Nina Probst (Historic Environment Scotland)
I was immediately taken when I heard about the Erasmus+ opportunities organised by ARCH. Having been an Erasmus student during my undergrad as well as an intern funded through Erasmus, I knew about the unique experiences one can make during those cultural exchanges. The programme of the Estonia trip, exploring the interpretation of natural and cultural heritage of coastal Estonians, seemed most relatable to my current job, not to forget I had never been to this part of Europe. Going to Estonia and learning about different or similar approaches to protecting our cultural heritage seemed like a fantastic opportunity.
It turned out to be so much more than I had expected.
Seven days with eight people and an intense programme, tailored by our fantastic local guide Maarika Naagel, showing and teaching us about her beloved Estonia.
I must admit that I didn’t know much about the history of Estonia. I would have found it on a map and knew it was part of the Baltic States, but that’s about it. It became clear that the overarching theme throughout Estonian history is that of annexations and occupations by other nations, including Denmark, Sweden, the Russian Empire, Nazi Germany and the USSR.
Maarika kept mentioning the Baltic Germans, of whom I – being German myself – had never heard of. They came to Estonia in the Middle Ages as Christian missionaries and became the land-owning aristocracy and part of the elite in Estonian society, especially in urban areas. Whereas Estonians weren’t allowed to own their own land until the land reform in the early 20th century after which many of the aristocracy was disowned or their properties burned down. The last Baltic Germans left during World War 2, following Hitler’s Umsiedlungs-call after his pact with Stalin. Today only a few of the manor houses built by Baltic Germans survive, yet traces are found for example in the elaborate wooden crests we were shown in churches or castles. But Maarika also pointed out the not so visible signs. Wandering through the Estonian forests, if you come across lilac and apple trees it usually is a sign that once upon a time there was a manor house in the area. I loved finding out about those hidden clues.
Only in 1991/92 did Estonia finally restore its independence and became a unicameral parliamentary democracy. Since 2004 it is a member of the EU and recent polls show that most people (74%) believe the EU is a good thing, which is higher than the EU average.
We passed numerous places supported by LEADER, the European initiative to support rural development through projects at the local level in order to revitalise rural areas. The first Estonian Rural Development Plan run from 2007-2013 and saw 7,186 projects implemented with a budget of 85,759,063€. The current plan has a budget of 90million € and will finish in 2020. Scotland currently receives £77.4 million (85,343,175€) funding under the same scheme. We were able to see the positive impact first-hand be it infrastructure, support for local businesses or redeveloped museums and heritage sites.
Integrating heritage, modern technology and a sustainable lifestyle
Wherever Maarika took us, there was a general positivity and strong passion to integrate heritage, modern technology into a sustainable lifestyle. We visited Kuressaare Vocational School on Saaremaa, the largest Estonian island where we stayed for a total of four nights. The school provides initial and additional vocational training and retraining for young people as well as adults. Some areas of specialities are design and handicraft, small craft and boat building, joinery, construction, travel and tourism, or food processing – and what surprised and inspired our group most, even the adult courses are free of charge. Moreover, all students learn the basics of entrepreneurship, create their own business ideas and business plans. The school has received funding from the European Structural and Investment Funds and offers opportunities especially for islanders to retrain and set up their own business to make a living, as we heard from Maarika, who has several friends who have taken up classes at the school. The school is a partner of the Small Craft Competence Centre at Saaremaa which was our next stop. The centre is a research and development unit of Tallinn University of Technology and was another inspiring example of how high tech and innovation is not restricted to major cities but can attract highly educated young people to live in more rural areas. Another visit took us to Kihelkonna Kool. The primary school was built for 300 pupils in the during the Soviet times, yet today there are only 20. Here, we met Aivar Kallar, a former teacher and organic farmer, who is very active in the local community. He took us around the school and talked about the past, present and future of small country schools. The school is struggling, but necessary to attract young families to the area and has to fight for its existence. The highlight was the big vegetable patch and green house where the pupils learn about growing their own food and methods of organic agriculture. Aivar told us how only one generation before, every school had a plot of land, whereas now there are only a few left. The school garden’s produce is used in the school’s kitchen which is also open to the local community as well as to our group and we had a delicious lunch – one of many great meals.
Living in and with nature is a central part of island life, which we got to experience first-hand, staying at the beautiful Värava Tourist farm in the middle of the forest for four nights. The farm has been owned by the same family for seven generations and we received a warm welcome from its current inhabitants, Aado and Lii Haandi. Aado took us for a tour, showing us the beautifully located camping and picnic area and cabins ending up at a headstone in the middle of the forest, where we stopped for another lecture on Estonian history surrounded by trees and wildflowers. The headstone was erected by the descendants of a Baltic German family who now live in Finland and all over the world. They traced back their family home to that very place. There is nothing left that would suggest a manor house, yet members of the family return regularly for family gatherings staying at Värava farm, having built a relationship with Aado and his family.
The most inspiring woman we got to meet and who shared her story with us was Mari Lepik in the village of Ansekala on the Sörve peninsula. Not only does she have a PhD in biology, plays in a band, is an active member of her community and has published a book about the heritage of her region, she also is the mother of 5 children. Over 10 years she, with the help of 10-20 other people, has collected stories, recipes, documenting the grammar of the local dialect, traditions and the history. The Sörulase Aabets is a wonderful product of this work and one of the many projects of Mari to keep traditions alive and fight that not more knowledge is forgotten.
As she rightly states, “details and their meaning are lost without people passing them on”. Instead of just accepting what is happening not just in Estonia but in most places across the world, she finds someone who still has particular knowledge and brings people together to pass on and learn skills making traditional costumes, singing and other crafts. Furthermore, she includes her children in everything and thus passes it down to the next generation. Three of her daughters sang for us and taught us singing games, which we thoroughly enjoyed. She also revives traditional clothing by combining it with modern ones, integrating tradition in her 21st century life.
On our last day back in Tallinn, we went to visit Vabamu – the museum of occupations or the story of our freedom. It was telling the story of Estonians, in Estonia and in exile during the dark time of occupations in the last century. 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.
Thanks to Maarika, we were able to get this exclusive “behind the scenes” look into Estonian culture and everyday life. It was a snapshot and there is so much more, but being able to learn about this fascinating country, its people and their stories, to find connections and similarities and to share this experience with some fantastic people has been an intense, but wonderfully unique opportunity I would highly recommend to anyone.
I’m taking back many memories from this week – gutting flounders for our dinner, pickling our own cucumbers using the ever-present dill and black currant leaves, making twigs and scrub for our traditional Estonian sauna experience, seeing a moose!, swimming or rather wading into the sunset in the Baltic Sea and climbing lighthouses, not to forget the delicious food which was waiting for us each day, being just a few of them.
Being back in my day-to-day job and life I’m doing my best to share my experience of Estonia with colleagues and friends and I consider myself very lucky to work alongside other organisations, trusts, and, most importantly, individuals across Scotland who are equally passionate about preserving their heritage and keeping it alive in all sorts of ways.
Special thanks to Susan, Colin, Kathy, Carrie, Matthew, Becca and Rhona – sharing this trip with you wonderful people has been an absolute pleasure.