If you’ve ever been to the circus or a street parade, you will have seen someone walking along high above the crowd on a pair of stilts. To the average person, stilt-walking is the mainstay of theatrical performers, clowns and jugglers and used to great effect in fantasy film and stage productions.
However, stilts (originally wooden) have been used in many industries for many hundreds of years, from ancient shepherding to wall painting, fruit-picking and hedge-trimming to modern construction.
Several websites have histories of the original stilt-walkers, but in the old days if you found yourself living in a flood plain, beside the beach, in marshland or some other area where the ground was less than steadfast, it was a great way to keep safe.
Raised above it all, striding through the landscape with a birds’ eye view, it’s easy to see how they became part of certain countries folklore and historical identity.
I remember as a child, turning round to see the silk-clad legs of a stilt-walker and being quite amazed as I slowly raised my eyes to the performer, a real person no less, teetering high above me.
- Apparently ‘Walk on Stilts Day’ is celebrated on 27 July every year
- In 2008 Roy Maloy of Australia took five steps on stilts 17m (56ft) high
- In 1891 Sylvain Dornon stilt-walked from Paris to Moscow in 58 days
- The Golden Stilt is the highest honour in the ancient sport of stilt-jousting
- European stilt-walking festivals are held in Spain, Netherlands and Belgium
- Canadian ‘Cirque du Soleil’ feature a dazzling array of stilt-walkers
- Moko Jumbie is spirit healer stilt-dancing from West Indies
- A centuries-old tradition, Chinese stilt-walkers bring good luck
- Modern stilt performances by gorgeous Leonie Deavin troupe
- Stilts can be ordered online – go for it!
Stilt-walking is corporate business now, far, far removed from those sodden sheep in the marshes, guarded by a lone farmer on stilts with only his trusty sheep dog and knitting to keep him company. Knitting was not gender specific in olden times; hardy men perched atop a pair of wooden stilts could knit a woolly vest while keeping a wary eye out for hungry wolves.
So forget those hole-punched tin cans and pieces of string you manoeuvred to clump up and down the driveway like a robot, stilts have entered the 21st century.
♥ Gretchen Bernet-Ward
More information and fascinating photographs: