“How are the mighty fallen… ” Helme Castle in Estonia

“How are the mighty fallen and the weapons of war perished.” 2 Sam 1:19

Helme Castle May 2016 04 500pWhen the Teutonic Knights began their Northern Crusade and swept through the Baltic States in the 12th century, they would have found it hard to imagine that their once mighty fortresses would end up nothing more than heaps of rubble.  But we know that empires rise and then fall. Ruling dynasties weaken and fade away. Powerful elites come and go.  And if there’s one thing that history teaches us, it’s that change is the only constant throughout.

Ruinous walls held upright by rickety wooden scaffolding

Ruinous walls held upright by rickety wooden scaffolding

A couple of weeks ago we visited the remains of one of these Teutonic fortresses, Helme Castle in Southern Estonia. Built in the 13th century it was a massive oval-shaped stone fortress surrounded by two moats. From here the knights ruled the surrounding lands (now Estonia and Latvia) with an iron fist.

The castle was an unmistakable and seemingly impregnable symbol of power and control, but it all came crashing down during the Russo-Swedish War of 1656-1658. With strategically placed barrels of gunpowder, the Swedes blew it up to keep it out of Russian hands. Only small sections of the walls remain today, and we were surprised to see that they are propped up with even more rickety-looking wooden scaffolding!

(c) Wikipedia Creative Commons

(c) Wikipedia Creative Commons

The Teutonic Knights used the excuse of the ‘Christianisation’ of the pagan peoples of Old Prussia and the Baltics to raid, slaughter and then rule the lands they brutally conquered. In time they turned to attacking neighbouring Christian states as their desire for power and wealth grew. Greed, not faith, lay at the heart of their actions.

Power and control can be wielded in many and varied ways. Throughout history people have been ruled by the power of the sword. Fortunately for most of us in the West today that’s no longer the case and we tend to believe ourselves to be free of these sort of tyrannies.  But is that really the case?

It’s no longer possible for any of us to deny that the equally brutal power of institutional corruption controls much of the world we live in now, and in many ways decides our fate and permeates our daily lives as much as the Knights of the Sword did in medieval times.  And again it’s greed that lies at the heart of it all.P1230671

Roberto Saviano, the brave Italian journalist and writer, has spoken out fearlessly against organized crime – crime that comes in many guises. Institutional corruption is perhaps the most malignant and all-pervading crime we face today. Recently Saviano said: “It’s not the bureaucracy, it’s not the police, it’s not the politics but what is corrupt is the financial capital. 90 per cent of the owners of capital in London have their headquarters offshore. Jersey and the Caymans are the access gates to criminal capital in Europe and the UK is the country that allows it.”

So while we may not be faced with sword-wielding, armour-clad brutes, we are certainly living in a world where the evils of greed and corruption are destroying not only our chances for a fairer society, but also the future of our children.

The Castle remains sit in richly wooded countryside

The Castle remains sit in richly wooded countryside

Unfortunately the power of institutional corruption is so much harder to eradicate than that of medieval knights.  But it’s still up to us to do all we can to signal clearly what is right and what is wrong.

It’s easy to feel helpless in the face of such massive immorality. That’s why it’s so important to remember that nothing in life is fixed or final and that change is always possible. Though never an easy or comfortable task, our predecessors have fought for change every step of the way to give us the freedoms we have today.  And it’s our turn to follow in their footsteps.

Now, where’s that gunpowder?!

Estonia: Flying the flag – or how traditions can save a nation (Part 3)

St Andrew's Cross - the Saltire - seen in the sky!

St Andrew’s Cross – the Saltire – seen in the sky!

Sometimes, on a clear sunny day when the sky is blue, the vapour trails from jets flying high overhead can leave a beautiful image of the Saltire, Scotland’s national flag.  The Saltire is believed to be one of the oldest national flags in the world and although no-one knows for certain how it came to be chosen, tradition has it that in AD 832 an army of Picts under King Óengus (Angus), with support from Dalriadan Scots, found themselves surrounded and outnumbered by Angles. Things looked bad and Angus prayed for divine help: to his amazement the clouds formed a white Saltire against the blue sky and the Picts and Scots won the battle.  St Andrew became the patron saint of Scotland and the Saltire, St Andrew’s Cross, became our flag.

St Mary's Lutheran Church in Otepää

St Mary’s Lutheran Church in Otepää

In the East Lothian village of Athelstaneford – where that momentous battle is believed to have taken place – the Scottish Flag Trust run the Flag Heritage Centre where the story of Scotland’s flag is told.

When we were back in Estonia in May of this year, we visited Otepää, a ski resort in southern Estonia, the country’s ‘winter capital’. There we discovered that, like Athelstaneford in Scotland, Otepää had played an important part in the history of the national flag of Estonia. In St Mary’s Lutheran Church we heard how the blue, black and white – the sinimustvalge – of Estonia’s flag came from the three colours in the caps worn by Tartu University students in the 19th century: and that these three colours were also used in the Estonian Student Union flag.

Blue, black and white colours on traditional Estonian student caps

Traditional Estonian student caps at Tartu University

It was this flag that was consecrated in St Mary’s Church in 1884 to become the national flag of the whole country.  In 1918, when the Estonian Republic was established, these three colours  became the new republic’s official national colours.  Then in 1991, when Estonia once again regained its independence,  it became the official flag of the the Republic of Estonia.

Bas-relief on the outside wall of St Mary's Church celebrating the consecration of the flag in 1884

Bas-relief at St Mary’s Church celebrating the consecration of the flag in 1884

Otepää is home to the Estonian Flag Room which was established in 1996 to commemorate their flag – a flag that is as important to Estonians as the Saltire is to Scots. In fact, it was a delight to see so many Estonian flags being carried and waved with pride at Laulupidu, the Song Festival the previous year: not waved in anger, or superiority – but as a natural part of their lives : this is my land and I love it!

Today, November 30th, is St Andrew’s Day and is celebrated by Scots the world over. Celebrated as a mark of respect for our country and its long history. Celebrated as a sign of our shared heritage and identity. Celebrated to mark all that is good about Scotland. Almost every other country in the world celebrates their homeland in a similar way.

The Flag Heritage Centre at Athelstaneford - birthplace of the Saltire

The Flag Heritage Centre at Athelstaneford

Symbols are important. Identity is important. Knowing where you belong, and why, is important. Sadly some people deliberately attempt to equate national pride with imperialism or xenophobia. A foolish mistake. For there is no doubt at all that it’s good to know who we are and what we believe in.  It’s good to know about our past and to understand – and value – the struggles of all the ordinary people that have brought us to the point we are at now: though it can also be daunting to know that we have to play our part in these difficult times if we are to ensure that our country continues to grow and develop in a way that is good for all its citizens and not just the few.

Flags are wonderful symbols and I will be celebrating St Andrew’s Day this evening. But I’ll be celebrating Scotland every other day of the year as well!

The Flag Room in Otepää

The Flag Room in Otepää

The Flag Heritage Centre

The Estonian Flag Room in Otepää


Estonia: The Magic of Laulupidu – or how traditions can save a nation (Part 2)

Choirs gather in Tallinn from all over Estonia and beyond!

Choirs gather in Tallinn from all over Estonia and beyond!

Music and song play a great part in life in Scotland. We have a long and rich tradition of songs that reflect all aspects of life in this country. We grow up hearing the profound message in Robert Burns’ A Man’s a Man for A’ That, sung so movingly by Sheena Wellington at the opening of the Scottish Parliament in 1999.   Or For Auld Lang Syne, arguably the most-played and best-known song in the world. We have songs that talk of the common humanity we all share, despite the fact that it’s still very much an ill-divided world.

The procession from Tallinn to the Song Festival Grounds lasted for hours!

The procession from Tallinn to the Song Festival Grounds lasted for hours!

There are also songs of anger and frustration that the greed and corruption of the few can make life a misery for so many. Songs that are full of history and the tragedy that is man’s inhumanity to man. But again there are songs like Dougie MacLean’s heartfelt Caledonia, that celebrate the beauty of our landscape and our love for our country. Songs full of longing for justice and equality, for love, for basic human kindness. Songs that reflect the past and future hopes our nation.  Songs that add to what it means to be Scottish.

Beautiful traditional costumes

Beautiful traditional costumes

I was both intrigued and delighted when I discovered that music and song play a huge part in the life of the Baltic nation of Estonia, especially the song festivals that kept their culture and identity alive during centuries of foreign occupation. A few years ago a friend gave me a copy of a documentary called The Singing Revolution, made by a Canadian/Estonian couple, James and Maureen Tusty.  It’s perhaps one of the most moving films I have ever seen and tells of the brave and peaceful struggle by the people of Estonia to be free of the Soviet Union.  And, amazingly, how that long-standing tradition of music and song helped make the revolution possible.

The flame lit, Laulupidu could begin

The flame lit, Laulupidu could begin

This national Song Festival – Laulupidu – takes place once every five years, so when we returned to Estonia in 2014 we made sure we had tickets – and it’s an event I’ll never forget. Seeing people of all ages, from all over Estonia and beyond, descend on Tallinn in a breathtaking array of costumes was unforgettable. Then there was the patience of more than 25,000 singers as they waited in the blistering July heat to take their places in the opening procession from the heart of Tallinn to the song festival grounds.  Throughout the whole weekend the atmosphere was one of celebration, thankfulness, fun and friendship: hundreds of thousands of people and barely a policeman or security guard in sight – nor any mess either!

80,000 people undeterred by the blistering July heat!

80,000 people undeterred by the blistering July heat!

The singing was a mix of old and new songs – songs from the early days of the song festivals as well as by musicians and composers who had lived through the Singing Revolution themselves.  It’s almost impossible to decide on a favourite song, but two that I particularly enjoyed were Rein Rannap’s Ilus Maa (Beautiful Land) and René Eespere’s Ärkamise Aeg (Time of Awakening): both with a hymn-like quality and performed with real conviction and sincerity by almost 30,000 singers on the stage – feelings echoed by 80,000 more in the audience.

More than 25,000 singers take to the stage!

More than 25,000 singers take to the stage!

The pride in country and history that the people of Estonia wear so naturally is something we can all learn from: a nation that has no desire to force others to be like them, but instead celebrates the  joy of finally being able to be themselves.  Something that is so important to all people.

History never stands still.  Empires come and go. We bring up our children to become free and independent people, not eternally dependent on us.  Over and over again history shows us that peoples and nations – on every continent in the world – reach a point when it’s time for them to be free to make their own decisions about how their country is governed and how it treats its citizens.

A child steps out confidently, comfortable and secure in her nation's future - thanks to its past

A child steps out confidently: comfortable and secure in her nation’s future – thanks to its past

For me, what Estonia achieved – and how it achieved it – is something to be remembered and cherished: and is an example to us all as to how, no matter how long it may take,  lasting change can be made.

Links: The Singing Revolution 

The Singing Revolution: trailer

Ilus Maa (song)

Ärkamise Aeg (song)

The Corries sing A Man’s a Man for A’That