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Discover European Diversity in Cultural and Natural Heritage
“We have around 500,000 capercaillie in Finland ” said Tapio Vähä-Jaakkola, our host at a local hunting club, as our jaws dropped. My colleagues Chris and Molly from RSPB work on capercaillie and the population in Scotland is in a pretty sorry state, having dropped to around 2000, from an estimated 20,000 in the 1970s. Capercaillie populations are healthy enough for Finns to hunt tens of thousands of them a year. “Most of the capercaillie hunting takes place in Northern Finland”, Tapio said later. In the 10,000 hectares of forest controlled by the Metsästysseura Haukka Ry hunting club, they hadn’t shot capercaillie for many years “Last year we calculated that there were enough capercaillie for us to hunt two.”
What beguiled me on this trip was that it was evident from every Finnish person I spoke too that they had a deep respect for nature. This included the hunters. Even the predators were an important part of their mythology. For instance, people used to collect the first droppings that a bear produced after hibernation and kept them in a pouch to wear so that they would have the strength of a bear all year. Another indication of this respect was the almost total lack of litter found in natural places which can be a real problem in Scotland. Our student guides just didn’t understand why you would leave rubbish behind. Solo walks in the forest were common and important to people of all ages. My impression was that the Finnish culture still maintained a real connection with nature whilst some urbanisation in Scotland may have severed this connection.
Estonian runic singing began to decline as European influences took prevalence. When I heard this I was reminded of a passage in a book called ‘Soil and Soul’ by Alastair McIntosh, when he described a ‘loss of cultural self-confidence’ that occurred in Gaelic culture with the advent of television and radio. The singing that used to accompany activities such as weaving, rowing and ploughing gradually fell silent. This trip has inspired me to finally bite the bullet and sign up to Gaelic classes (a part of my own heritage that was not passed down by my great-grandparents). On the Sandwood estate where I work we are also developing a plan to gather unrecorded Gaelic place names from older members of the community, to see what more they can tell us about the area’s people, history and ecology before they are lost forever. This trip has inspired me to believe this is a project well worth undertaking.
Overall, though, I was most struck by the interplay and interdependency of the different land uses and incredible attention to detail in the management of the trees, pasture and livestock. Just one example of this was learning of the special calculation done each year into the anticipated acorn crop and limit set accordingly on the number of pigs that can be reared in order to retain organic status for pork production. Such an ethos is surely something that John Muir would have approved of, regardless of whether in sunny, southern Spain or on the side of a somewhat soggier Scottish mountain:- “When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the Universe.”
The holistic approach to land management that is the defining feature of the dehesa system of land management provides an opportunity to consider how the historic, largely sectoral approaches to Scottish agriculture and woodland/forestry could be better integrated for the benefit of people, nature and the wider environment. Such a shift in thinking could be of particular value to agriculture on marginal land. Tree and animal species would necessarily differ from those in Spain but, for example, fruit trees could be expected to have a particular role given their nutritional value for livestock as well as opportunities for a crop and fruit-related products.
Rapid development is the watchword for Estonia. New infrastructure, new roads, integration of technology and heavy investment – both nationally and from the European Union – speak of a country facing forward. It is heartening to see that this is not to the detriment or exclusion of natural, built and cultural heritage. Tradition runs deep and, for the most part, it is incorporated into Estonian identity along with this rapid progress. Development has been carefully balanced, in the main, with nature. Estonians value nature and their relationship with it in a different way to Scotland, it being more integrated and present in their lives, all around them rather than being something one takes a trip to visit.
Exhibits included 3D site models – making the castle more accessible for visually impaired visitors, and old maps and archaeological site drawings printed on Perspex which could be slid over one another showing how the site changed through time (an idea I’d like to steal for Archaeology Scotland!). My favourite exhibit was the wall of artefacts found during recent excavations. Pot fragments displayed over the outline of the type of pot they came from and bridle parts displayed over a sketch of a horse’s head made it obvious what the artefacts were, and were used for in the past – sketches like this would be a great addition to our Artefact Investigation kits.
The ‘singing revolution’ is the time between 1986 and 1991 when Estonians gathered in large numbers to sing revolutionary songs in a non-violent protest against the soviet occupation. Culturally this was a powerful way of Estonia retaining its identity. 100,000 Estonians gathered for 7 days and nights in the Tallinn song festival grounds. ‘Until now, revolutions have been filled with destruction, burning, killing and hate, but we started our revolution with a smile and a song’ Estonian Activist Heinz Valk who coined the term ‘ singing revolution’
Hunting in Norway is deeply engrained in the country’s history and its culture. This makes replicating its use as a conservation tool difficult for countries, such as Scotland, where hunting is regarded as merely a rich man’s sport. Nevertheless, there is much that Scotland can learn from Norway’s attitude to hunting.
Aa is for Everything is a personal record of a week-long exploration of Estonia’s cultural heritage that took place from 4-11 August 2019. It contains personal reflections and observations, bits and pieces of history gleaned from our guide and from my own research, inspiration from conversations with my tour companions, and from the information imparted by our many hosts who generously gave of their time and shared their knowledge. The ABC structure of this report is inspired by the book Sõrulase Aabits, a primer on the cultural heritage of Sõrve on the island of Saaremaa. The word aabits comes from the pronunciation of the first three letters of the Estonian alphabet: ah-bey-tsay The full report is reprinted below, or you can go to the Aa is for Everything website – there’s also a map of the places we visited and a gallery of images. The programme was developed by ARCH Scotland and funded through Erasmus+ and hosted by Maarika Naagel of Vitong Heritage Tours. You can read the stories and articles here as a kind of idiosyncratic introduction to Estonian culture as I found it in 2019. It’s far from exhaustive, but hopefully instructive. A bit of everything. Thanks for […]
What inspired and impressed me most was the chosen narrative, the acceptance that different idea(l)s of Estonia exist, from the Estonian diaspora, islanders, people from the countryside, from towns or from Tallinn. It wasn’t supporting one national idea of what Estonia is, which too often seems to be propagated by countries even today but showing that there are many and that there is room for all of them. Visitors were also frequently asked to consider “what would you have done?” instead of condemning everything in good or bad. It was the perfect ending, summing up what we all had come to notice – that Estonians are a very resourceful and colourful people, proud of who they are and where they are from.