Clutching at Straws

English | Documentary | 4m28s | 2012

Glasgow photography student Gemma Ovens approached our drama group to help her out on a photo shoot inspired by the tradition of straw guizers.

The guizer – dressed in straw and ribbons, with blinded face and disguised voice – was first mentioned in Samuel Hibbert’s, Description of The Shetland Islands in 1822, but even then the tradition was described as something which was dying out.

Any evidence of skekling is fragmentary, occurring only in visitor accounts and almost each one (found mainly in the mid-late 19th Century) states that the custom was only just clinging on. Here is one such visitor account from the 1850s, which describes the skeklers in their full glory!

“The kitchen was full of beings, whose appearance, being so unearthly, shook the gravity of my muscles and forced a cold sweat to ooze from every pore in my body…

…[they] stood like statues. One was far above the rest and of gigantic dimensions. eyes, mouth, or noses they had none, nor at least a trace of their countenance.

They kept up an incessant grunt — a noise partly resembling a swine or turkey cock. Their outer garments were as white as snow ans consisted of petticoats below and shirts on the outside with sleeves and collars. They were veiled and their headdresses or caps were about 18 inches in height and made of straw twisted and plaited. each cap terminated in three or four cones of a crescent shape. all pointing backwards and downwards with bunches of ribbons of every colour raying from the points of the cones.”

Once a common sight at Halloween and Christmas and New Year guizing, the skekler was also an honoured guest at the Shetland Wedding, where a group of characters – the ‘fragments’ tell us they had names such as Scudler, Gentleman, Fool & Judas – would enter the celebration and dance with the bride, blessing the union. Again, they were dressed in straw, with their faces and voices disguised.

[Words: Louise Scollay / KnitBritish Blog]

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