Updates by Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to Archnetwork and receive notifications of all new articles and reports by email.

Join 123 other subscribers



ESTONIA 24th – 31st AUGUST 2014

Claire Hewitt Storyteller and handmaker



These two old photographs for me tell the heart of our journey through Estonia – meetings with ordinary yet extraordinary people who have faced occupation of their tiny country and yet inspite of this have held faithfully to their traditions and beliefs. We were given many windows to look through by our wonderful guide Maarika Toomel and the stories that were shared around the table filled my heart.

As a Storyteller I am passionate about keeping the ancient tradition of oral storytelling alive and I know the best place for this is round the fire after a good feast or simply with a cup of tea at someone’s table. This is the place where people’s life stories flow and are woven together and create the threads that connect us as humans. Stories that connect people and place; folk traditions and handwork; local food traditions and the making of it in the kitchen with a song ready on the lips to help the work flow – these are the simple things that makes a community and keeps it growing and strong. The communities in Estonia who invited us to their table and fed us so well I cant thank enough for their generosity and kindness to this humble stranger.

Before I came to Estonia I knew of their rich tradition of stories and have indeed told some here in Scotland. I was also aware that Estonians love to sing … sing en mass in huge gatherings of choirs and I wondered at this and puzzled on it as to why. But there are always the stories behind the stories and what I learnt on my journey here about the Singing Revolution and the Russian Occupation of Estonia will always be there giving a depth and integrity that I couldn’t possibly have understood without Maarika’s guiding hand and depth of knowledge.

She created a program that was linked with the most beautiful connecting thread and I came home richer from the experience and one that without doubt I will share with my own community and practice as a Storyteller. As in the larder below where the preserves are made for the hard winter to come, so the Estonians keep their traditions to nourish all who wish to sit and eat at their table. There follows my account of this journey to the heart of Estonia in some words and Story mapping drawings I produced once home.


Day One : A Meadow of Mint and Wishing Stones


Leaving Tallin, Maarika Toomel, director of Heritage Tours Ltd and our guide for the week, weaves our journey past fields of silver birch, pine, apples trees laden with juicy harvest, plump vibrant red rowan berries, winter wood piles and harvest bales. A stork nest tells of community, nay, family, responsibility for this symbol of fertility and good luck.

We look down from Kagari Bridge and one of us gasps ” A Meadow of Mint” and a frog is spotted as we forage by the river. This gives rise to another tale of taking care of the natural environment ” Oh yes” says Maarika ” they announce on the radio if there are frogs migrating across the road near you… people go down and carry the frogs across to the other side.”

And then a meeting with a magical Storyteller on the island of Muhu called Martin who at Tihuse Hobuturismitalu not only breeds the native horse of Estonia and keeps the tribe strong, but shares some of his knowledge on the animistic beliefs of his people … the faerie folk, giants, Uku the Thunder God, The Forest Father and Earth Mother and the healing power of nature.

Our journey then takes us across a causeway to Saaremaa Island where we drink rich earthy rye beer from Poide Brewery and then onwards to Loona Manor in the heart of Vilsandi National Park.

We may be tired but an amazing feast awaits us….. food and then an Estonian Ceildh! Food, Dance, Song – what more can a traveller wish for to dream on!


                                                                 At The Crossing of the Seven Tracks I make a wish.

Day Two: Of Tar, Rocks and Juniper Ladies

esto estphoto5

Maisakula Tar and Limestone trail is an amazing story of local produce making good of an old tradition, conserving the lime kilns and creating a new sustainable business as well as a fantastic educational resource for children of all ages. Stumps of pine trees warmed by surrounding fire under a metal cauldron give tar, and limestone rock heated in a kiln also by fire will give you lime to render your walls. 400 million years old is this rock and once we find out, Saaremaa was on the same latitude as Australia!


We then journey on to the Community of Leedri which has been an established township for over 490 years. At Orbu farm we are greeted by a family of women who make the most delicious syrup I have ever tasted … and from the Juniper that grows everywhere on the Island ( Loodustoode Saaremaa Kadaksiirup) We are welcomed to a feast of fresh rye bread, ramson dip, beetroot patties and of course Juniper tea and syrup. Sharing round the table recipes and wild food stories, I leave with a heart warmed from these women’s hard work and energy – and of course Juniper and hazelnut syrup to put on my spelt pancakes at home….

clip_image022  photo23

…… and after a feast what better than a walk with Mayor of Leedri and Patchwork maker, Jaanika who shares how her community works together and celebrates……We wind around the village and stopping by a wall which looks over to an empty piece of land, we hear how the family who once lived here were sent to Siberia during the Russian Occupation….

A family of 3 cranes are spotted…


…….. a walk and a wind through the village and the changed use of the old Russian Milk collection place – a place where the older members of the community come to pick up their post and have a blether!


… and home to create a feast together at Maarikas home where we toast the day with Estonian Rhubarb wine, stuffed cabbage and of course …. potatoes!

Day Three : Suur Toll, Kaja the builder of stone walls and Sauna Songs.

So today at the Loona Exhibition house I learn from our wonderful guide about Vilsandi Nature park .. sounds of deer, oyster catcher and wolf and beautiful photographs of fauna and flora. But best is the story of how some of the rocks and fossils on the shoreline came to be. I am introduced to my first Estonian Giant and as a great lover of Scottish Giant stories, I am enthralled!


This is a story I can take home with me and weave in amongst the Giant tales which arise from the hills and mountains of Scotland….

A Giant Story from Saaremaa – This story beautifully interprets the rich fossils that can be found at Elda Cliffs in the Vilsandi Archipelago made up of sediment rocks left from the Silurian period :

Once upon a time there lived a powerful hero – Suur Toll – in Saaremaa.

He was very strong. On day his wife Piret sent him to the cabbage field to work. After his hard labour he fell asleep in the field. But Suur Toll had an enemy – the Devil himself! The Devil saw him there fast asleep and one by one put all the stones back in the field that Suur Toll had removed.

Suur Toll awoke and saw to his surprise that he was surrounded by rocks and knew exactly who had put them there…. it was the Devils work that was certain and that made him angry!

So he crept up on the Devil who was fast asleep, picked him up and threw him into the sea.

There the Devil lay in the sea for 0ne week…. two weeks…a month….a year….. a long long long time….. until a fish came and nibbled the meat from the Devils’ bones, and these bones sank to the bottom of the sea and were carried by the waves to the shore.

And so when you walk along the shore at Elda Cliffs you will find these bones …. maybe a finger nail…or one of the Devils horns …. or even his skull!

And the fish that ate the devil? Well Estonians say that its white flesh is very tasty but its face … well it took on the face of the Devil himself! Can you guess which fish that might be?

Suur Toll was and still is a great and powerful folk hero. It is said when you see great waves rising that he is wading out to sea to rescue a floundering ship and its men. They even named an Ice Breaker after him!


‘ The Gates of Paradise are strong here’ we are told and I can believe this…. as are the woman so I am told when we finally reach the most beautiful village in Estonia – Karala – and Kaja who for every one of her children has built a kilometre of dry stone wall round her fields. ‘ Real Island women can feed a husband and six children.’ Around the table in Karala community house she tells the story of how this building was created from an old tractor drivers hut … and not until the kitchen was added did it have a soul. They are at present working on recording the stories of the oldest village member – a lady of 85. I meet Helgi in the kitchen who is making chicken dumpling soup for us on our return from a visit to the edge of the village on the coast.


photo14   photo 12

A wee bit of Kaja’s stone wall

Kaja shares some stories about the Russian occupation of this coastal area that looks out towards Sweden. These bunkers werent put here to stop people landing. They were put here to stop people leaving. We hear sad sad tales of men and women sent to Siberia and what it was like to grow up during these times. But we also heard of the great feeling of community even in these times when people would secretly listen to the voice of America and sing quietly their traditional songs.

But the call of lapwings, swans, and ring plovers songs can be heard over the bay and lighten my heart as we collect for our supper a bowl of boletus mushrooms under the juniper trees.

But thinking of food we head back to the village house and Helgi’s heart warming soup !


But the day is far from over as Maarika bundles us back into the bus! We visit Mihkli Farm Museum where the houses standing were worked as a farm for 200 years. It is so well preserved and the threshing house is full of old farm implements including sleighs.

The sauna still smells strongly of smokey tar and one could imagine people readying for their saturday sauna!

A field of cranes..hundreds of them readying for migration……

It is here that Maarika tells us about the tradition of finger knitting to create red threads that were stitched onto a coat edge or a skirt and was seen as a protective thread. This leads us beautifully into our next part of the day – a visit to Anna Luse’ s wee house where Maarika teaches us finger knitting and we prepare the sauna scrub from salt, coffee grounds, oregano, orange, olive oil and cinamon.

photo17 photo16

And into the Sauna we go. The heat is just what I need but still not sure about the whacking on the back of juniper branches! Together we create a spirited rendition – impovised – of our very own Sauna Song whilst learning of this ancient tradition of the Sauna where babies were born and people died.

Day Four : Of wool, woodwork and weaving of songs.


A visit to Saksa Farm shop and then onto Kuressaare the capital of Saaremaa.

We meet Karen Allas who has energetically created the Know Sheep project which celebrates all things wool and hopes to promote all things cosy and beautiful. The braids and skirts and coats traditionally worn by islanders were all woven from spun wool and Estonians are very proud of their traditional dress.


We then move onto Kuressaare Castle and find in its walls a moving exhibition about life under the Russian ocupation. Most moving is a photograph of people linking arms. Maarika has told us about the human chain linking arms from Tallin, through Latvia to Lithuania when the Bolshevik regime was falling and independance for Estonia not just a dream. I hear again about the Singing revolution and begin to understand the powerful way that song has united Estonians.

photo27  photo28

Maarikas first hand experience of this time and being able to share her personal stories make this journey all the richer.

We then meet a wonderful sheep dog Sitikus who from a wee pup has lived with the sheep in their field. She guards them as she would her family from the wolves that live near to the Rosee Sheep farm.

More Cranes …. and even more…


We return to Loona Manor to learn from a local woodcarver the art of working with juniper wood – I resort back to finger knitting after making a wee bangle and a button! Maarika sings for me a spinning song which is another lovely thread to carry home with me to share.

Day Five: Farewell Loona, hello Tallin


But before heading for the big city, Maarika takes us on the north coastal road and we find ourselves in the warm and generous company of Marju Muur, who with her husband Olev, has farmed organic buckwheat, spelt, and vegetables. They stone grind their own grains and through workshops at the farm, promote to local children and tourists a healthy and mindful way of living. We ate the most delicious apple cake and this was a fitting end to our visit to Saaremaa – sharing our stories together round the table in good company.

And so to Tallin – over the causway to Muhu and then the ferry. Goodbye beautiful Cranes…happy migrating…

And so we reach Tallin – the land of pointy buildings, pointy shoes and towers and turrets. I loved the contrast and as this was Maarikas home for many years she was able to share her love of this ancient city.

ooooo    aaaa  eeee

Dragons and frogs carved into the stone and towers reaching the sun as it sets … beautiful.

We partake in some wholesome medieval banqueting by candle light and fall to sleep with tales of Baltic trading, merchants, the House of the Brotherhood of Blackheads and a pharmacy that has been open since 1422!


Day Six : Suitcases and Sea Planes


I step towards these stone suitcases and I am immediatey moved to tears. The thread of stories that people have shared over the last week are there, in my heart , and I know that the Museum of Occupations will be a story that will remain with me forever.

Suitcases filled with clothes ready for the fleeing on a wee rowing boat helmed by brave sailors to Sweden. Poems and letters sent from Siberian Camps transcribed and film, photographs and footage that tell compelling stories of occupation.

photo34  photo38  photo40

The sun is shining as we move out and up to the top of Tallins hill where the ancient walls hold the city strong and over the water we see ships and ferries carrying people back and forth.

Then a spontaneous visit to a flea market in the old industrial part of town and I find a beautiful illustrated childrens song book …Maarika sings me a couple of the songs inside and I record them…then we head for the amazing Seaplane Museum and the Ice Breaker Suur Toll and the Night of Lights Festival where beacons are lit all around the Baltic coast to celebrate light and warmth as Autumn begins to creep in.


Day Seven : Singing and dancing revolutions.

photo35  photo36

And so finally we see the place where people gathered spontaneously in 1989 and sang for a week, day and night, whilst a delegation in Russia asked for economic independance.

‘ We sang ourselves to be free’ I am told and finally in 1991 independence was granted. What a way to do it. And so every 5 years they gather, old and young and process through Tallin in their traditional costume and sing with one voice.


…and dance

So we leave the Folk Museum and say a heart felt farewell to Maarika. The skills, knowledge and experience gained on this journey have confirmed all I believe in passionately about bringing community, families together, through engaging with our rich and diverse heritage. The land and people of Maarika’s country have taught me much and I hope that leading upto our own referendum we might gather and sing and celebrate community and stories and song and our wonderful traditions, and what it is to be human on this amazing Earth.

My thanks again to all the extraordinary people we met on our journey ; to my travel companions who shared so much too of their own experiences; to Sheila at Arch network for making it happen and last but not least to wonderful generous and kind Maarika I give my heartfelt thanks.


Creative Learning Outcomes

I would wholeheartedly wish to thank the Leonardo da Vinci programme for funding the Arch Trainer Exchange. This is a European Commission funding programme focused on teaching and training and creating cultural and creative links between the European Communities. It is part of a Lifelong Learning Programme and aims to build skills and enables participants to take part in stimulating learning experiences, aswell as developing education and training across Europe.

As a Storyteller working in developing strong threads betwixt Community, Heritage and the Stories embedded in landscape, I found my journey through Estonia engaged me totally and helped focus on how to further my partnership working and personal CPD. I have developed over the years very strong working partnership relationships with RSGS, Historic Scotland, Scottish Poetry Library and Storytelling Centre, Folklore Museums, National Scottish Library and Museums and Galleries; Forestry Commissions Outdoor Education Learning initiatives aswell as local community work in remote rural communities and schools. And in each partnership we work to develop through Storytelling and Storymaking activities a deeper interpretative of our cultural heritage.

The Estonians too have worked hard over the years to keep their rich traditions and connection to the environment inspite of occupation. They have grown new ideas of how to share its culture through their stories, songs, dances, enterprising initiatives and creative determination. They are leading by example very powerful learning, educational and historical/social history methods of passing on their ‘Story’ and from my experiences and meetings whilst in Estonia I have gained skills and tools which will serve me greatly in my work.

As a Storyteller and Story keeper I focus on using story and handwork (cooking, baking, felt making, knitting, stitching, etc) to bring people together to share skills and make a place where Stories – personal life stories or local folk tales- can be shared. I also wish to promote Global awareness of our connection to communities out with Scotland through stories and handwork and I have the wonderful job now of weaving some stories to share from Estonia to communities here.

I have been inspired to re activate my Giants Kitchen workshops after this visit where bread making skills are passed on whilst local stories of giants told. Bread, the staff of life, and stories, are so much part of the Estonian culture and this feels a natural bridge to connect us and a place to share what I have learnt from this journey.

In my work developing story initiatives in Outdoor Learning I will now weave in some of the stories that have been shared with me and the Estonians beliefs and connection with the ancient traditions of their land.

I also know that I will be going back to Estonia building on relationships already made where we can share traditions and stories and celebrate and nourish the rich and diverse cultural heritage of our lands.

Claire Hewitt

Storyteller and Handmaker

Sept 2nd 2014, Aberfeldy, Highland Perthshire.

Leave a Reply