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

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.

The Flag Heritage Centre at Athelstaneford

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.

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.

St Mary’s Church in Otepää

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.

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.

Traditional Estonian student caps at Tartu University

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.

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

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 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

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!

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

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

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!

100,000 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!

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, secure in her future thanks to her 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

Estonia: The mysteries of Kihnu Troi – or how traditions can save a nation (Part 1)

Underway! Knitting mittens from a traditional Kihnu island pattern

Kihnu Troi – it sounds like a character from a Star Wars film, but is in fact a very distinctive style of Estonian men’s sweater with a unique two-colour braided cast-on!  Kihnu (the ‘h’ is sounded) is an island lying in the Gulf of Riga, Troi their famous traditional knitwear originally worn by the men of this fishing community.

Like exquisite Shetland lace, or Fair Isle sweaters, each region of Estonia has its own unique, intricate and colourful designs. Socks, mittens, jumpers; all as bright and hard-wearing as anything we have in Scotland. Kihnu patterns use black and white wool, with contrasting red bands around hems, cuffs and necks: bands that were believed to grant protection to the wearer.   Knitted from very fine wool, all these garments can last for more than a lifetime.

The powerful medieval Bishop’s Castle on the island of Saaremaa

Estonia’s geographical position has had a profound influence on its turbulent history. Being flat and fertile this small country has found itself repeatedly in the path of invading empires: from ferocious Viking raiders to German, Danish, Swedish, Russian, Nazi and Soviet occupations. It’s a country that has certainly experienced more than its fair share of history!

I’ve visited Estonia a number of times now.  Like Scotland, it’s a country with many islands around its coast, and while geographically different from Scotland (unlike Scotland Estonia is very flat), the inhabitants of these Baltic islands have experienced harsh and difficult conditions that have influenced their lives just as much as times of great hardship have shaped the character of Scotland’s island communities.

But trials and tribulation can breed determination and resilience. Difficulties are overcome and life goes on.  In 1991 Estonia regained its independence from the Soviet Union and the road to recovery began.  Huge changes had to be faced politically and economically, but face them they did.

Suitsuräime – smoked herring Estonian style on the island of Muhu

As in Scotland, the days of the great fleets of trawlers are gone: instead the focus is now on good, sustainable local produce, with smoked Baltic herring, sprats and eels being the most popular.  We tried some of these specialties: suitsuräime (smoked Baltic herring),  suitsuangerjas (smoked eel) and suitsukilu (smoked sprats).  Not quite Arbroath Smokies, but tasty nonetheless!  And if you’re on foot on the island of Saaremaa, the Pithla Õlu, a beer so close to home-made that it only comes in barrels, and Saaremaa vodka (especially the rhubarb one) are worth a shot (or two)!

Beautifully restored wooden houses from the Tsarist era

The knitters among you will know just how complicated Kihnu Troi cast-on is, and I have to admit that I didn’t quite manage it this time.  But the end result – my first pair of Estonian mittens – give me real pleasure and they will stand me in good stead in the coming winter months.  It wasn’t easy to find wool as fine as that recommended in American knitter Nancy Bush’s pattern book “Folk Knitting in Estonia” but I was fortunate to find a Shetland wool equivalent in The Yarn Cake, a great little knitting shop in Glasgow.

Estonian mittens I knitted based on Nancy Bush’s Kihnu pattern

I’ve written about some of the similarities between Scottish and Estonian islands in Scottish Islands Explorer: Two countries very different in some ways, but also with many shared characteristics when it comes to their islands.  Long-standing and deep-rooted traditions help hold these communities together through thick and thin.  And that adds strength and stability to the nations they are part of. Estonia is a beautiful country, steeped in history and well worth a visit.

And perhaps the madder-red bands of my Kihnu mittens will indeed give me added protection from danger!  I hope so.

Links: The Yarn CakeKihnu Troi Braided Cast-on  and  Nancy Bush: Folk Knitting in Estonia