive La Gaillarde

To walk from Paris to Moscow on stilts is rather an undertaking, and yet it was recently done in fifty-eight days by Sylvain Dornon, who left Paris on March 12 last. He was a Landais, and had gone about on stilts from babyhood, as many of his fellow countrymen still do, though not as many as fromerly. In the old days the markets at Bayonne and Bordeaux were frequented by peasants who came in on stilts from thirty and even sixty miles around, carrying their sacks and baskets of goods to sell; but now the peasant comes by rail and leaves his stilts at home for use in his daily work.

He calls them his "tchangues," or big legs, or rather big shanks. They are long sticks a yard and a half high, with a step for the feet, and near the top they are made flat so as to be strapped against the leg. At the other end by way of ferrule there is sheep-bone.

To get on these stilts he uses a step or a window-sill. When he has mounted them by the side of his hut his wife hands him up his wallet and gourd, which he slings on one of his shoulders; a gun is often handed up next, and that he slings on the other; then an old blue cotton umbrella is handed aloft and slung alongside the gun; and then to make the outfit complete there comes afrying-pan hung well at the back. His usual coat is of dirty white sheepskin, and if only his stilts were red he would look like a flamingo striding about, for although he takes very little steps with his legs he takes very long ones with his prolongations, and covers quite a couple of yards at every stride. Besides the stilts he carries with him a long stick which serves as a shepherd's crook, and, with a seat at the top, for something to sit on with a fair amount of security.

These Landais have, of course, taken to stilts not from choice, but because they could not help it. The ground is sandy and marshy, and the half-dry marshes are rich in herbage only in the summer, while the sand is dotted with furze bushes and thickets. Roads are unknown; and in this doubtful soil a man on stilts has an advantage; he cares not for thorn, he cares not for stone, he strides through thick marshes where ford there is none.

When a Landais on stilts is in a hurry he can move as fast as any man in Gascony. In 1808 the Empress Josephine went to meet Napoleon at Bayonne, and the Landais sent her an escort of stiltsmen who kept up alongside the carriage at a walk though the horses were at a trot; and when they ran they outstripped the whole cavalcade. Not only will a Landais run on the stilts, but he will dance on them, and even jump, but the athletics sports at the seaside towns are mostly in the hands of professionals, and these are - well, they are not always Landais.

"The shepherd," we read, "who have used stilts all their lives would feel like fish out of water if they were to follow their sheep on foot. Even in the wooded districts from which sheep have nearly disappeared, giving place to cattle, the herdsman is frequently mounted on stilts as he accompanies his roaming animals while they crop the undergrowth of the forest. Perhaps the brutes themselves would no longer respect him if they had not to look up to him!"

The Boy's Own Paper, Saturday, November 21, 1891.

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