Kihnu, Cultural Time Warp in Estonia

Waiting at the small ferry port of Munalaid, Estonia for a boat to take me to the island of Kihnu in the Gulf of Riga, the tone seemed set for the visit. Asking around, the few people present didn’t speak English, and weren’t able to offer any advice regarding the journey to the island. Eventually a small boat arrived, but again we couldn’t communicate, until the harbour master intervened, confirming it was the ferry.

Kihnu women singing, and dancing on the Estonian island in the Gulf of Riga on Mallory on Travel adventure, adventure travel, photography Iain_Mallory_1402856 kihnu_women

Dancing Kihnu women

A short boat ride later, I was stepping on the dock at Kihnu port, and being greeted by my guide for the day, Mare Mätas. She dressed traditionally, wearing brightly coloured striped skirts, and apron with a matching head scarf, and floral jacket. The women wear these all the time, and it is one of the reasons I had been so keen to visit.

Lady cyclists on the island of Kihnu in the Gulf of Riga, off the coast of Baltic State Estonia on Mallory on Travel adventure, adventure travel, photography Iain_Mallory_Est1402516 kihnu_women

Where are the motorcycles?

An accordion on the island of Kihnu, in the Baltic State of Estonia on Mallory on Travel adventure, adventure travel, photography Iain_Mallory_1402897 accordion

Alive with the sound of music

Every woman has dozens of skirts, and at least one hundred aprons. The skirts are usually predominantly red, but they can actually communicate messages within the community. After a bereavement, the stripes will be mainly black, and after a time, replaced with blue, communicating the stage of mourning to others. Kihnu women also love to sing, and dance, but dancing is forbidden whenever black stripes are worn.

Woman dancing on the island of Kihnu, Estonia in the Baltic States on Mallory on Travel adventure, adventure travel, photography Iain_Mallory_1402859

Mare, my guide to Kihnu

Women are the primary decision makers of the island, as the men are usually away. Fishing, and working on cargo vessels are the main industries which employ the islands men, often taking them far afield, and away from home for many months. This leaves the women taking care of their families, and as leaders in the community.

Priest on the island of Kihnu in Estonia on Mallory on Travel adventure, adventure travel, photography Iain_Mallory_Est1402493 kihnu_priest

Father on the ferry

Fisherman in the Gulf Of Riga, the Baltic Sea, Estonia on Mallory on Travel adventure, adventure travel, photography Iain_Mallory_Est1402470 estonian_fisherman

Fishing, a man’s game

The colourful nature of their traditional dress demonstrates their love of vibrant shades, and they almost dismiss the interests of men as dull, ‘only’ fishing, sailing or seal hunting. The islanders take around sixty seals a year, feeding their families, using all the animal, it seems sensible, and sustainable. They also collect seabird eggs during breeding season, an activity enjoyed by families for generations.

Fishing boats on the island of Kihnu, in Estonia, one of the Baltic States on Mallory on Travel adventure, adventure travel, photography Iain_Mallory_1402779 fishing_boats

Are there any men here?

A picturesque lighthouse is popular with visitors, but possibly feels slightly out of favour with the women, another of the men’s toys. It’s manned by a keen birdwatcher, a private man, who seemed more than happy that most people left him in peace.

Motorbike and sidecar on the island of Kihnu, in Estonia, one of the Baltic States on Mallory on Travel adventure, adventure travel, photography Iain_Mallory_Est1402588

Where’s the rider?

Touring the island, passing through the four villages of Lemsi, Linaküla, Rootsiküla and Sääre the number of wooden farmhouses is striking, most included several outbuildings. It feels almost like stepping back in time, and very agricultural. It’s easy to imagine this is how much of Europe was at the turn of the twentieth century. Although many seem ramshackle barns, others are well maintained, and brightly painted, often yellow.

Lighthouse keeper on the island of Kihnu in the Baltic State of Estonia on Mallory on Travel adventure, adventure travel, photography Iain_Mallory_Est1402551 lighthouse_keeper

Happy in the lighthouse

Kihnu lighthouse on the shores of the Gulf of Riga, Estonia in the Baltic Sea on Mallory on Travel adventure, adventure travel, photography Iain_Mallory_Est1402533 kihnu_lighthouse

The lonely lighthouse

The islanders manage to retain their cultural identity, while still enjoying the benefits, and technologies of the modern world. The outbuildings of almost every home include a storeroom, and a sauna, and I spotted at least one hot tub, flat screen television, and espresso machine. This isn’t any third world society,  struggling with poverty; retaining important aspects of their culture is a matter of choice.

I was desperate to witness women riding around the island on motorbikes with a box sidecar, while wearing their striped skirts, and bright aprons. A quirky cultural characteristic of the UNESCO recognised island. Due to the arrival of more cars, this is becoming less common, and unfortunately I wasn’t lucky enough to see any motorcycle riding ladies on this visit.

Disused motorbike on Kihnu, Estonia on Mallory on Travel adventure, adventure travel, photography Iain_Mallory_Est1402564 kihnu_motorbike

Not sure this one is on the road

Painting of motorbike riding Kihnu woman in the Baltic State of Estonia on Mallory on Travel adventure, adventure travel, photography Iain_Mallory_Est1402584 kihnu_painting

It’s just a painting …. honest

Several island women, and a couple of young girls were kind enough to demonstrate, and explain a little of their culture. They used songs, and dances, to the melodious notes from an accordion, clearly showing how important these are to the islanders. It seemed right, as music plays a major role, all children learning at school one of the preferred instruments, the accordion, or violin.

The wedding ceremony seems especially fascinating, involving singing, dancing, lots of feasting, and drinking, it takes place over three days. Almost everybody connected with the bride, and groom receives an invite, meaning often more than three hundred people attend. The ceremony, is held in the both the home of the brides family, and the grooms house, the party moving between houses at various stages of the wedding.

Agricultural Kihnu, in the Baltic State of Estonia on Mallory on Travel adventure, adventure travel, photography Iain_Mallory_Est1402583 onions

They know their onions in Kihnu

It culminates with the bride presenting items of her dowry, to wedding guests in their future home. This can consist of several hundred items of clothing, including knitted stockings, gloves, and belts. There is often a degree of humour involved, with older bachelors receiving gifts which remind them it’s about time they found a girl, and settled down.

The last of these traditional weddings took place in 2009, the sheer numbers involved, and organisational difficulties making them less common now. It is a part of the culture, which they may be at risk of losing.

Farmhouse on the island of Kihnu, Estonia in the Baltic States on Mallory on Travel adventure, adventure travel, photography Iain_Mallory_Est1402595 kihnu_farmhouse

A typical Kihnu outhouse

The cotton aprons are also difficult to come by now, they were originally produced in Russia, and finding a new source is proving challenging. Any company producing paisley patterns on red cotton, there’s a market here!

The gifts usually take many years to produce, and most brides are helped by family members, and friends. The women are proud of their traditional crafts, and keen to share the skills with their children, and visitors. This willingness attracts female visitors from all around the world, hoping to learn from the skill of the Kihnu women. I met master craftswoman, Rosie, who is not only an inspiration to her own people, but has written patterns, and books used by avid knitters worldwide.

Striped skirts worn by the women of Kihnu. Island, in the Baltic State of Estonia on Mallory on Travel adventure, adventure travel, photography Iain_Mallory_1402920 kihnu_skirts

A cache of striped skirts

Master craftswoman Rosie on the island of Kihnu in Estonia on Mallory on Travel adventure, adventure travel, photography Iain_Mallory_1402869 kihnu_stockings

Rosie showing off her stocking

There had also been an opportunity to try some of the local food, simple, hearty fish soup, and a meaty casserole. The kind of food I really enjoy, a far cry from Michelin starred restaurants, just a good, honest meal. There’s several of choices for accommodation, from guesthouses, and campsites, to homestays. Meals like this will be served daily, visiting the island has plenty of options, for every budget.

Kihnu woman dancing on the Estonian island in the Gulf of Riga, the Baltic Sea on Mallory on Travel adventure, adventure travel, photography Iain_Mallory_1402867 kihnu_woman

Happy dancer

All too soon it was time to take the small boat back to the mainland, leaving me wishing there’d been time to stay at a homestay. This would have provided a fascinating insight into the way of life on the island of Kihnu, where women are the cultural heartbeat.

Young girls dancing on the island of Kihnu, in Estonia of the Baltic States on Mallory on Travel adventure, adventure travel, photography Iain_Mallory_1402834 kihnu_girls

Dancing girls

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Comments 4

  1. Mark Russel

    I went to Phuket, Thailand last year, and apart from swimming in the beautiful Andaman sea I was really looking for a cultural immersion. So I booked a trip to Phuket FantaSea Thai Cultural Theme Park. I know, I probably wanted to stay on a safe side choosing this over a jungle trip, but ultimately I really enjoyed it. It was like my introduction to Thai culture in a very entertaining and positive way. The show was impressive and the elephants in the show – majestic and simply adorable. The place is definitely worth a visit when you are in Phuket.

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      1. Mark Russel

        Your post of the Kihnu people in Estonia made me nostalgic of my colorful trip to experience the culture of Thai people at the Thai Cultural theme park Phuket FantaSea. Your photos convey all the vivid colors of their culture, look brilliant! For my next trip I want to visit the rural village to see the original lifestyle of people. Thanks for your post Iain!

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