Aa is for Everything – an ABC of Estonia

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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 reading.

Colin Clark
August 2019

Reading Aabits

In Estonia, an aabits is a book that children learn from. An ABC book. You pronounce aabits like the first three letters of the Estonian alphabet: ah-bey-tsay

In Scotland, aabits doesn’t mean anything, but it could mean everything. Literally, everything. Aa for all. Bits for things. All things. You pronounce it like it looks: aabits.

This is an ABC book of a journey through Estonia. A bit of everything, viewed through the eyes of a wandering Scot.

Apple tree with fruit, slightly distorted and colourised. Text reads A is for Apple Tree.

A is for Apple Tree

Apple trees are seemingly everywhere in Estonia. Every house seems to have one in its garden, a litter of fruit at the root, a bowlful of homemade apple sauce at the breakfast table.

You find them in the most unexpected places, deep in the forest, off track, indicating perhaps where a manor house once stood, where a family once lived.

There’s a bowl of apples sitting waiting for us at Värava Farm when we arrive, hungry after a day of driving and devouring facts. Our guide Maarika, who has tasted these apples before and knows what they’re about, encourages us to dig in. They’re perfect.

There are several large, mature apple trees at the farm, in the common area in front of our accommodation. The fruit is coming in to season, and hangs like temptation itself, right in front of our eyes. Few of us can resist.

The apple sauce that we have with our breakfast porridge at the farm is some of the tastiest any of us have ever eaten. It’s thick, unguent, not too sweet. Are there spices in there? How do you make something this good from a humble apple? We become slightly addicted and porridge and apple sauce quickly forms part of our morning ritual for the duration of our stay on Värava Farm.

One of us gets the recipe. It involves a lot of butter and a lot of the kind of sugar you use in making jam. It all starts to make sense. This isn’t apple sauce. It’s basically apple jam. Like every delicious food, preparation is important, but the quality of the flavour ultimately comes from the quality of the original ingredient. It’s hard to imagine creating the same sensation with a bag of Granny Smiths.

When I was growing up, my granny had one out the back of her house in the east end of Glasgow. It produced hard, sour fruit. Deeply untempting. Not the kind you could pick up off the ground and eat straight away, but good for pies. Now, sadly, I can’t think of a single apple tree in any garden of any person I know. 

The best time to plant an apple tree is twenty years ago, goes the proverb; the second best time is now. It’s not too late to turn Scotland into a nation of apple growers…

View of Baltic Sea from Paldiski lighthouse. Text reads B is for Baltic.

B is for Baltic

The Head of the Estonian Maritime Academy in Kuressaare, Anni Hartikainen, is telling us about the “blue economy”.

I’ve never heard of the blue economy before, but as she explains the importance of this particular colour to Estonia’s finances, suddenly it clicks. It’s all about the sea.

From the exploitation of maritime resources – an “aquafoods lab” is scheduled to open at the Academy in 2020 – to teaching small craft competence, facilitating growth and interconnectivity between scientists and entrepreneurs is where Estonia is rapidly becoming a world player.

The day before we had visited the Kuressaare Vocational School, where they teach boat-building skills, making an ancient island tradition one of the main drivers of the local economy. According to one article, (Visit Saaremaa, pg40), boats built on Saaremaa are sold across the world: Swedish passengers ferries, Latvian border patrol boats, German sea rescue units, as well as speedboats for the US market.

But of all the facts and figures delivered to the group at the Maritime Academy, one unusual metric stands out: persons per boat.

For a sea-going nation it’s an important one. Currently in Estonia, the number stands at 38 (which is considered high) but falling (which is good).

Estonia has 3,800km of coastline. Its waters are calm and sheltered from the extreme tides of the Atlantic Ocean we’re used to in Britain.

For thousands of years the Baltic has been integral to the Estonian way of life.

The tip of the Sõrve peninsula viewed from the lighthouse, stretching into the Baltic Sea.

However, under Soviet rule access to boats, and especially ownership of them, was quite forbidden. Measuring the number of persons per boat has therefore become a useful indicator of how life is gradually being restored to something like normal in the years since Estonian independence.

As far as I am aware, we don’t measure persons per boat in Scotland. It makes me wonder: do we truly value the sea in Scotland? As a resource, as a thing to exploit, to extract value from – definitely. But as something we individually engage with? As something that connects to our sense of who we are as a nation? I’m not sure.

We live in a country with far greater access to the sea, but with no sense of that access being something precious or thought of as something that could be taken away from us.

The sea in Scotland is fishing, oil, shipbuilding. But the number of individuals involved in these nationally important industries is tiny – and predominantly male. There are nuclear subs lurking in the waters of the Clyde. Scotland’s marinas are filled not so much with boats but with expensive floating boasts. These leisure craft are expressions of status, rather than cultural identity.

This may well be the view of a hopelessly metrocentric tenement dweller, and perhaps it’s related to the wider politics of who owns the land here, but it seems that the sea in Scotland is considered to be something that other people do, that the boats in Scotland are generally other people’s.

But perhaps things are changing. I met a freelance boat-builder in Glasgow recently who runs courses for men and women who want to make their own kayaks out of plywood. His services are in high demand among incorrigible metropolitans like myself, increasing numbers of whom dream of one day owning their own boat.

Image of male mannequin wearing traditional costume from Saaremaa. text reads C is for Costume.

C is for Costume

At the National Costume Centre in Kuressaare, on the island of Saaremaa, our host Mareli Rannap is taking us through the subtle variations of Estonian women’s traditional costume.

Each region of the country, and each parish within those regions, has its own identifiable patterns and colour schemes. Mareli explains that the distinctive strong reds of the Saaremaa costume, for example, come from natural dyes obtained from the plant madder which grows well on the island.

Not everything is bold and colourful. Skirts and shirts tend to be plain with all the detail concentrated around the collars, hems and cuffs. For men’s costumes, the more sober restrained, colours of woolen coats – duns, greys, browns – retain the natural colouring of their sheep.

Costume and the way it is worn – how a hat is positioned, the way a belt is turned – can be used to signify certain key information about the wearer, their age, social status, place of origin, general mood…

Mareli explains. “I can show my costume and tell you lots of things about me. I can tell you where I am from. I can tell you if I am happy, if I am married – and if I am good at handicraft!

And if you’re clever you can work it out for yourself!

She opens up a large flat grey archival box. Her white gloved hands carefully lift out a woman’s jacket that she estimates to be around one hundred years old. The distinctive orange trim around the collar suggests that it’s from the neighbouring island of Muhu. And while the garment shows obvious signs of age, it’s clear that it was made with skill, made to last.

Mareli herself is dressed immaculately from head to toe in the costume of her own parish, that she has made herself. Everything here is handmade, which is how traditional costumes have always been made.

But since the Soviets banned the wearing of folk costume, entire generations have grown up without the knowledge of what to wear and how. Important details, customs, subtle signals are slowly being lost from living memory as those who remember traditional Estonian life pre-Occupation, pass away. 

Mareli Rannap shows off her traditional costume at the Kuressaare museum archive.

Research, committing this knowledge to books, archives, image libraries, is vital if Estonia is to hold onto its traditional costume heritage. Mareli recently completed her Masters degree in heritage technology, specialising in folk costume, making her one of the country’s leading authorities on the subject. She sits on Saaremaa Museum’s Advisory Council, which “collects, possesses and distributes information on the folk costumes” of the island parishes.

As well as her museum work, Mareli runs a number of practical classes for local women – and a few men – teaching them how to make their own costumes. A full made-to-measure traditional festival costume can easily cost €1500, so there’s plenty of incentive to learn the craft for those who want to wear the garb.

These days, traditional costumes are generally worn at weddings, festivals and national celebrations such as the Song and Dance Festival, but growing numbers of young Estonians are taking an interest in wearing the costume – or combining traditional elements with modern clothing. An elaborate hand-woven belt with a shop-bought dress, for example, or stitching distinctive regional trim to the hem of your jeans.

The signs are that Mareli’s skills as an accomplished maker and teacher and as an authority on traditional costume will continue to be in high demand as Estonian national self-confidence continues to grow.

Image of the interior of the Toomkirik in Tallinn, with the Danish flag (distorted) visible bottom right. Text reads D is for Dannebrog.

D is for Dannebrog

High on the top of the Great Trades Hall in the centre of Tallinn, perched at the very tip of its grand gothic gable, an elaborate weathervane spins into the wind. A silhouette of a Viking longship, maybe… and is that a Danish flag?

There it is again, hanging from a pulpit in the Toomkirik, the Dome Church, the oldest church in mainland Estonia, dating from the 13th century. Another Danish flag. As we walk around the ancient streets of the capital, we see it almost everywhere we go.

What’s going on?

Our guide Maarika explains the legend of the Dannebrog, the Danish national flag, which has its origins in Estonia exactly 800 years ago.

2019 is the anniversary of the Battle of Lindanise, near Tallinn, in June 1219. The Danish forces were close to losing the battle when a flag suddenly fell down from the sky. A white cross against a red field. The Danes took it as a sign of good omen, won the battle and adopted the flag as their national symbol.

The word “Dannebrog” means “the cloth of the Danes” and if the legend is true it makes it the oldest national flag in the world.

Image of EU and Estonian flags. Test reads E is for Eesti.

E is for Eesti

Eesti is Estonian for Estonian.

It wasn’t always the case. The earliest recorded name the people from this part of the world gave themselves (their endonym) was maarahvas, the people of the land.

Throughout the week, I kept a running tally of things that seemed or were declared to be Estonian as a way to find a kind of Estonian quintessence.

The list included things like the potatoes we got with every meal, the incredible sweet black rye bread from the island of Muhu, saunas, technology, curative mud, swimming in the Baltic, boats, ice roads, the various bits and pieces of handicrafts you find in the Hää Eesti Asi, like the wooden butter knives we all brought home, Lutheranism, deep paranoia about what the Russians are up to, retreats to the forests, retreats to the islands.

That kind of thing. 

It all seems hopelessly inadequate.

Although this is the fifth article in the alphabetic sequence, it’s the final piece I’ve written – and the hardest – and I’m no closer to defining what is or isn’t quintessentially Estonian. A week’s intensive immersion followed by two weeks’ reflection is still no time at all in the life of a nation.

There’s a phrase that got trotted out a lot in the Scottish independence referendum, attributed to our Greatest Living Writer™, Alasdair Gray:

Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.

That’s Estonia. This is what Estonians are doing. This is the essence of Estonia in 2019.

Image is overhead view of a bucket of flounder waiting to be gutted. Text reads F is for Finno-Ugric.

F is for Finno-Ugric

Ten words, we said.

Learn ten words of Estonian before we arrived, so that at least we could be polite to our hosts. Say thank you, please, hello. Just ten.

I managed one.

Aitäh. Thanks.

Even then, my pronunciation was approximate and, as I discovered later, “thanks” is commonly used in conversation anyway.

There are few hooks in Estonian for your average English speaker to hang their learning on, even if you’ve learned how to get by in a range of languages, as I have: conversational Spanish, shopkeeper French, bartender German, simit-seller Turkish.

Estonian is related to exactly none of these. 

It belongs to the Finno-Ugric family of languages, which is distinct from the Indo-European family, which includes English and most other European languages. As the name suggests, Finno-Ugric includes Finnish, also Hungarian, plus a swathe of languages and dialects from the Baltic to the Urals.

Apart from “thanks”, there seem to be very few loan words from English or any of the Romance languages of western Europe, so you can forget coasting through the arrivals lounge with your high school French.

If you’re on the tourist trail around Tallinn’s churches, you might start to recognise words with a common root, such as altar (altar), ingel (angel) or kirik (kirk or church). Piiskop is bishop and once you get your eye in with the double vowels you might start to work a few more words out the longer you stay and the more attention you pay.

Then, by the time you leave, you might even be able to say to your hosts, a sincere  aitäh! And a hearty hüvasti!

Image of the granite boulder at Toompea and Falgi streets in Tallinn. Text reads G is for Granite.

G is for Granite

The Estonian landscape is not typically associated with granite. Its geology is mostly Dolomite limestone. Its architecture similarly so.

But there is a naturally occurring patch of the famously hard-wearing igneous rock near Tallinn, and several chunks of it played a cameo role in the turbulent events surrounding Estonia’s declaration of independence from the USSR in 1991.

At the intersection of Toompea and Falgi streets in the centre of the capital, about 100 yards from the seat of the Estonian parliament, a large granite boulder sits as an impassive reminder of the nation’s struggles.

The inscription reads:

“Estonia’s road to freedom from the decades long occupation by the Soviet Union was complicated and full of hazards. On 18 January 1991, after the bloody events in Vilnius and Riga, all access roads to Toompea were blocked with boulders and concrete blocks.

On 20 August 1991, during the attempted coup d’etat in Moscow, The Supreme Council of the Republic of Estonia passed a resolution about the state sovereignty of Estonia. The Republic of Estonia was restored without bloodshed and casualties.

This boulder was one of the blocks on the road to Toompea. It was turned into a memorial in August 1993.”

Image of the tower at Haapsalu Castle, slightly distorted and colourised. Text reads H is for Haapsalu.

H is for Haapsalu

Haapsalu is a coastal resort town on the northwestern edge of Estonia.

It is probably most notable as the place where artist Ilon Wickland grew up before escaping the Soviet invasion in 1944. Wickland fled to Sweden as a refugee, before eventually making her name as the illustrator of many books by Astrid Lundgren, author of the Pippi Longstocking stories, amongst others. There’s a gallery and even a themepark – Ilon’s Wonderland – dedicated to Wickland’s work.

As part of our tour of Estonian heritage, we were mostly interested in Haapsalu’s 16th century castle, which has recently undergone extensive conservation and renovation work, overseen by Director Jaak Mäll.

Image of Jaak Mall, director of the castle.
Jaak Mäll, Director of Haapsalu Castle

Jaak treated the group to a tour peppered with his insider’s insight – and bone dry wit. We were impressed by Jaak’s interpretive light touch and sensitive curation. The decision to cap all text descriptions to a maximum of 1000 characters and to translate only into English was met with a chorus of approving nods. “Any longer and you should just buy the book,” was his take.

We also liked his decision not to fill the museum with fancy (and expensive) AV tech, in favour of some robust hands-on interpretation.

How his approach would fare under the much stricter health & safety regulations we have in the UK – the heavy mock shoulder canons and portable life-size pikes and halberds, for example, or the hand-cranked gunpowder mill – remained moot.   

Haapsalu Castle offers free wifi to all its customers, allowing them to easily look up whatever captures their curiosity without having to suffer intermittent (usually non-existent) network coverage while deep inside the three-foot thick stone walls of the castle, or rely on cumbersome and unreliable audio guides (“They are for lazy people”).

Ultimately, this is a museum that talks up to its audience, not down. Every decision here seems to be about respecting the visitors, allowing them to make their own choices about how they get their information, how deep they want to go with their experience.

You can find out more on the castle website.

Image of the Estonian independence centenary logo, slightly distorted and colourised. Text reads I is for Independence.

I is for Independence

The centre of Tallinn is festooned with strange blue graphics hanging from the lampposts. They’re everywhere. On Liberty Square. On the Toompea. It looks like a large number 18. Or is it 100? What could it mean?

It seems Estonians enjoy a bit of typographical jiggery-pokery as much as their design-savvy Scandinavian neighbours. The graphic is, ingeniously, simultaneously an 18 and a 100, the official logo of government-led celebrations to mark Estonia’s hundredth year as an independent sovereign nation in 2018.

It’s a big word, “independence”, freighted with overtones of occupation, of foreign governance, and of times when most of mainland Europe’s borders were in a state of constant flux, the era of nation states.

It’s a word that resonates deeply with us too, a group of Scots, five years down the line from a divisive referendum on Scottish independence, and currently in the middle of a period of political and economic uncertainty caused by Brexit and its jingoistic promises to “take back control” of everything from borders to budgets as the UK strives to seek “independence” from the EU

What is Estonia now? Who is it independent from? And what does it mean to be independent in an increasingly interdependent world?

It’s not a straightforward matter to discuss Estonian independence. There have been many periods of foreign rule, many periods of independence – though the idea of Estonians, or maarahvas or whatever name they gave themselves, as a distinct cultural, linguistic, ethnic unity living in this part of the world has remained pretty constant through thousands of years of upheaval. 

From what I could gather, and despite the ubiquity of the centenary logos, it is independence from the Soviet occupation from 1944 to 1991 that has had the greatest impact on Estonians today and which has given the country such a release of nationalist positivity.

Image of Mari Tammeougu in multiple iterations, distorted and colourised.
Mari Tammeougu at the Ansekula Seltsimaja where she teaches the traditional skills of the region.

We meet Mari Tammeougu, who has decided to set her own clock back about 150 years. She wears the traditional 19th century costume of her region. She spins and dyes her own yarn that she uses to make her own clothes and those of her children. She makes her own traditional leather slippers. Cures her own mutton.  She’s also self-employed, making a living out of teaching forgotten skills, songs, customs, to locals and their children.

It’s hard to imagine anyone who better embodies the spirit of independent Estonia.

“In the Soviet time, there was no interest for reviving old Estonian customs,” she explains. “The Soviets didn’t want it, local councils didn’t encourage it.”

Only after independence in 1991 did the desire emerge to resurrect the old customs, the old Estonian traditions. But by this time the older generations were dying out and the memory was being lost. The days after independence were “a free-for-all”. It took time to build up the pride that Estonians now have in their traditions and heritage.   

Mari started from scratch. With a background in academic research (she has a PhD in biology) Mari interviewed everyone – particularly the older women in the region – about everything. She asked what they knew – and about what their mothers and grandmothers knew – about the songs they once sang, the recipes they used, how they wore the costume.

Mari researched maps and noted the names of forgotten places, documented the grammar and intonation of the local dialect, gathered instructions for how to wear traditional costume. And she put it all in a book.

For me, Mari stands as a living embodiment of Estonian independence. Proud, fiercely and passionately proud, of who she is and where she comes from, and of her place in that lineage, regardless of the political winds sweeping across that part of the country, her country, that she has invested so much energy into preserving.

Image of the dried cracked mud at the centre of the Kaali meteorite crater. Text reads K is for Kaali.

K is for Kaali

Exactly when the giant iron meteorite struck earth in Kaali on the Estonian island of Saaremaa is the source of much speculation. Best estimates put the date of the impact between 7500 – 7600 years ago.

The meteorite has inspired many myths and legends. Indeed Rune 47 of the Finnish epic poem, The Kalevala, contains a powerful evocation of a celestial event where “the sky was pierced with holes and the heavens full of windows” and the heroes journey to find “the fire that fell from heaven”.

Our guide Maarika told a story a little similar to the legend of Tristan and Isolde, about a man who was sent out of the village after falling in love with a woman he shouldn’t have. He was put on his horse, sent on his way and instructed not to look back. Inevitably, he looked back – just as fire fell from the heavens, consuming him and the horse he rode out on…

The embers were well and truly out by the time we arrived but there’s something eerie and magical still about this dent in the Earth’s crust. People have been drawn to it for millennia, ever since the day it fell. 

It makes me think of the High Possil Meteorite that landed in a quarry in the north of Glasgow in 1804, the first of only four meteorites (so far!) to have been recovered in Scotland.

It arrived with a “violent whizzing sound . . , like a gong”, according to a contemporary report. The Possil Meteorite caused hardly any damage, and landing in a quarry, it was almost lost amongst the piles of rocks.

No myths and legends have sprung up around Glasgow’s meteorite, as far as I know, but as it arrived towards the tail end of the Enlightenment, it definitely provoked a great deal of rational scientific enquiry. A remaining fragment is on display at the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow University.

Image looking upinside the Paldiski lighthouse, distorted and colourised. Text reads L is for Lighthouse.

L is for Lighthouse

When it comes to Scottish engineering and lighthouses, the name “Stevenson” is usually synonymous. The pioneering work of Robert Stevenson, and the two generations of Stevensons who followed him, was hugely influential across the world and has undoubtedly saved countless sailors from a watery grave.

But there’s another name to conjure with when it comes to the legacy of Scottish lighthouse engineers – and the industrial heritage of Estonia’s coastline.

Alexander Gordon was born in 1802 in New York, where his father David Gordon (the inventor of the compressed gas cylinder) was working at the time. His family returned to Scotland when Alexander was 5 years old, and he grew up in Deeside. He studied at Edinburgh University and became a civil engineer, working with some of the greatest names in engineering, such as Thomas Telford and Robert Napier. Gordon dedicated his career to developing a system of cast iron lighthouse construction, which was widely adopted around the world, particularly in the Colonies.

Many of the lighthouses built to Gordon’s design are still in operation, and there are several in Estonia, such as the Takhuna lighthouse on the northern tip of the island of Hiiumaa, the Kihnu lighthouse, and the Saxby lighthouse on the island of Vormsi, the first to be built in Estonia using Gordon’s system.

Image shows tray of mud on a counter next to some advertising leaflets for Saaremaa curative mud. Text reads M is for Mud.

M is for Mud

Valsimaja Spa has been providing curative mud services since 1824.

Wherever it was located back then, these days the spa is based in a stark Soviet-era concrete building in a suburb of Kuressaare on the island of Saaremaa. It possesses none of the familiar hallmarks of calm and relaxation we usually associate with therapeutic spa treatments. No ambient music, no incense, no fluffy towels. It’s more like a traditional hospital ward with hard sterile white enamel surfaces, office regulation blue louvre blinds and harsh fluorescent lighting.

The purpose of the spa veers hard towards the medical end of the spectrum of therapeutic processes – it’s impossible to get an appointment there unless your GP prescribes one for you.

This is mud that cures you rather than cossets you. We stand around a deep blue enamel bath, imagine aching bones, sick flesh, vinyl-aproned orderlies…

And hot, hot mud.

Our host explained how the mud is heated to between 40 – 45°C and is applied directly to the skin through massage or wrapped around certain parts of the body. Mud can also be used in the sauna, or at home as a body scrub. A course of treatment generally requires between 10 to 15 appointments and is used to cure a range of diseases, disorders and neuroses – from rheumatism to psoriasis, from post-traumatic stress disorder to ulcers.

The mud used at Valsimaja is harvested from the coastal flats nearby and is prized for its magical mineral content, its healing properties. Curative mud is clearly a mainstay of traditional Estonian culture, as well as an important part of burgeoning “Blue Economy”. Sand, clay and seaweed are used as the basis for a number of clean, natural remedies sold at home and abroad. Red algae from the Estonian coast is imported by the French cosmetic industry, to be re-sold at a premuim.

We leave the vast, empty facility clutching our complimentary pots of branded mud, marvelling at this uniquely Estonian “way of wellness”, wondering whether it will ever catch on at home…

Image shows the outside deck of the Sorve lighthouse, with arrows indicating distance and direction to Gotland, Copenhagen, Rostok. Text reads N is for Neighbours.

N is for Neighbours

The story of Estonia is in some ways a story of neighbourly relations. The country’s history has been shaped to a significant degree by the colonial and expansionist ambitions of many nearby kings and countries, and by the people from those countries who made Estonia their home.

A summary of the various conquests, wars, occupations and annexations throughout Estonia’s history is somewhat beyond the scope of this site but a little geographical context is in order…

Estonia shares a land border with Latvia, to the south, and with Russia, to the east. Finland is a close relative, culturally as well as linguistically. From Tallinn, Helsinki is just a short hop across the Gulf of Finland where it narrows to about 80km. The trip will take you just over an hour and a half on a fast summer ferry or double that on the regular year-round service. If the proposed rail tunnel between the two capital cities goes ahead – the “Talsinki Tunnel” – it will bring the two nations even closer.

Sweden is a little further. It’s 179km as the crow flies from Sõrve lighthouse at the tip of the island of Saaremaa to the coast of the Swedish island of Gotland. But the two countries’ histories go back to 1561 when Estonia came under Swedish rule until 1710. Swedes started settling in Estonia as far back as the 13th century. For hundreds of years they formed a distinct ethnic group, keeping mainly to the north and west of the country, until the majority of them fled during the Second World War.

The Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, built by the Russians in 1900 when Estonia was part of the Czarist Empire.

A similar fate happened to Estonia’s German-speaking groups, known as Baltic Germans or “Balts“. Germans had been settling in the area since the early days of the Hanseatic League as merchants, and as Christian missionaries. They were a highly successful group, and largely retained their distinct ethnic identities and language. The Baltic Germans achieved some of the highest offices in the land and acquired a great deal of wealth and privilege.

They began to be resettled in 1939 when the Soviets assumed control over the Baltic States. Those who refused to leave were later forced out or were subjected to severe penalties (the Gulag) by the ruling Soviets. Now, almost no Baltic Germans remain in Estonia.By Värava Farm in Saaremaa there stands a very poignant reminder of this sudden vanishing in the form of a family gravestone, deep in the woods beyond the steadings. The von Essen family were once part of Estonian nobility, repatriated against their will. The manor house that once stood in these woods is long gone. Descendants of the family still visit occasionally, to pay their respects, lay flowers, keep the memory alive.

Image shows the border fence of the Sorve Miltary Museum with a large Soviet red star in the centre, large bombshell on either side. Text reads ) is for Occupation.

O is for Occupation

When the Soviets finally withdrew from their post at the tip of the Sõrve peninsula on the island of Saaremaa, a group of dedicated local amateur historians took over the military base to run it as a museum dedicated to preserving the memory of life in Estonia under Soviet rule. 

In the years following independence, everything was up for grabs. As one of the museum volunteers explained: “If something didn’t belong to someone, it belonged to the State. Which meant it belonged to everyone.”

The Sõrve Military Museum is what you might call an “unofficial” museum, a haphazard assortment of Cold War ephemera and military memorabilia from the mundane to the murderous. Numberless telephones sit alongside Nazi-crested medals and toy tanks. Luger pistols decay in the sea salt air next to gas masks. Shelves are stacked with bullet-holed helmets, rusting grenade cases, fraying uniforms and fading propaganda. 

We hear the story of some amateur metal detectorists who called the other day to offer an old shell they’ve unearthed. The museum guys aren’t fussed. The place is full of old shells. But the detectorists are insistent – this one’s in really great condition, they promise. And who’s to say, maybe it is. Initial reluctance gives way to curiosity and a visit is arranged . . . followed swiftly by another call to the bomb squad to dispose of some unexploded ordnance. Apparently it happens all the time.

What you get in Sõrve is a raw, unfiltered experience that brings home the violence as well as the banality of the Soviet regime and how keenly the memory of those times is held by the men who keep the place open – unofficially and without a eurocent of state subsidy – lest we forget.

Image shows artwork of concrete suitcases outside the entrance to the Vabamu Museum.
Artwork outside the Vabamu. Each suitcase is tagged with the names of the gulags where many Estonian citizens were taken during the Soviet occupation.

The Vabamu Museum of Occupations and Freedom in Tallinn sits at the opposite end of the spectrum of museum experiences. This is Official History, and very highly mediated. Here, as in Sõrve, the people do the talking, but in a sequence of two meter high video screens, in the audio guide narration, and in the series of carefully chosen, precisely presented, immaculately lit intimate objects – letters, notebooks, family photos, suitcases, personal effects. The stories told here serve to humanise the recent history of the Estonian people, they remind us of how recently their freedom was won – and the price that was paid for that freedom.    

For me, personally, it was an effort to hear this message at all, despite the content-heavy (and mandatory) audio guide, despite all the video, the touchscreens, the 3D virtual reality headset etc. With so much interpretive technology to contend with – so much to listen to, so much to read, so much to see – on all channels all around you all at once, the immediacy of the message was completely lost. It was only when I returned the audio guide and abandoned the (also mandatory) arrow-led path that I felt able to relax enough to hear what the museum was trying to tell me.

Which, in 2019, is a simple and pertinent call to action:

Not long ago, the Soviet-era restrictions on thoughts, words and actions were lifted in Estonia… There was a clash between the ideas of free expression, entrepreneurship, and social justice, and responsibility to oneself and to others.

We call on you to think about the limits of freedom. Which freedoms are we ready to fight for? When are we ready to agree on restrictions? When is it too early to act? When is it too late?

Image shows windmill, colourised and distorted, on the top of the Kuressaare Castle bastions. Text reads P is for Postmill.

P is for Post-mill

You don’t have to travel far through the Estonian landscape to find these chivalric characters, tilting into the wind. Nowhere more so than on Saaremaa where the windmill is considered to be something of an island icon.

A post mill, the most common type of windmill here, is constructed around a single vertical post, allowing the whole body of the mill to swivel 360° according to wind direction. The mill usually sits on a base of stone or brick, to protect the post itself from weathering.

Post mills are the earliest type of windmill, dating back to the 12th century, though the use of wind power to drive machinery has been around much longer.

The mill we visit is situated in a seemingly unlikely position, high on the defensive walls of Kuressaare Castle. The western wall became known as “the mill bastion”, grinding the grain to feed castle occupants. The mill suffered through the wars, was destroyed, rebuilt, relocated, until it finally burned down in 1795.

The existing Kuressaare post mill was rebuilt in 2018 to coincide with the reconstruction of the castle bastions. It was created by specialist windmill builders following traditional methods and using an existing 17th mill at a nearby farm as reference.

The enormous wind turbines that march across the Scottish landscape in ever increasing numbers haven’t quite reached the iconic status of their pastoral forebears – perhaps they never will. But the sight of the impossibly long blades of our implacable modern machines, slicing and pivoting into the wind, is surely every bit as ubiquitous now as the post mills of Estonia ever were.

Image shows stained glass window from Kihelkonna Parish Church on Saaremaa, highly colourised and distorted. Text reads Q is for Quiet.

Q is for Quiet

Shhh. Can you hear that?


It’s because there is nobody here.

That sound there? It’s your own breathing.

Maybe it’s the forest breathing.

You feel strange. For the first time in years, you are nowhere near traffic. That vast forest out there, stretching all the way to the Urals and beyond, is soaking up all the noise and stress and air pollution and all the other things you never knew were part of the daily fabric of your life until right now.

Estonia has to be the quietest country I’ve ever visited. Not counting its splendid capital Tallinn which is a touristy crush of cruise ship hoards and budget airline arrivals wielding selfy sticks. Tallinn doesn’t count.

We spend the majority of our week-long stay on the island of Saaremaa, which has a population of 13,000, approximately, and a fair bit of our time on Saaremaa is spent on the Sõrve peninsula, which has a resident population in the hundreds. Life here is not without its challenges, we’re told, but things are slowly changing.

Silent song stage in Kihelkonna

Since 2010, more Estonians are increasingly making a conscious choice to move to the islands, to the country. They’re inheriting houses, starting families, finding a quality of life that’s hard to come by in the city. Estonia has fully embraced the technologies of the digital revolution, and new ways of working remotely, digitally, are facilitating a more flexible way of living. The government are even offering tax incentives for doctors and teachers to relocate to the country, presumably to service the growing rural population.

Estonia is half the size of Scotland, with a fifth of our population (about the same number as greater Glasgow). It’s not impossible to find this kind of calm in Scotland, but it feels more elusive, somehow. Quiet, it seems to me, is a value that is precious to Estonians, and one they take great care to cultivate.

Image shows the rooftops of Tallinn. Text reads T is for Tallinn.

R is for Reval

“You can count on anywhere in the northern Baltic having two names, at least. ” Says critic and broadcaster Jonathan Meades in his 2008 film, Magnetic North.

“Two languages. Two cultures. Two former colonisers, at least.”

He may have been thinking specifically about Estonia’s ravishing capital, Tallinn, known throughout most of its history by its Hanseatic trading name, Reval.

The Hanseatic League was a north European mercantile alliance that lasted over 300 years – in Meades’ phrase, “God’s first attempt at the EU”.

Based in Lübeck, it stretched north and east along the Baltic coast as far as the inland port city of Peterhof (Novgorod), and west from Hamburg to Brugge (Bruges), with trading posts established in Stalhof (London) and Bryggen (Bergen). 

The merchant ships of the Hansa didn’t just trade commodities – grain, salt, fish, amber, various types of booze etc – inevitably they traded ideas, materials, fashions for building.

Insofar as there is an identifiable Hansa style, Tallinn’s vaulting skyscape – with its grand halls, steep pitched roofs, exaggerated gables and gothic pinnacles that echo similar sights in other Baltic ports  – surely argues in favour of one.

Old Toomas” looks over the city of Tallinn from his eternal post on the Town Hall weather vane.

Growing up in Glasgow, we were always exhorted to “look up!” by older relatives keen to impress on us the beauty of our home city that was not always obvious at eye level. You would get a better view, sitting on the top deck of a corporation bus as it ambled through Glasgow’s grand sandstone grid of Victorian merchants’ chambers and trading houses. If you craned your neck and squint you’d see sculpted gods and angels, winged beasts, globe-straddling ships carved into the grey skies above you.

I’d urge something similar on any visitor to Tallinn, to look up, to see what stories, what wonders, the skyline of old Reval will reveal.

Image shows an artwork of two people singing, highly colourised and distorted. Text reads S is for Singing

S is for Singing

Singing is important to Estonians.

Possibly the understatement of the year. Almost every person we met belonged to a choir or their children did, or they participate in the National Song Festival which takes place every five years at the enormous Song Festival Grounds in Tallinn.

Every town has its own song festival ground where people gather and sing to each other. The song stages are typically constructed from wood and have a distinctive deep bell-like shape to assist the projection of unamplified voices.

One of the first things I learned about Estonia was that the movement that led to the declaration of independence by the Baltic States from the USSR was known as the Singing Revolution. In an extraordinary unilateral show of defiance by the annexed countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, a chain of two million people stretching 420 miles across the three capitals, Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, linked hands and sang patriotic folk songs and Catholic hymns which had been suppressed by the Soviets.   

Mari plays the kannel

The ability of song to transcend every kind of barrier – cultural, ideological or linguistic – is something that runs very deep here. At the Anseküla Seltsimaja in Sõrve on the island of Saaremaa, we were treated to the joyous wonders of Estonian folk singing by Mari Tammeougu and her children. It’s exuberantly melodic, the rhythmical repetitions slightly trance-inducing. Later, Mari introduces us to the kannel, a kind of lap harp or Estonian zither, and she sings us all a lullaby. 

Immediately, it’s all any of us ever want to hear, despite not understanding a word.  The sound is pure enchantment. We are completely under the spell of the song.

T is for Tõll

In Estonian mythology, Suur Tõll – Big Tyll or Tyll the Great – was a giant who lived on Saaremaa, a benevolent hero figure who protected the island and its inhabitants from invaders.

In a terrifying animated version of his story by the Estonian Film Foundation (with an even more terrifying soundtrack), the legend is presented as an allegory for the waves of occupation the country has endured.

In the end (spoilers) Tõll is decapitated by the enemy – a brutal (red) army. Tõll makes a kind of cairn of himself on top of a hill, leaving his head looking out over the island, ever vigilant.

“If war comes again,” he says, “Come and wake me up and I will help.”

From Robin Hood to Superman, every age remakes its heroes for its own political and social realities. The bronze incarnation of Tõll that we see striding out of the waters of Kuressaare marina with his wife, Piret, is altogether cosier, almost cuddly. Tõll here is rendered as a sort of comedy Hulk figure, he and his saucy seaside postcard of a wife frozen, permanently mid-errand, carrying a boatload of fish to the already well-fed residents of the Hotel Meri Spa.

Image shows abstracted photograph of the lighting in the Thule Koda. Text reads U is for Ultima Thule.

U is for Ultima Thule

In 2012, Turkish novelist and Nobel Laureate Orhan Pamuk opened the Museum of Innocence in his home neighbourhood of Çukurcuma in Istanbul. The museum was based on Pamuk’s novel of the same name, and it told the story of the same characters, who lived – in the novel – in that exact same building on that exact street.

There is the same number of display cases as there are chapters in the book, each one filled with the objects his characters touched, the clothes they wore, the drinks they drank – there’s even a wall with every cigarette the main female character smoked during the time of the novel, pinned and mounted like rare moths.

The Thule Koda in the town of Kuressaare on the Estonian island of Saaremaa doesn’t have quite the same pedigree, but it takes as its starting point a similar question – what if you dedicate a museum to a work of fiction.

Is it still a museum? Or has it become an art gallery? What does calling it a museum do for the visitor experience that’s different from calling it a gallery? We’re being invited to treat what is presented to us as real. We know it’s a fiction, but we act as if it’s historical fact, and inevitably through the fiction, truths emerge.

All museums are fictions of a kind. Curators are carers of their collections, not their creators – but the work of the museum curator can be likened in some way to the work of the novelist or artist: selecting which facets of a subject to reveal, which to obscure. Setting scenes. Shaping narratives. Behind the truths, fictions lurk.

The Thule Koda‘s combined cinema and museum space takes as its premise the idea that the fabled island of Ultima Thule, at the furthest reaches of the ancient world, is in fact the Estonian island of Saaremaa.

The precise location of Thule has been the subject of speculation since antiquity. It was described by the ancient Greek mariner Pytheas in his record of a voyage north around 325BC, but his log has long been lost in the mists of time. Several islands are thought to be likely candidates, including Iceland, Shetland, the Faroes, and the Lofoten Islands of Norway. None has been proved.

The idea that Pytheas made it this far up the Baltic to chart the outermost limits of his voyage north was first suggested by Lennart Meri, in a book written many years before he became a leading figure in Estonia’s independence movement and eventual Prime Minister.

Our guide Maarika at the Thule Koda . . .
or is it?

The Thule Koda‘s developers have taken this story and run with it, creating a bizarre hybrid entertainment arena with a kids’ playroom, a 360° projection room, a cafe/ bar, a plush cinema showing the latest Hollywood hits, and another permanently showing a dramatised account of Pytheas’s travels.

But it’s only when you reach the “museum” that the full oddness of the place really takes hold. The vast, dimly-lit exhibition space is dotted with weird, larger-than-life sculptures of mythical beasts – there’s a selkie, familiar to this group from Scottish mythology. The others seem a bit random: various winged and horned horrors, a ship-chomping stormbeast, a chicken with human breasts, etc.   

The exhibition walks you through the story of Pytheas, his travels north and Meri’s Estonian twist. There are various “museum objects” representing the travels of Pytheas, every one of which – bar one – is described as a “reconstruction”. The one “original” object on display is described perversely as an “Incomprehensible Object”, a phrase that could easily stand for the Thule Koda as a whole. Whatever Meri’s reasons for siting Ultima Thule in Saaremaa, it is beyond the capacity of this place to articulate them.

I wanted to like the playfulness of Thule Koda and its crazy take on an ancient shaggy dog story, but everywhere are signs telling visitors “Don’t believe everything you see” which just ruins the conceit. In a world of deep fakes and alternative facts, discerning the truths from within the lies becomes an ever more political act, as much as it has always been a literary one.

W is for Writers’ House

In a city of contrasting architectural styles – from Hanseatic Gothic through Scandinavian Baroque to brute Soviet functionalism – the compact modernism of the Writers’ House at 1 Harju Street in Tallinn stands out.

Built in 1963 to accommodate writers of scripts, poems, novels and plays, The Writers’ House and the cafe situated below it, played an important role in Estonia’s growing sense of intellectual and cultural self-assurance in the mid to late 20th century.

The fact that it was built during the so-called “Khrushchev Thaw” is perhaps reflected in the confident modernism of the design, both inside and out, and by the kinds of writers who lived there – these were the authors of a new kind of Estonian literature who were doing similar work to their counterparts elsewhere in Europe beyond the Iron Curtain.

The Writers’ House was home to some of Estonia’s greatest novelists, poets and playwrights including Jaan Kross, Juhan Viiding and Mikhel Mutt. These were artists, intellectuals, rather than propagandists.

In a 2018 interview, Mutt says, “In Estonia, writers have always been something more than just people who produce artifacts, literature, or entertainment. They’ve always been spiritual readers. They were also, partly, the standard bearers for national values. So when the period of transition came, when the window opened to restore some kind of independence, [writers] were at the forefront of this movement because we had no professional politicians. So the creatives took over – even our first President, Lennart Meri, was a very well respected writer.”

I got in touch with Mihkel, dropped him an email asking about life at Harju 1, to which he was gracious enough to respond. Mihkel lived in the “so-called” Writers’ House from 1986, and was Editor-in-Chief of Estonia’s oldest literary magazine, which is based there.

“I worked on the editorial board of the literary monthly Looming in 1977-86 and 2005-2015, the premises of which are still located in the same building. During the first period there was one big coming and going, gossiping and clever malicious sniping at each other, a real literary saloon!”   

The Writers ‘House was designed with multiple functions in mind, to facilitate and stimulate literary activity. There were the apartments, the Writers’ Union premises , the magazine offices, a bookstore, and a café. Everything was given the Nordic modernist design treatment: simple yet powerful color contrasts. Black ceiling, white walls, red furniture.

Bas-relief of Voldemar Panso at the Academy of Music in Tallinn.

There was also a large gathering hall, or salon, which has become an important literary center in Estonian cultural history. It was named the Voldemar Panso Room, after the influential theatre-maker. The performances and readings that took place there played an important role in Estonia’s theatrical and literary renaissance.

While a lot of the details are tricky to pin down for this monoglot, it’s clear that the effects of the intense creativity surrounding the Writers House and its colourful inhabitants still reverberate to this day.

A note on the images

My phone died the Friday before we left for Estonia and I was unable to get a replacement before the Sunday of our departure (Three weeks later I still don’t have a working phone but that’s between me and my feckless insurers). As this also meant I suddenly didn’t have a camera, I dug out my old digital camera (circa 2006) which is pretty clunky and doesn’t really produce the best images. I decided to “turn my problems into values”, in the words of one of our scheduled learning points, by processing the images through a series of distorting filters. Which results in the pictures you see…

A montage of Tallinn’s glorious elaborate weathervanes.

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