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

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

When 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.

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!

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.

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.

Set in beautiful woodland

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: 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