Islands, Iconic wildlife, Ice roads and Independence

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clip_image002Estonian exchange trip August 2014 Kirsty Rosie, Highland Council Ranger Service

The project

On August 23rd 2014, six Scottish delegates set off on a journey across the north and Baltic seas to visit Estonia. The project was promoted by Arch Network; a Scottish Non-Government Organisation based in Comrie, Perthshire, promoting learning and development in natural and cultural heritage between Scotland and other European countries. The visit was funded by the organisation CHIST which has been funded within the framework of the ‘Leonardo da Vinci’ programme of the European Commission (DG EAC).  Our host was Heritage Tours Ltd, who are based on the Estonian Island of Saaremaa.  Our guide for the week was Maarika Toomel the Director of Heritage Tours Ltd. She was a warm, knowledgeable and endlessly kind host, without whom we could never have gained such an insight into the country.

The participants

The group was drawn from a wide range of public engagement settings:

Lynsey Anderson – National Mining Museum of Scotland

Isobel McDonald – Glasgow Museums – Social History Dept.

Cliff Giddings – Wild by Nature, Outdoor adventure leaders

Joe Waterfield – Robert Burns Birthplace Museum

Claire Hewitt – Story teller

Kirsty Rosie – Highland Council, Countryside ranger

My role in the Highland Council is to develop use of the outdoors to improve health, wellbeing and community capacity building, through skill share, volunteer opportunities and educational events.  I have a responsibility to help people access the outdoors interpreting the natural and cultural history.  I work with groups, creating experiences and programmes to suit.  Promoting and safeguarding the cultural impact on the environment is an important part of my work.  We work hand in hand with Heritage Trusts as well as land managers and conservation bodies to coordinate public events and advise local committees.  Cross curricular outdoor and indoor educational activities are provided to schools.    I also give slideshows to community groups on topics such as community forests, wildlife on crofts, shoreline activity and any interesting foreign excursions.

My aims for the project

The cultural heritage skills I would most like to develop would be anything that has an impact in shaping the environment.  For example traditional land use or forestry,  the species grown/managed for specific purposes, land grazed or managed in particular traditional ways which has caused a relationship with wildlife – making certain ecosystems dependent on human activities and vice versa. A local example is the dependence of our county flower – the Scottish Primrose, on crofters using common grazing’s for their sheep flocks at particular times of the year, to graze the grass back far enough to allow these diminutive plants to survive.

I am also interested in the plants, herbs and natural resources used in the home, for medicine, food or building material, or as the base for industry (especially anything that can seed a tourist trail).

Within my organisation we try to highlight these species and practices, occasionally demonstrating old methods, bringing them back to life for people to connect with. On local community projects in Caithness there is demand for maintaining not only vernacular buildings but also training in traditional skills, such as dry stone dyking, green wood work, as well as craft and kitchen skills.

There seems to me to be lack of people in highland offering these skills on a commercial basis. Most of the events we run are for the public, but skilled people who are also ‘people’ people are very difficult to find.  There are lots of old fishermen and crofters about but very few have the skills or inclination to pass their trades onto children or interested adults at organised events.   Also, as most of these events seem to run in the third sector – people donate their time rather than taking payment for it, therefore somehow ‘devaluing’ it.

I am therefore interested to find out how another country uses its heritage to its advantage, especially at a community level.

I hope that taking part in an exchange will feed my ability to ‘think outside the box’ on community run ventures and also strengthen our ideas basing them on models from the host country for events and cultural interpretation.

I try to make use of Caithness visitor attractions and natural heritage to enhance curricular activities – site visits, fossils, geology, renewable energies etc, helping our youths to re-engage with their locality in a positive way.

I am often looking for ways of accessing volunteer hours in school grounds or habitat improvement works.

Timetabled visits and activities

Day 1 “Do you eat hedgehogs in Estonia?“

After a long journey and safe arrival to  Tallinn airport we were greeted by the ray of warm sunshine, Maarika. We had an informative orientation trip toward the hotel with explanations, information and the promise of a tasty traditional meal. Hotel Dzingel stabled us for the night and it was interesting to learn that it had been built to house the builders of the nearby olympic stadium.   The meal did not dissappoint and set the tone for the remainder of the trip – excellent food, many questions, animated discussion punctuated with the odd song, and slightly weary heads from the plethora of experiences crammed into each day.

Day 2 “Life is taking you to the place where you belong“

For Maarika our guide the drive to Saaremaa was a return trip. She is resident there now but spent her young years travelling to visit her island granny from her base in Tallinn. Like many of the islanders we met, a person who left for work in the city and is very glad to return. The ferry did a good job of promoting the island, with its community produce emblem painted on the prow of the ship and national dishes offered on board. We had our first taste of the national fish, the small herring, in the cafe at the terminal, and it would be the first of many delicious fish dishes! On Muhu island we stopped for a fish lunch and quick look at the community museum/shop, which was well stocked with local handicrafts and a source of income for islanders.


A vist to Tihuse Farm included a welcome dance and then an informative journey around the heritage trail on horse drawn cart. Martin the owner was quite the advert for farm diversification, a man who was breeding rare breed ponies had augmented his business to develop the ancient sacred stones on his farm into a visitor trail, complete with pony rides, tea room and toilets. He operated on a scale fit to handle bus loads of cruise ship passengers, and was running the place as a tight ship himself.


A visit to the microbrewry of ’Poidebeer’ was another shining example of innovative rural business. A young Tallinn couple who had moved to island to enjoy the rural life with their young family had set up the business in their outbuildings – filling a gap in the market for island brewed rye beer. It turned out that these two USPs were in their favour and they have been working hard to keep up with demand since.

We arrived at Loona Manor, center of Vilsandi National Park, which would be our base for our time on the island. Loona Manor was constructed in the 16th century and is now owned by the State Forest Management Department, it is leased by Maarika and run as a country house hotel. The hotel is a haven for bird watchers and nature lovers and Maarika’s company Heritage Tours Ltd runs tours each day for its visitors.

Our after dinner entertainment was more interactive than we had bargained for with a the local dance troop who invited us to join them on the dance floor!

Day 3 “We are in the Baltic and all winds will find us“


We visited a limestone quarry which also had working tar making process on display. An open air trail which was fairly open ended, with alot of information available via multilingual display boards.

Next was lunch at the Juniper Syrup Farm Factory in the historic Leedri village, another home grown product, which has cleverly plugged a gap in the market and allows a young mother run a family business. Meeting the mayor of the parish was an enlightening experience, another intelligent young woman with a flare for patchwork and finding funding for developing community projects. A highlight for me was to visit a couple of the historic buildings. The community had renovated, a milk house (which now doubled up as a post house) and a windmill.


The milk house had its roots in the soviet era when the region was a designated milk production area; the farmers queued dailiy to hand over their alloted volume to the collecting tank. These milk houses were dotted around the island, some little more than steps at the side of the road. This one was special as the villagers had built it to double as a meeeting place. It was the first old building the modern community decided to rebuild and success here has spawned other projects. It now doubles as a bus stop, post collection building, gossip spot and youth club. I was amazed to see my own surname in the families mail boxes inside. A norse link after all perhaps? (Rosie is norse for ’horseman’ and in scotland occurs as a surname in Caithness, Orkney and Shetland).


The windmill was the next stop, it was easy to admire the product of alot of hard work by the community, both in building the thing and in raising the funds to do so. Another wonderful meal to end the day was hosted by Maarika and cooked by us all, an experience I wont forget!

Day 4 “The gates of paradise are strong here“

A visit to Vilsandi National Park Exhibition House, in a beautifully renovated cattle shed at Loona Manor and the fossil house, a former garden pavilion for the ladies of the manor to drink coffee.  A good welcome exhibition to the National Park, using different media to good effect.  Engraved flooring, hidden treasure cabinets, film, sound boards, and interactive migration maps were set out nicely between the books, magazines and specimens.  The lady who greeted us directed us around using the tail feather of a white tailed sea eagle and treated us to a tale or two. I was hooked on her every word. She welcomed us to the ‘the kingdom of the birds’ where we should feel like princes after crossing 3 seas. As with many islands, this reserve has 250 recorded species, about half of which nest and the rest are migrants. I was captivated by how she interpreted the fossil display, a long folk story involved the local giant ‘Suur Toll’, the devil and how parts of his body came to be washed up on the beach, forever fossilised in stone.

In Karala, Estonia’s ’Most Beautiful Village’, we met another woman who was not short of drive or creative talent, a potter to trade she and the community raised funds for a community house, ran it as a B and B, and promoted local products.


The village green was typical, having both a swing and an unlit bonfire ready for action. We enjoyed a lunch of dumpling soup and another seasonal treat we saw a lot of – the apple cake. A visit to an enterprising business man’s development into tourism finished the afternoon off. His 3 story windmill is pictured and is available for holiday accommodation. Within the grounds we had the delight of foraging for mushrooms, which we later had for dinner. She further toured us to the coast to see the coastal grazing land, and the remnants of look out towers rom the soviet era. It was here we saw two adult sea eagles! The interesting mossy tuft pictured below was laid out on the grass in her garden, yet another enterprise, algae collected to be dried and sold on for processing. The island folk are not ‘one trick ponies’!

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To round off a busy day we retired to Maali Creation Farm to learn the traditional skill of finger knitting. The cord produced is embridered on to the national dress and in some tourist shops – modern fashion including mens underwear!

A Saaremaa sauna experience finished off the day, followed by a superb feast of local delights. Sauna culture was one that fascinated the group, perhaps because it has no parallel in our prudish culture.

Day 5 “There are no traffic lights on Saarema, except on the ice road“

A visit to the capital of Saarema today, the little town of Kuressaare, quiet enough to need no traffic calming measures. We talked with Saaremaa Marketing Association and the ’Know wool’ organisation. We discussed at length the strengths and difficulties of running business from an island.

In the afternoon we visited the Kuressaare Episcopal Castle which was renovated as a modern visitor attraction, some excellent interp on communism, and a rather old fashioned natural history display with swathes of taxidermy. I very much enjoyed this for its dated aspects as well as its encompassing detail on natural history of Estonia.

The Roosi farm, another example of start up business, making use of the older traditions of sheep farming and pairing it to a gap in the market for high end leather and wool products. The working herd with two different types of sheep dog held the groups interests. The dog below is one that we have no need of in Scotland, having made extinct our major sheep predator, the wolf. This dog is brought up within the herd (and he does look a lot like a sheep) and will defend them to the death against an attack.


After dinner we had a lesson on woodwork and discovered where the fresh scent that seemed to permeate the tourist trail was coming from. Juniper wood, which is abundant here and also the national tree, is carved and shaped into anything the mind could imagine, and smells fantastic. Another local man has recently set himself up in business in creating souvenirs, and it was these he helped us to make. I was delighted with the simplicity of many of his cheerful designs and will happily try some of them out at work.

Day 6 ’If something is balanced, it is beautiful. This is why nature is beautiful’

On the drive back to Tallinn, we stopped in at Koplimäe Talu organic farm, where we were shown round by yet another business minded woman who had carved a niche for her family on an island she wanted to return to. They grew spelt and rye and other cereals with less gluten, made produce from it on site and also ran cookery classes.


Whilst waiting for the ferry to the mainland, I had a short paddle in the baltic, just to feel the temperature. A beautiful boat we saw berthed there was an exact replica of the old post boat to the iland of Muhu, hand made by a group of young men. It was called the MuhuUisk ’the ice skate of the island Muhu’. A large deck to enable cattle crossings which reminded me of the old boats to the islands at home.

Checked back into the Hotel Dzingel and then a walking tour of the Old City. We had an overview of the history and people of the city and how it grew. Pictured below is some very inconspicuous interpretation. The walls of the old city are outlined on the paving stones below your feet, a detail I would not have appreciated if Maarika had not pointed it out. Very unobtrusive but powerful.


Dinner was a medieval feast in the F-hoone restaurant, an incredible dining experience, complete with 600 yr old menu, and furniture and table ware made in traditional ways. I did not sample the ’decent elk soup’.


Day 7 ’Now I know why you sing Maarika’


A visit to the song festival grounds was quite an emotional experience, only because it shared with us by Maarika; her long family traditions, the political struggles and the singing revolution. It was very inspirational.

The next visit to the Occupation Museum threw this into context. A song or dance does not take up any space in a refugee’s suitcase. A very powerful thought provoking museum with some excellent sculptures outdoors.


The Seaplane Harbour Museum was an incredibly well put together museum, and was very rightly award winning. It covered all eras and descriptions of sea going vessels in very imaginative ways.

We dined here on the roof terrace, but could have eaten inside the coal bunker of the ice breaking ship shown below, if it had not been for a festival taking place there the same night.


As a group we had been avoiding the topic of the looming Scottish referendum but when we met the mayor of Tallinn, (a previous prime minister), this topic was of great interest to him and was discussed at length. He drew many parallels between the countries of Estonia and Scotland.

The Night of Ancient Lights festival was taking place along the seafront and we perused this after dinner. Taking in the bonfires, local music and more traditional dancing.

Day 8 ’People here are positively crazy’

On our last morning we visited the Open Air Museum, and enjoyed the

folk group Leigarid, who have been meeting here for the last 15 years to dress in traditional costume and sing and dance. A fantastic set up, which I cant think of a parallel for in Scotland, open air dancing where the tourists are welcomed to join in, without a fair dunt of whisky being involved.

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Lasting Impressions


The sea influence here is permeating, and the feeling of being on the edge is accentuated by the fact that until 1991, this was the highly defended western frontier of the USSR. We heard many stories of the coastal community and the visa, shootings and even messages in bottles that made their lives challenging. The need to survive hostile conditions and be self-reliant could be said of any island community. The people of Saaremaa are no exception.

Business is flourishing due to bright minded island folk with a flair for diversity and skill at getting a pound out of LEADER! On every corner a cottage industry has been created whether horses, beer, traditional craft museums, juniper syrup or soap. A parallel I could see was the ease of branding where an island was concerned – mainlanders love an island brand (just look at Orkney), and this was mentioned by several of the people we met.

Iconic wildlife


A fairy tale land of wolves, bears and wild boar where storks and crane visit the villages. There can be little doubt that the iconic wildlife of the area had an effect on visitors, we see it in Scotland too, businesses within or close to a National Park enjoy the ‘honey pot effect’, tourists buzz around hot spots and hang around to do whatever else is on offer. (The only bear we saw was a stuffed one in the museum!)

A highlight of the trip for me was the sighting of the two sea eagles above the shore by an old sheep farm. It was rough grazing (similar macchair probably due to the thin soil layer and underlying lime stone alkalinity) and there was an absence of trees. On the nearby farm we visited, (now turned over to tourist accommodation) the owner commented that ten years ago he could see the sea from his house. He now had a 10 year old juniper forest in the way. He said the government would not permit him to cut it down nor graze new sheep on the area, as it was protected. I was able to tell him that in all likelihood, in 10 years time the government would paying him to cut it back and graze it in an effort to maintain the habitat for the very birds and flora it was designated for. A lesson which we have learned in Scotland, to use old traditional methods to maintain habitats.


A novel species for me was the ‘Raccoon dog’, pelts pictured here. The soviets introduced these from South Asia to boost the local fur trade. They are now a major pest across Europe with many of the Baltic countries having annual cull to eradicate them.

Not forgetting the indigenous Saaremaa islander is a fantastic specimen of wildlife.  One fascinating habit is the use of group swings! The people, swings, a sport, base board for feet, can get tied on and do a 360 around the pole. Maarika told us this with a straight face, and I believe her.


Ice road.

In the first two days I was racking up a mental note of all the similarities between Estonia and Caithness, the flat landscape, the weather, the difficulty of keeping young people in rural jobs, the bogs, the influence of the sea, the predilection to herring, the ice roads…. The ice roads?! Roads over the ice?!

This was a topic of fascination for me and fuelled a lot of questions. This was the inspirational difference that made this place exotic and other worldly to me.   In good winters (not all, and this too made it seem a special occurrence), when the Baltic freezes over, a man goes out to test the thickness of the ice, if it is 50cm thick then the road building can commence. This involves little juniper trees being driven into the road edges to mark them for drivers, the aforementioned traffic lights are hooked up and away they go. Driving over the ice. Some careful driving is a must of course, only so many cars at once, and at a constant speed please to avoid pile ups. What’s more, it is illegal to wear a seat belt on the ice road.  The ferry company has been known to drive the ferry through icy patches in an effort to keep the crossing clear, and its own business up. Ice road sabotage! We were informed it was a popular winter drive for the well-heeled in Tallinn, to do a loop of the islands during this season, driving from land mass to land mass over the ice.

We saw evidence of the icy climate in the folk museums we visited. Sleighs jostled beside trailers in the sheds along with special ice shoes for horses (pictured).   Storks won’t fly over water, and are only seen on the Islands, when there is an ice road. Even ancient wars have taken place atop frozen lochs! In a country with the highest peak of only 300m cross skiing popular in modern days.



The Estonians are very proud of their nation and its recent independence; this struck a chord on the run up to our own referendum. It was obvious from when we first landed.  The airport was bedecked in national fabrics and adorned with sculptures of the first president and the giant’s wife who cried the adjoining lake, into existence. The folk lore was as important as the real figures, perhaps more so. Dancing, music, and stories, weightless treasures of the people of Estonia.

Future links and skill sharing

Below is a list of ideas I have taken away to use in my own work:

Bear song – shared by Claire and a fantastic idea to focus children’s forest activities around.

Herring – Maarika, started a festival around orchids, so I will start one around herring. I am starting small in 2015 with two same harbour days with activities based on herring. It may grow next year. Wick was the biggest herring port in Europe in its day.

Below, Maarika modelling some ‘flat sprat’ earrings.


Tie in visits to producers for walks – I enjoyed the intimacy of the smaller group and felt the value of it, also each activity we did had ended with something to drink eat or make at the end, this will be a new direct ion I take my guided walks down in 2015. I have developed the bread making idea into classes at school since I returned.

Basket making – the traditional baskets were beautiful and may be developed into a great workshop.

Wood working – an excellent idea for using local produce.


I would suggest a good link which could be forged would be between very sparsely populated communities (such as in Sutherland) and the communities who built the community houses. A useful space on a scale that suits and also a way to earn some income.

I had a wonderful time, cheers!

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