Kihnu Island – where the past is always present

The quickest way to reach Kihnu Island is by car – across the ice. When the shallow water off the Baltic coast freezes you can drive there from the nearest mainland in 20 minutes, tops. You are advised to go slowly or put your foot down. Speeds between 30 and 60 kilometres per hour can damage the “road”. Now and then tragedy strikes as a vehicle plunges into the chill water.

Kihnu - older women in traditional dressKihnu lies off the coast of Estonia. Visiting in spring, I travelled on the regular car ferry, which takes around 45 minutes, and has a bar on board. Ice driving would be more fun, but it might dilute the sense of time travel.

The 21st century has arrived on Kihnu, wi fi and all. The once prolific motorcycle and sidecar combination has given way to the car. But the past never feels far away. 

Lace hats, once obligatory for married women, have been replaced by scarves. In an odd reversal gender roles it was the their menfolk who, having observed modern styles while sailing to other countries, told them how unfashionable they looked. But while the young may think it uncool many older women still wear traditional dress. Their status may still be discerned from the skirts they wear. These are woven on home looms and colour coded, from vivid stripes for unmarried girls graduating to somber colours to widows. Some of the latter now revert to the brighter colours of earlier times but that, says our guide, Mare, makes the older women angry. Their negative reaction to her own marriage suggests Kihnu has not yet quite shaken off its distinctive past.  Her fiance’s great grandmother had been divorced. That meant his character was The wearing of aprons also still indicates that women are married. Paisley is a favourite pattern. They collect them and store them in chests for their daughters. Mare has collected over 100.

Kihnu - Baltic herringWeddings are still laborious affairs, with celebrations in both parties’ homes. The bride wears a full veil to ward off the evil eye. Songs, so ancient they may pre-date Christianity, are sung at great length, their lyrics reminding the bride of her wifely duties.

You get a good picture of the island’s past, and the former harshness of existence there, at the museum, a converted schoolhouse, which opened in 2009. Seal hunting out on the ice, banned in the 1980s but now legal again with a licence, was an important source of sustenance.

Kihnu is a flat, windy place. You can see most of it from the top of its British built lighthouse. Islanders grow vegetables and farm cows. Mare has a few sheep. Lamb grown on the salt grass must be delicious. As was my lunch, at a small restaurant called Manni. There were three courses, produced by Jana Ruubel, who has written book of Kihnu recipes: carrot soup with cardamom and smoked cheese, Baltic herring – this was the season for them – and a dessert of cheese on toasted Kihnu white bread, with a compote of apple and sea buckthorn.

Kihnu - traditional dressThere is less bitterness towards the former Soviet  Union here, and even the occasional pang of nostalgia. Why? The islanders were familiar with collective farming and fishing. That, too, had been part of their past. Everyone had a job, explained Mare, everyone had cows, there was plenty to eat and plenty of beer. But he main reason was that although some 300 men fled in 1944, there were hardly any of the cruel deportations which afflicted the mainland.

However hard tradition clings on, it is now at risk. Economic difficulties threaten to deplete the population severely. Kihnu’s culture was added to UNESCO’s endangered list over ten years ago. Tourism may bring with it the prospect that still genuine customs may become mere re-enactments, with islanders in fancy dress, going through the motions. It’s a risk they may have to take.

More information

The best way to get there is to rent a car at Tallinn airport and drive south for about 90 minutes to the seaside spa town of Parnu where there are plenty of hotels. Including the Hedon Spa and the boutique Frost. From there it’s a short drive to the ferry dock. You could go for the day or overnight in a B&B. is a useful website.


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Roger Bray

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