Shepherds on the vast flat plains of Les Landes, south of Bordeaux, used stilts to herd their sheep. The stilts meant they could move at the speed of a trotting horse across the 4,000 square miles of swampy, trackless moor and also added three feet to their height - helping them to see much further. The stilts were known in the Gascon dialect as tchangues (‘big legs’). The shepherds survived into the 20th century, but the draining of the swamp, and the planting of the largest pine forest in Europe from the mid-19th century onwards, meant their numbers dwindled rapidly. Now stilts survive in Les Landes purely as a tourist attraction, with spectacular traditional stilt dances on offer.
The key to the Les Landes stilts was that they were bound to the thigh with leather thongs, which meant the user’s hands were kept free. Carrying a stick created a tripod, which allowed them to rest without falling over. It wasn’t only shepherds who wore them: postmen used them to deliver letters until the 1930s, and there are prints of stilt-wearing bullfighters. One account describes the black clad Landese housewives gossiping and knitting at a market on top of their stilts looking like ‘a group of ravens perched on dead trees’. In 1891, a local baker, Sylvain Dornon became internationally famous when he walked on stilts from his village in Les Landes to Paris, climbed the Eiffel Tower in them and then walked the 1,830 miles to Moscow in 58 days.
No one knows where the Les Landes stilts originated (the earliest records are from the 18th century) but there is a folk tradition that merchants introduced them from Flanders, where they had been used to cross swamps from the early Middle Ages. Stilts are first recorded in Ancient China in 300 bc, but appear in traditional cultures across the world from the Pacific Islands and Mexico to Trinidad and Tanzania.
Zoologists at the University of Zurich took two groups of ants, cut the legs of one group short and glued boar bristles to the legs of the other, so that they were effectively walking on stilts. They were attempting to prove that ants judge distance by remembering the number of steps they take between locations.
The ants were first trained to find a source of food 33 feet (10m) from the nest. Once they had got used to travelling between the food source and the nest, they were released in a different location and set off for home. The stilt-walkers duly overshot their destination, while the amputees stopped short. Oddly, when the ants left the nest to go back to the food source, none of them had any difficulty finding it, regardless of how long their new legs were.
The idea that ants count their own steps had been proposed more than a century before, but never been tested until Matthias Wittlinger, a student in Wolf's lab, idly clipped the lower leg segments off some Sahara ants one evening. In the wild, these segments often break off naturally, without affecting the ants' ability to walk long distances.
In 1859, daredevil Charles Blondin walked across Niagara Falls on stilts.
Namur, Belgium has an annual stilt jousting tournament called the Golden Stilt - a tradition which goes back 600 years.
Hop farmers, fruit pickers, window cleaners and builders sometimes use stilts rather than a ladder.
One of P. T. Barnum’s most famous acts was Signor Vivalla, who could hop on one stilt whilst hitting a target with a musket.
The record for the longest stilt walk goes to Joe Bowen, who walked 3008 miles from LA to Kentucky in 1980.
Ambition is but avarice on stilts, and masked.