Stiltwalking Bagpipers


I’m not sure where I found the following image but thought readers might be interested in it. I am pretty certain it is a Belgian trade card (for starch) dating around 1890. Depicted is a bagpiping shepherd from the Landes region of Gascony; although why he should be associated with selling starch is unclear. Presumably the pipes are meant to represent a boha, the traditional cornemuse landaise.

Today the Landes largely consists of

planted forest but originally was a vast infertile

expanse of sand and scrub. It was sometimes

referred to as the “French Sahara” although it

tended to turn into a huge marsh during periods

of rain. The shepherds who worked this

inhospitable area famously used stilts to get

around: partly as a means of keeping their feet

dry in the marshes but mainly to be able to better

observe their herds far across the featureless

plain. Graham Robb in his highly-recommended social history of 19th century France, The Discovery of France (2007), describes how they were able to achieve an impressive

walking speed of 8 mph upon these stilts. The shepherds also carried another pole which they used as a kind of shooting stick as seen in the following detail of another bagpiping shepherd taken from an old postcard.

These pictures brought to mind Jon

Swayne’s reminiscences in the second Blowzabella tune book of the early years of the group where he describes them also playing on stilts at various summer fairs. The following photograph showing them playing at the 1980 Rougham Tree Fair is taken from Richard Barnes’ book Sun in the East: Norfolk and Suffolk Fairs (1982).

Perhaps “Bagpipe playing whilst stilt walking” with Jon as judge would prove an interesting competition for next year’s Blowout.

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