The Stilt Walkers

In 1891 Sylvain Dornon, a Frenchman, walked from Paris to Moscow in 58 days. This would have been an epic achievement under any circumstances, considering the poor roads of the time, but what is amazing is that Mr. Dornon (pictured to the right) did it while walking on stilts. It is unclear why, especially since the Guiness Book of World Records had not yet been invented, but judging from his picture he seems to have been quite proud of his achievement.

Shepherds on Stilts

Mr. Dornon's stilt walking achievement was written about in the Scientific American Supplement, No. 821, Sep. 26, 1891 which had some fascinating background on Mr. Dornon's achievement. According to the Scientific American, the Mr. Dornon was from a region of France called Landes, which was desribed as an extremely poor region inhabited mostly by shepherds. The roads were non-existent and the ground was marshy and uneven, so the people of Landes developed a unique mode of transportation to allow them to get over the rough ground: they walked on stilts everywhere! Apparently this system of locomotion was so effective that men on stilts could keep up with horses at full trot.

Postman on Stilts

Much has obviously changed in Landes, and the people no longer go around on stilts - but it is fascinating to visualize a community where everyone was always elevated from the ground. What effect did their walking on stilts have on how they interacted, the architecture of their houses, the way they viewed their surroundings. The changes that over a hundred years of progress have brought to France and this previously impoverished region have erased this unique way of life.

Here is the article from the Scientific American which gives more background on this unique stilt walking culture:

Sylvain Dornon, the stilt walker of Landes, started from Paris on the 12th of last March for Moscow, and reached the end of his journey at the end of a fifty-eight days' walk. This long journey upon stilts constitutes a genuine curiosity, not only to the Russians, to whom this sort of locomotion is unknown, but also to many Frenchmen.

Stilt Walkers
The Stilt Walkers

Walking on stilts, in fact, which was common twenty years ago in certain parts of France, is gradually tending to become a thing of the past. In the wastes of Gascony it was formerly a means of locomotion adapted to the nature of the country. The waste lands were then great level plains covered with stunted bushes and dry heath. Moreover, on account of the permeability of the subsoil, all the declivities were transformed into marshes after the slightest fall of rain.

There were no roads of any kind, and the population, relying upon sheep raising for a living, was much scattered. It was evidently in order to be able to move around under these very peculiar conditions that the shepherds devised and adopted stilts. The stilts of Landes are called, in the language of the country, tchangues, which signifies "big legs," and those who use them are called tchangučs. The stilts are pieces of wood about five feet in length, provided with a shoulder and strap to support the foot. The upper part of the wood is flattened and rests against the leg, where it is held by a strong strap. The lower part, that which rests upon the earth, is enlarged and is sometimes strengthened with a sheep's bone. The Landese shepherd is provided with a staff which he uses for numerous purposes, such as a point of support for getting on to the stilts and as a crook for directing his flocks. Again, being provided with a board, the staff constitutes a comfortable seat adapted to the height of the stilts. Resting in this manner, the shepherd seems to be upon a gigantic tripod. When he stops he knits or he spins with the distaff thrust in his girdle. His usual costume consists of a sort of jacket without sleeves, made of sheep skin, of canvas gaiters, and of a drugget cloak. His head gear consists of a beret or a large hat. This accouterment was formerly completed by a gun to defend the flock against wolves, and a stove for preparing meals.

The aspect of the Landeses is doubtless most picturesque, but their poverty is extreme. They are generally spare and sickly, they are poorly fed and are preyed upon by fever. Mounted on their stilts, the shepherds of Landes drive their flocks across the wastes, going through bushes, brush and pools of water, and traversing marshes with safety, without having to seek roads or beaten footpaths. Moreover, this elevation permits them to easily watch their sheep, which are often scattered over a wide surface. In the morning the shepherd, in order to get on his stilts, mounts by a ladder or seats himself upon the sill of a window, or else climbs upon the mantel of a large chimney. Even in a flat country, being seated upon the ground, and having fixed his stilts, he easily rises with the aid of his staff. To persons accustomed to walking on foot, it is evident that locomotion upon stilts would be somewhat appalling.

One may judge by what results from the fall of a pedestrian what danger may result from a fall from a pair of stilts. But the shepherds of Landes, accustomed from their childhood to this sort of exercise, acquire an extraordinary freedom and skill therein. The tchanguč knows very well how to preserve his equilibrium; he walks with great strides, stands upright, runs with agility, or executes a few feats of true acrobatism, such as picking up a pebble from the ground, plucking a flower, simulating a fall and quickly rising, running on one foot, etc.

Landes Stilt Walkers

The speed that the stilt walkers attain is easily explained. Although the angle of the legs at every step is less than that of ordinary walking with the feet on the ground, the sides prolonged by the stilts are five or six feet apart at the base. It will be seen that with steps of such a length, distances must be rapidly covered.

When, in 1808, the Empress Josephine went to Bayonne to rejoin Napoleon I, who resided there by reason of the affairs of Spain, the municipality sent an escort of young Landese stilt walkers to meet her. On the return, these followed the carriages with the greatest facility, although the horses went at a full trot.

During the stay of the empress, the shepherds, mounted upon their stilts, much amused the ladies of the court, who took delight in making them race, or in throwing money upon the ground and seeing several of them go for it at once, the result being a scramble and a skillful and cunning onset, often accompanied with falls.

Up to recent years scarcely any merry-makings occurred in the villages of Gascony that were not accompanied with stilt races. The prizes usually consisted of a gun, a sheep, a cock, etc. The young people vied with each other in speed and agility, and plucky young girls often took part in the contests.

Some of the municipalities of the environs of Bayonne and Biarritz still organize stilt races, at the period of the influx of travelers; but the latter claim that the stiltsmen thus presented are not genuine Landese shepherds, but simple supernumeraries recruited at hazard, and in most cases from among strolling acrobats. The stilt walkers of Landes not only attain a great speed, but are capable of traveling long distances without appreciable fatigue.

Formerly, on the market days at Bayonne and Bordeaux, long files of peasants were seen coming in on stilts, and, although they were loaded with bags and baskets, they came from the villages situated at 10, 15, or 20 leagues distance. To-day the sight of a stilt walker is a curiosity almost as great at Bordeaux as at Paris. The peasant of Landes now comes to the city in a wagon or even by railway.

-- from Scientific American Supplement, No. 821, Sep. 26, 1891

More links about the stilt walkers of Landes:

Stilt Walkers

Walking on Stilts

Stilt Walkers

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