Beware – you might be about to be skekled as the dance troupe heads north


If you live in the north, look outside, there are skeklers.


How to tell if you’re skekled is if a group of characters jump in front of you, covered in straw, and entertain you with swirling dance and music.

Straw Boys dancer Tess Letham. Costume design by Alison Brown. Provided by Amy Sinead Photography

These ‘Straw Boys’ (and Girls) will appear in unexpected locations in Caithness, Aberdeenshire, Orkney and Shetland for the rest of this month, accompanied by Balkan-inspired beats.

The troupe is led by dance artist Rob Heaslip and ‘The Straw Boys’ is the second in his trilogy exploring the rituals of death, life and birth among the Gaels of Scotland and Ireland.

It takes up the ancient tradition of mummers, burdie boys in the Borders, blankets and skeklers, where groups dressed in ornate straw costumes roamed town and country to entertain spectators.

Rob grew up in Kerry, where the tradition of “cave boys” never died out completely.

Their day was Boxing Day, or St Stephen’s Day and refers to the legend of the wren betraying Stephen, the first Christian martyr.

Rob said, “This is all about pageantry and joy on one of the darkest days of the year.

“Being very poor, they couldn’t afford to buy fabric to make costumes, so they used barley straw to make high hats, with rags to decorate.

“For the music, they would take something like an old cookie tin, tie it around their necks, and pull a stick out of the way to beat it.”

Rob Heaslip’s Straw Boys with dancers (left to right) Jack Anderson and Tess Letham. Costume design by Alison Brown. Provided by Amy Sinead Photography

The Straw Boys will appear in Caithness over the next week before moving to Aberdeenshire.

Locations can be found in Rob’s social networks.

He said: “After 18 long and miserable months, I want to bring joy directly to people, they don’t have to go to buildings and places, it will come to them in fields, beaches, ports and make them smile. “


Having once thrived in Scotland and Ireland, the tradition is now enjoying a resurgence of interest, particularly in Ireland and Shetland.

Skekling is strictly speaking the term Shetland for its traditional form of guising or mummification.

During the long winter months, the skeklers dressed in finely chiseled straw headdresses, completely concealing their faces, and went from house to house entertaining themselves with skits and musical numbers in exchange for food, drink and drink. money.

The ski season was the first Sunday after October 14, the onset of winter in the islands.

It continued until January 24, a date now marked by the Up Helly Aa fire festival in Lerwick.

Roots in Nordic culture

The tradition has its roots in Nordic culture and shares common themes in Iceland, the Faroe Islands and Norway.

To go further, the word “skekling” was used in the islands of Yell and Fetlar, but in the island of Unst, they were called “Grøleks” or “geng en Grøleks”, which is widely considered to be derived from the Icelandic Christmas Troll “Grýla” and “Grýlur” from the Faroe Islands.

You have refused entry to the Skeklers at your peril, misfortune may come your way.

Some viewed their visit as a visit from the Norse god Odin himself, so to hijack a skekler would be to hijack the god.

Allowing them to enter would be rewarded with the good fortune of the land or sea from which the islanders drew their livelihood.

To conceal their identity, the skeklers spoke while breathing.

Now a Shetland artist known as Skekkler, by adding the extra k to differentiate, is causing a revival of the ancient tradition.

This linocut shows a Halloween Neepie lantern skekler. Provided by the Skekkler

Skekkler works anonymously, so he is referred to here as “they”.

They said: “Much of Shetland history was spoken knowledge, and very few skekling recordings exist to my knowledge, although there is an account by Arthur Edmonston in 1809 in his book ‘A View of the Ancient and Present State of the Zetland Islands.’

“My understanding is that skekling was just an activity undertaken as a way of life, no one thought about its cultural or historical significance at the time.”

Nothing to do with the costume

Skekkler went on to describe the routine of the skeklers, stating firmly that it had nothing to do with the Scottish tradition of guising.

“They wore oat straw costumes with ornate hats decorated with ribbons and wore a cloth to cover their faces in order to conceal their identity.

“The Shetlanders lived off the land and had few resources, so I imagine these costumes would belong to families and eventually passed down – although I don’t have any evidence to back it up, it is only ‘a commentary from a Shetlander on their Shetland history. “

If you’re one of those people who close the curtains and turn off the lights to avoid disguises, there was no escaping the skekels in Shetland.

“They were led by a senior ‘skekler’ known as ‘skudler’ who led a group of skeklers through the local neighborhood, visiting each and every house, a term known as ‘hoosamylla’.

“They would gather around the fire, usually in the middle of the house, and perform skits, featuring supernatural beings, banging their wooden sticks on the ground – part of the custom was never to reveal your identity.

Supernatural presence

“When speaking, the skeklers always spoke while breathing – all of these non-human characteristics heightened their supernatural presence.

“Some skeklers had musical instruments with them and would entertain the house with their tunes and their craziness.

“A visit from the skeklers was considered auspicious; a blessing – and they would be welcomed into the house and kindly received, performing skits and musical numbers in exchange for: “a meal, a penny of silver or a piece of flesh” (oats, money or meat) that would be deposited in the ‘buggi’ sheepskin bag goes around the room.

“It is believed that children between the ages of 8 and 15 would most likely participate in the tradition.

“It was also common practice for skeklers to make an appearance at a local wedding – but it may have been an adaptation of the original practice.”

Linocut from the anonymous ‘Skekkler’ of Shetland, showing a Christmas skekler. Provided by the Skekkler

Skekkler discovered a skekler account in Gossabrough on Yell:

“Before the war they used straw for the whole costume, but of course during and after the war we needed straw for food. straw hats. We would go from house to house and one of us would sneak up and go to the village hall, turn on the kettle, then the whole village would get together with the skeklers and make it a night.

The anonymous Skekkler created their practice during confinement, aware of the place of skekling in creating a strong community bond.

They said: “It was a way to provide a spark of curiosity, joy and insolence to the community.

“It’s a light pleasure to skekle and be skekled.”

Skekkler has now created a linocut series to celebrate tradition.

Their plan is to collect so much information about the tradition and preserve it through their own practice.

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