Popular Science Monthly/Volume 40/February 1892/Stilts and Stilt-Walking

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SYLVAIN DORNON, a stilt-walker of the Landes, left Paris on the 12th of March, 1891, for Moscow, and reached the end of his journey after fifty-eight days of walking. This long walk on stilts was a subject of wonder, not to the Russians only, to whom this method of locomotion was unknown, but to Dornon's own countrymen as well.

Walking on stilts, which was common some twenty years ago in certain parts of France, is gradually going out of use. In the Landes of Gascony it was formerly a means of locomotion well suited to the nature of the country. The Landes were large continuous plains, covered with scrub bushes and scanty heaths; and, in consequence of the impermeability of the subsoil, all the hollows were transformed after a light rain into marshes. There was no road or path. The population, of sheep-farmers, was greatly scattered. The shepherds evidently conceived and adopted stilts in order to be able to move about under these peculiar conditions. The stilts of the Landes are called there tchangues, a word in the patois of the country meaning long legs, and the persons who use them are called tchangués, or long-legged. They are long sticks, which have at the mean height of about five feet from the ground a stirrup to support the foot. The upper part of the stick is shaved flat and supported against the leg, where it is held in place by a strong strap. The lower part, which stands on the ground, is expanded, and is sometimes re-enforced by a sheep-bone. The stiltsman is assisted by a third stick, which serves him for a variety of uses. It supports him in mounting his stilts, and can be used for a crook in driving his sheep; or, with the addition of a piece of board, it forms a comfortable seat fitted to the height of the stilts. Resting after this fashion, the stiltsman appears as if seated on a gigantic tripod. When he stops, he knits or spins on the distaff which he carries in his belt.

His usual costume is made up of a kind of sleeveless vest of sheepskin, linen gaiters, and a drugget cloak. On his head he wears a béret or a large hat. This outfit was formerly supplemented with a gun for defending the sheep against wolves, and a frying-pan in which to prepare dinner.[1]

The appearance of the Landais peasants is extremely picturesque, but their life is miserable; they are generally puny and thin, badly fed, and often threatened by fever. Mounted on their stilts, they lead their sheep across the Landes, going over the bushes and herbs, the little ponds, and safely crossing the marshes, without having to look for roads or beaten paths. This elevation, moreover, permits them easily to overlook their sheep, which are often dispersed over a considerable surface. To put on his stilts in the morning, the shepherd sits on the window-sill or climbs upon the chimney-piece; and even when he is in the open field he can attach them while sitting on the ground, and then rise with the assistance of his third stick.

Locomotion on stilts is evidently calculated to suggest peril to persons who are accustomed to walking only on the feet. We estimate the possible danger of a fall from the height of these implements from our experiences of ordinary pedestrians' falls; but the Landais, habituated from infancy to this sort of exercise, acquire extraordinary ease and skill in it. The tchangué is perfectly able to preserve his equilibrium; he marches with long strides, halts in a standing position, runs with agility, or executes an occasional acrobatic turn, picking up a stone from the ground, plucking a flower, pretending to fall and rise quickly, or running in a lock-step, etc.

The speed attained by stiltsmen is easily explained, when we regard the superior length of the stride which they can make without enlarging the angle of separation of the legs.

When the Empress Josephine went to meet Napoleon at Bayonne in 1808, the municipality sent a company of young Landais stiltsmen to escort her. Turning back, they very easily kept up with her carriages, although the horses trotted rapidly. During her sojourn at Bayonne, the shepherds on their stilts gave much amusement to the ladies of the court. They ran races, threw money on the ground and all tried to pick it up at once, and performed many exercises of cunning and skill, accompanied with frequent falls. Until very recently hardly any festivals took place in the villages of Gascony without stilt-races. The prizes usually consisted of a gun, a sheep, a rooster, or something of the kind; and young women sometimes took part in the exercises. Some of the municipalities near Bayonne and Biarritz still organize

PSM V40 D487 Landais stilt walker.jpg
Fig. 1.—Sylvain Dornon, Landais Stilt-walker. (From a photograph by M. Bacour, of Arcachon.)

stilt-races, at the seasons when travel to them is greatest; but it is said that the stiltsmen who perform at such times are not real Landais shepherds, but are casuals picked up as they may be found, most frequently from among professional acrobats.

Besides attaining considerable speed, the Landais stiltsmen are able to run long distances without appreciable fatigue. Formerly, on market days at Bordeaux, long lines of peasants could be seen arriving on stilts, who, though encumbered with sacks and baskets, had come from villages ten, fifteen, or twenty leagues and farther away. Now, the sight of a man on stilts is almost as great a curiosity in Bordeaux as in Paris. The peasant of the Landes comes to the city in a wagon or by railroad.

Stilts are of common use in the Belgian city of Namur, a town which formerly suffered from the periodical overflows of the Sambre and the Meuse. The streets were at such times converted into streams or ponds, and the inhabitants could communicate with one another only by means of boats or on stilts. This condition has been remedied by suitable public works, but the taste for stilt-races and for the organization of societies of stiltsmen has lasted till the present time.

It is said that the stiltsmen of Namur once procured a valuable privilege for their city. The governor had promised the Archduke Albert to send a band of warriors to meet him who should not be on foot or on horseback. He fulfilled his promise with the assistance of two companies of stiltsmen, who performed their evolutions in the archduke's presence. He was so pleased with the spectacle that he gave a perpetual exemption to the city of Namur from the beer-tax. The gratitude of the people toward their stiltsmen, and the esteem in which sports with stilts are held by the youth of Namur, are easily comprehended.

Travelers have seen stilts in ordinary use by natives of several islands of the ocean, especially in Santa Christina of the Marquesas. Here, as in other places, the usage is in consequence of a climatic peculiarity. During the rainy season the lower parts of the island, the surface of which presents few inequalities, are full of marshes, and stilts have been employed from time immemorial as a means of communication over them. It is worthy of remark that the stilts of savage peoples are vastly more ingenious and elegant than those of the Landais shepherds. Marquesan stilts may be seen at the Ethnographic Museum of the Trocadéro and the Marine Museum in the Louvre adorned with really artistic designs and curious sculptures, mostly made with the aid of fire.

Independently of the considerations of facility of communication which have made the use of stilts necessary in some countries, the thought of mounting sticks of greater or less height, in order to appear larger or to excite the curiosity of spectators, seems to have occurred at all times and in all countries. In numerous masquerades artificial giants may be seen—persons who, having thus mounted stilts, excite the admiration of the people. They are a feature of the Italian masquerades. Gigan and his wife are one of the attractions of the carnivals of Lille and Dunkirk. In various places we may see Gargantuas, Goliaths, or Saint Georges and Saint Michaels. From the acrobatic point of view, walking on stilts gives occasion for feats of agility easy to execute and amusing to the spectator. Acrobats on stilts have been mentioned in Japan, China, India, and Oceania; and clowns are sometimes seen in circuses executing curious exercises on stilts.

The use of stilts is a sport, an amusement for children. Real stilt-races may be seen every day in public gardens. The peasant youth in the country are adepts in making excellent stilts of forked sticks which they cut in the thickets.

I have been told by a friend that the college students at Brive-la-Gaillarde formerly had a peculiar sport of going on holidays on stilts to what they called viper-hunts. They armed themselves

PSM V40 D489 Collegians of brive la gaillarde return from a viper hunt on stilts.jpg
Fig. 2.—Collegians of Brive-la-Gaillarde returning from a Viper-hunt on Stilts.

with a long rod split at the end, and went on stilts, of course, as a precaution against being bitten. When, in the evening, they passed through the city, still on stilts, each carrying at the end of his rod an adder or two which they called asps or black vipers, they excited a sensation. Women and children ran away from them or fled into the houses to get away from their tricks.

It seems to be a great pleasure to men on stilts to try to throw one another down. Every young stiltsman is ready to attack, to push, or to trip his colleagues. In the public gardens of Paris, in the Luxembourg, for example, where many youth amuse themselves with stilts, wrestling and contests became so frequent that once after an accident the authorities were constrained to prohibit them. These games on stilts seem to be attractive also to the children of the Marquesas Islands. Pêre Mathias, in his account of his voyage to those islands in 1745, remarks that the game on stilts holds the first rank among the pleasures of the Kanakas. On their stilts, he says, which raise them three or four feet above the ground, they give themselves up to combats, and great is the laughter that greets the fall of the awkward. These contests are traditional at Namur, and constitute a kind of national tournament. The contestants form two parties. Each camp is composed of seven or eight hundred combatants, with a captain, officers, a banner, and a cockade. The stiltsmen come into the grand square, announced by martial music. Each party occupies its side of the place, waiting for the signal for opening. The bells sound at every attack, flags fly from the windows, and a crowd of spectators and friends attend to witness the sport. At the giving of the signal the camps engage in the attack. At the first meeting a large number of the contestants fall heavily to the ground and lie there without being able to rise, exposed to being

PSM V40 D490 Ancient contests of stiltsmen at namur.jpg
Fig. 3.—Ancient Contests of Stiltsmen at Namur.

trodden upon unless some of the friends who accompany them—wife, mother, or sister—come to their assistance, and lift them up with considerable effort and often after unsuccessful attempts. The contestant, set upon his stilts again, precipitates himself anew into the fight, unless he has been hurt too badly by his first fall. It is not necessary to add that these sports are often dangerous.

The stiltsmen of Namur who gave representations before Charles V, Peter the Great, and Bonaparte, preserve piously in their archives and repeat with pride the saying of Marshal Saxe, that "if two armies should clash together with as much energy as the youth of Namur, the affair would not be a battle, but a butchery."

Stilts are no longer in use as a practical means of locomotion. In France the Landes of Gascony have been drained and reclaimed, and are penetrated by roads and coursed by railways. The Landais tchangués are gradually disappearing, and soon, probably, their memory will exist only among the octogenarians of the province, or as preserved in the collections of popular traditions.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from La Nature.


  1. A representation from Nature, of a shepherd of the Landes on his stilts, can be seen in the hall of the Provinces of France, at the Ethnological Museum of the Trocadero.