Estonia – People & Place

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Report by Susan Webster, Scottish Natural Heritage

Erasmus+ Structured Adult Education for Staff Course

NET5 Managing our Natural and Cultural Heritage Assets

This was a course developed by ARCH, funded through the Erasmus+ programme and hosted by Maarika Naagel of  Vitong – Heritage Tours Estonia


Baltic State with neighbours: Russia, Finland and Latvia

Capital: Tallinn

Size: 45,339km2 (Scotland is 80,240km2)

Population: 1.32 million (Scotland: 5.2 million)

European state since: 2004

From Taltech centre for the blue economy


Title: ‘Interpretation of Natural and Cultural Heritage of Coastal Estonians’.

My personal objective was to explore how understanding of the Natural and Cultural Heritage is presented and managed in Estonia with a view to sharing this on my return to Scotland.

There were seven other participants from a wide range of organisations in Scotland and from a variety of backgrounds. The visit was managed by Maarika Naagel of Heritage/Viitong Tours.

First Impressions

I had read a little about Estonia prior to the trip but I had not expected to find a country of such contrasts. A landscape comprised of a modern airport and skyscrapers, a mediaeval walled city and mile upon mile of natural, wide open, flat wooded countryside. An urban economy flourishing on e-commerce and a countryside economy, very much like our own crofting communities, working with nature.

A little bit of history

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Markus Välli led the group through the historic streets of old town Tallin

The city of Tallinn. Every tourist brochure image of Estonia. A beautiful, walled city of cobbled streets and a remarkable layering of history – recent and ancient, political and religious. We were led on a guided tour by a young history student Markus Väli

We paused at the top of Falgi tee. To the right was an entrance, through the walls of the city, into the square housing the most dramatic cathedral of Tallin and the Estonian parliament. To the left a large granite boulder, incongruous, and marked August 20th 1991. Marcus and Maarika explained that this boulder had been in place, with others, that August day to prevent the soviet tanks from entering the city. This was the date of Estonia regaining its independence. From 1939 to 1991 Estonia had been held as part of the USSR.

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We wandered, as tourists do, through the narrow streets, learning about the beautiful buildings, the importance of guilds in building the city, the changing religious focus and the importance of art and culture, I felt honoured to be being led through this story by two people who had spent their lives here in very different circumstances.

This contrast was to form the backdrop to our study tour.

Paldiski – and ‘Soviet times’

Paldiski is a fascinating and desolate former Soviet Nuclear Base and military training centre. More or less closed to Estonians from 1939. In 1962 it became a training centre for nuclear submariners and therefore even more secretive. Closed off completely until the last Russian warship left in 1994. Punctuated by large grey Soviet era housing estates. Mostly destroyed and being ‘re-wilded’.We climbed the Pakri lighthouse, the tallest in Estonia, for a different perspective, wonderful limestone cliffs and open seascape. Looking across to the now deserted Pakri islands, cleared of their population by the soviets and used for bomb practice. The landscape is wide and empty, in the distance a windfarm. C:\Users\BASW\Pictures\Estonia\report pics\IMG_0255.JPG

At the lighthouse Maarike sat and introduced us to Paldiski and to Estonia

‘Guys were taken here and for two years they were actively kind of worked on politically, the political side was very, very strong so you form one soviet soldier and one soviet nation, without your background, you are just a tool. You were told not to think just obey orders’

‘Children were taken away by force and cannot learn to run the farms…cut though the roots and so the old cultures are disappearing already’


The Dutch type bastions built by Peter the great in the 18th Century at Paldiski Harbour are a significant monument with an interesting history, but during the soviet occupation much of this was destroyed – it is quite difficult to find, and poorly interpreted.

We visited a traditional restaurant in Paldiski, here we saw many images of the old town prior to Soviet occupation, a traditional country town with agriculture and fishing – all of this was destroyed to build the army base.


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Haapsalu seaside town

This seaside town was popular with the aristocracy of St Petersburg and a railway was built from there. People came to undertake spa breaks related to the restorative mud. Recently the castle in Haapsalu has been renovated for visitors.

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Jaak Mölle was very proud of his practical approach to interpreting the castle for visitors.

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The White Lady Festival – August full moon

The festival includes a celebration of all local Estonian food, drink and crafts, dancing and singing and brings hundreds of visitors to the town – mainly Estonian and Finnish.

Saarema island

Saarema Island was the location for the rest of our visit. The largest island in the Estonian archipelago, like the Paldiski peninsula Saaremaa holds strategic value and has been ruled over by Denmark, Sweden, Russia and Germany


We visited three education establishments on Saarema. A technical school offering free vocational subjects to people of all ‘after school’ ages, a university department ‘The centre for the Blue Economy’ specialising in, amongst other things, the technical assessment and design of boats and, finally, a primary school.

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The boat ‘tank’ for research

The ‘blue economy’ – linked to the seas and oceans has always been a part of Estonia – over 70% of the population live in coastal regions. Recently the country has been pushing forward the technology required to develop the ‘sustainable’ marine industry, developing the education and ‘know-how’ required. This section of the Tallinn University of Technology is based in the small town of Kuressare ‘capital’ of Saremaa.

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European funding for investment infrastructure was clear in both the further education establishments

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The primary school was remarkable, during Soviet times the land was managed in farming ‘collectives’ and many people lived and worked in the countryside. The school was built for 600 pupils but only 20 now attend. The school works closely with the local community to provide social and educational activities, including the provision of low cost fresh meals from the school garden. The school grounds were amazing, offering many opportunities for outdoor learning and play and also including the village ‘swing’ and singing area – both aspects of Estonian culture.

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’

Maarike, who was born and brought up entirely during Soviet times, was clear to explain to us that Estonians feel no hatred to the people who had occupied their country, rather they saw this action as purely ‘politics’, Estonia had been a strategic location for the political powers. Now was the time for them to rebuild and share their heritage and culture.

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Villi Pihl explained the importance of the locally sourced mud for healing

Tourism in Saarema


We visited a medical spa, Valsi Maja, where mud treatments can be prescribed. Alongside this are several spa hotels and Estonia welcomes many visitors to the spa towns along its coast. This is a growing health tourism market particularly for the nearby Scandinavian countries and it builds on the culture of saunas and wellness that is so much part of Estonian life.


The castle at Kuuressare has received funding for renovation, it is an impressive citadel and the funding has largely gone into the structure of the building. They have a strong link to the local community and culture, like Haapsalu it hosts a large festival attracting many visitors to the area during July.

The history museum in the castle tells the stories of the distant past and recent history. It is visited by 70-80 thousand people every year and helps visitors understand the extraordinary nature, history and culture of the area.

It has received European Funding too.

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Tōnu Sepp gave us a guided tour of the castle and patiently answered many of our questions.

A significant story is told in the ’Iron Curtain’ exhibit. The theme is ‘new beginnings’, both for refugees who fled abroad and for the Estonians who stayed during occupation. On Saaremaa traditional farming and fishing was tightly regulated as was travel. Never the less many people were deported.

A film ‘The Association of the People of Saaremaa in Toronto as an Upholder of Estonian Ideas (2008)’ summarizes the activities of the people of Saaremaa who lived in Canada, far away from their home island, during half a century.

‘The children (leaving in the small boats) never asked when they would go back home’.

Estonian costume centre

The centre for Estonian costume is run as part of the museum. Each Estonian parish has its own style of colourful national dress – often a sequence of stripes.

Patterned legwarmers, intricately woven long cotton belts, red colouring to keep evil away, carefully crafted leather shoe, blue black and yellow for mourning, seal hunters wore light grey – Maeu taught us a great deal about Estonian national dress.

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Mareu Rannup wears Estonian dress, similar to those worn in nearby Finland, Latvia and Norway. The details are amazing.

During soviet times these outfits were not banned but the ‘commission’ dictated the rules such as colours and dance patterns. True folk costumes were considered symbols of national pride and only ‘mass produced’ versions were available. Now ‘new is the well forgotten old’ and people like Mareu and Marreeki work together to enable others to learn about and develop the handicraft skills to create national costumes.

Mari Lepik ‘the dedicated Sörve woman’

Mari works hard to share Estonian and most notably, Sörve culture within and beyond her local community. Children’s singing games are an important way of sharing traditional stories and rhymes. She has looked into her own culture and found the people who can share their skills, trying to ensure these things are not lost and has produced a wonderful book ‘the ABC of culture’ – this information will not be retained as archive – we have to live it! A lovely example of this was encouraging the young people to take part in fashion style photo shoot to encourage them to take one aspect of this culture and wear it in a modern landscape.

Sörve Military Museum and the battle of Tehumardi

In 1944 the Russians landed on Saaremaa and the Germans withdrew to the peninsula of Sörve. In this battle Estonians had been conscripted into both sides, it was the bloodiest battle on Estonian soil.

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To commemorate the battle, in 1967 the Russians raised a gigantic concrete and dolomite monument, several massive concrete slabs with names of the fallen Russians are mounted nearby. Most Russians were buried on the site. A nearby monument respectfully remembers the Germans too.

Tōnu Veldre met us to show us a trail through the woods to the coast which the community were developing, without funding, to improve accessibility and information for visitors. The trail led down an old avenue of trees ( which would have led to a nearby manor house, now destroyed) to a gun emplacement set up with some military relics and then on to the coast to see the geology and the natural history. Tōnu and his volunteers have great pride and energy, they want visitors to understand the history and enjoy the environment as part of their time here.

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The woodland site of the military museum

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Inside the military museum

The extraordinary community run military museum in Sörve is contained in a soviet military base taken over by the community to house all the relics found on the Sörve peninsula.

A local man, Enno Lind, spoke to us as we explored the myriad of small rooms filled with ‘militaria’. He punctuated his stories with objects lifted from the shelves – on their return to a deserted peninsula after occupation they had very little. He held a vase made from a german military shell and a jug made from a german gas mask. The vase had held flowers to commemorate those who never returned as when the war was over. He explained ‘Those who had survived and could return from the Russian zone did so, however those who were in the UK or US zone did not return.’ They had made their lives there.

He spoke about a local village of 52 households, no-one returned. ‘Do you know what news is in our village now? News is when you see someone walking down the street’

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Alongside the military museum is an agricultural and natural history museum. Enno proudly explained the wooden agricultural implements and passed us on to Mati Martinson – the natural history museum is his pride and joy. A real labour of love punctuated with a flair for communication.

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Varava Farm

During our time on Saarremma we were guests at Varava Farm where Aado and Lii Haandi made us welcome. This family farm is now managed for visitor accommodation and was a peaceful woodland location for us to gather. Fresh local produce and comfortable rooms, a sauna a short cycle ride to the Baltic for an evening swim.

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Before leaving Estonia we spent some time back in Taallin, seeing the place again with a new understanding of this wonderful energetic and emerging Baltic state. Our final visit was to the museum of occupation where we agreed that the spirit of positivity and inclusivity in present day Estonia was being communicated.

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Aivar( school teacher), Susan, Colin, Kathy, Carrie, Matthew, Becca, Rhona and Nina

This was my first study tour and the numerous people we met and the companions I travelled with, including our inimitable guide Maarike, made this an extraordinary experience. Challenging and enjoyable in equal measure. Thanks all!

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