'For ‘a coarn o meal, a penny o money,
ir a piece o flesh’ a handful of grain,
penny of money, or piece of meat.'
Any evidence of skekling is fragmentary, but it tended to take place in between mid-October (Halloween) and mid-January (over Yule) as well as at other times of change or rites of passage.
One aspect of skekling is that it brought together the entire rural community and was based on a common understanding of roles and rules. The group of masked, straw-clad skeklers, led by the scudler, would turn up at each house during the night and perform what was basically a rudimentary form of drama, bursting into the small living space making non-human noises, banging wooden sticks and dancing wildly like supernatural beings.
For that brief time, everyone present accepted to play a mad guessing game to reveal the visitors’ real identity. If they succeeded, the skeklers would remove their masks and enjoy a moment of hospitality with food and drink before passing onto the next house.
This pagan ritual –which ran through the dark Winter months when spirits were believed to be roaming–was a way of marking community, according to Professor Terry Gunnell, and a form of blessing. Like the Irish wren boys (aka straw boys), skeklers would also suddenly appear from over the Shetland landscape to join a wedding ceremony, bless the couple’s union and dance with the bride.
Photo credit: Laurence Winram