Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Skeklers Hats

Lerwick Up Helly Aa 2012

Guizing is an important part of cultural life in the Shetland Islands. Nowadays it happens at Halloween, Newerday (New Year) and most famously at Lerwick Up Helly Aa on the 31st January. In the past it also featured as part of wedding festivities.

'Guizing' is the Shetland verb for the art of disguising yourself in 'fancy dress' which now can be anything from 'Teletubbies' to Elvis impersonators.  Traditionally an activity for adult males and children of both sexes, it is now acceptable for women to participate in local guizing events. Lerwick Up Helly Aa, however, still remains the preserve of males.

 In the Northern parts of the Shetland Islands i.e North Mainland, Yell, Unst and Fetlar once dressed in your guizing outfit you became a “skekler”.  These slightly devilish creatures had licence on these special occasions to visit peoples homes and to say and do things that may or may not have been acceptable without the disguise. It is not hard to imagine that in some of these small and self contained communities, sometimes ruled with an iron hand by the landowners, it acted as an important  safety valve allowing resentments and frustrations to be expressed without reprisal. In some ways it appears to still perform the same role as at the halls at the winter fire festivities  guizers perform comic acts that poke fun at people who, in some way or another, might have offended or amused the community. There is no hiding place for the victims they just have to accept their critique, in the knowledge that they have an equal right to do the same to others.

Before the arrival of new materials and a money based culture, the skeklers costume comprised   a pointed hat decorated with ribbons, a cloak, skirt and leggings all of which were made out of oat straw.  Terry Gunnel, Professor in Folkloristics at the University of Iceland, is an expert on the guising traditions of this part of the world and  notes in his paper  "Grýla, Grýlur, "Grøleks" and Skeklers: Medieval Disguise Traditions in the North Atlantic?"Arv: Nordic Yearbook of Folklore, 57 (2001), 33-54. the last practical recorded complete skeklers outfit as having been seen on Fetlar in 1958. Consequently, for the opening of the the new Shetland Museum in 2007 Euan Balfour was  commissioned to recreate a skeklers  outfit based on information in photos and recordings in the archives as by then only two  skeklers hats were known to still exist in the islands.
Euan Balfours re-creation of a skeklers outfit in the Shetland Museum
One of these two hats was made by my great uncle Andrew Anderson for his daughter. Its a fine example decorated somewhat quirkily with neck ties! 
Skeklers hat made by Andrew Anderson.

So in a bid to revive the tradition and to help me understand the processes involved I decided to make one this year for the male in the house to wear out guizing in North a Voe. I had oat straw given to me by Hazel Gray who is one of the few to grow it now and I decided to use rope found on the beach for the weaving and plastic bags for the ribbons. Without the original in front of me I worked from memory and consequently had to redo a few bits but on the whole it worked out fine, if a little improvised.

The first house on the guizing route ( there were over 20 on the route and in each house a dram is taken!) belongs to Robert Williamson, aka Robert o’Camb, who it turns out used to be a dab hand at making skeklers hats though he hadn't done one for years. He spotted my version straight away and told the brave wearer that whilst it was 'no’ a bad effort ' it wasn't in the North a Voe tradition but that he would be happy to enlighten me. A subsequent visit to Robert filled in some more detail. It turns out that each community had different ways of making it, the most significant difference being whether it was intended to be worn over the face like this...... 

or with a veil covering the face. Uncle Andrews from Cullivoe was to be worn covering the face and the North a Voe variety with a veil. There are other differences but suffice to say, for the moment, that as with most things the “devil is in the detail”!
Robert Williamson wearing his North  a Voe  hat - without the traditional  veil.

1 comment:

  1. Hello Brigitte Amor, I cannot get through to you by email as my mails are being blocked by your provider but please go ahead and include me on your itinerary!