Heave ho, me hearties! This ‘Droppings’ has a decidedly nautical feel about it, so anchors away and off we go!
I caught up with my family this last weekend after a very long time. I had intended to go to the ancestral homelands in Käsmu, Lääne Virumaa, (West Viru County), NW Eesti, for my 60th birthday but my injured leg was not up to it. As the leg is still a tad feeble and winter this year definitely went out with a bang rather than a whimper (we had several feet of snow that came and went in a week! ) I hitched a ride with my cousin Kalle who, I think , could travel the road to his home village blindfold in a blizzard.
The journey is short but dramatic as it takes you out of Tallinn on the wide Soviet military road, past the beautiful bronze Angel of Mercy on the shores of the Baltic forever extending her arm to drowned sailors, past the Singing Grounds where the Estonians sang their way to freedom, through the six-lane man- made shallow gorge carved through sandstone cliffs, past the tower blocks of a huge, sprawling Soviet estate, past the heavily industrialised suburb of Maardu with it’s giant fat chimneys, cinder block factories and foul air, out into the country past the small excavated site of ancient Estonian burial chambers and into the ever deepening forests. After about an hour the car turns off the motorway and the country lanes get narrower and narrower and the primeval woods denser and wilder, breaking out only occasionally into sparsely populated flatlands. The drive this weekend was especially wonderful as the forests were still very white, but, as the temperature had gone from –2 to +11 (!!) overnight the streams were bloated and fast running with melting snow. Spring is most definitely on it’s way! The clocks went forward last weekend and White Nights are here.
There was a party with a1 1970’s theme in the Käsmu rahvamaja (village hall), built 1911-14, a wooden building on a foundation of rocks. It was originally the hall of the merchant seaman society but it was always used for the whole community. There was even a library, funded by wealthy captains, with 13,000 books by the time the Soviets closed it in 1948. The books were taken to Rakvere and only returned in 1994, after independence. Plays about local history and people were performed before dances in Tzarist times, a tradition that has carried on ever since, no matter who has ruled. The rahvamaja, like most buildings in Käsmu has few mod cons. It’s quite large with a spacious hall with a stage, a bar (more accurately, a table and a shelf), a large entrance hall with cloakroom and a veranda/smoking area with large glass panels. The rather dingy hall, with it’s ancient Soviet time faded curtains and worn furniture, is heated by two large wood-fuel stoves and electricity wattage is low. Don’t even think central heating, flush toilets or anyone who speaks English. The actual proceedings, if not the temperature, rather reminded me of Spain, where everything starts to come to life rather late on in the day. In Käsmu our band struck up at around 21.30 while folk continued to trickle in until midnight. There must have been going on for 100 people in the hall at one time, and this in a village of only 16 families.
The party was fascinating. My cousin nabbed the best seats by one of the big stoves covered in some wavy material that seems to retain heat. I had a great view of the proceedings. The ‘bar’ was open but people mostly brought their own food and alcohol and only bought mixers. It was not a beer night. I saw only wine and spirits. My coz (who is very organized) had packed four bottles of good voddie and two thermos flasks, one of coffee and one of hot water to add to Tetley tea bags so that the effect of strong liqueur is diluted throughout the night . I cannot , with all honesty, say that I enjoyed the umpah-umpah-stick-it-up-yer-jumpah music that the (very competent) band (two singers, an amplified string guitar and a moog synthesizer) churned out for the next five hours, but the dancing was a thing apart! A ballet friend of mine is thrilled by the fact that dancing in pairs has made a great comeback in recent years due to the popularity of ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ in the UK and the many copies it has spawned in Europe. Our copycat show here is ‘Dancing with the Stars’ and there’s one for nippers too. Well, it’s clear from the example of Käsmu that dancing in pairs has never gone away here! Forget the 1960s and ‘doing your own thing.’ No strutting around to ‘Brown Sugar’ here mate. Men dance with women, children dance with their mums (or dads), women dance with women and even men with men. People just seem to love to dance and by god, do they move around the floor!!! There was a couple at our table who looked very placid and rather dour but , as soon as the moog synthesizer struck up, off they went and twirled around the floor at a speed that made me feel quite queasy all the while exhibiting nifty footwork worthy of Fred and Ginger!!. And they weren’t the only ones. I couldn’t say what the name of the dance was (there was only one) but I thought of it as a sort of Estonian very quickstep. Even my cousins suprised me! They could both cut a fine figure on the dance floor. Taught at school, I suppose.
My coz won a prize – a bottle of Soviet fizzy - for his 1970s checked jacket, wide shirt collar and flares and we drank it at once. I have to say that the clothes people were wearing were not very different from what I remember of the 1970s but then , Estonians plugged into western fashion (and ideas) by watching Finnish TV when they shouldn’t have. No platform shoes, though! The band packed up at 02.00 but there was still more voddie in the bag and, after the men had helped the band pack up and seen them on their way , the REAL party started. A squeezebox and a guitar appeared, the tables were drawn closer together, more bottles were opened and the little community just let rip! The music improved (in my opinion ) 100%. I recognised only a few songs (Jambalaya, Lucky Lips) but the rest were all Estonian; there were some popular songs (including the lovely Mere ääres, väike maja – ‘The little house by the sea’ from the musical ‘Pippi Longstocking’) but most were jaunty sea shanties. The theme of most songs seemed to be ‘Youth will never come back’ and I had one of those odd moments in my decidedly odd life when my mind strayed far from a tiny seashore village in western Estonia to Dean Prior on the west coast (Devon)of England, to the English Civil War and the racy rhymer, cavalier clergyman and ‘Cherry Ripe’ cheekily chappie, Bob Herrick (1591–1674) and ‘To the Virgins, to make much of Time’. Here it is
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying
And this same flower that smiles to-day
To-morrow will be dying.
The glorious lamp of heaven, the sun,
The higher he 's a-getting,
The sooner will his race be run,
And nearer he 's to setting.
That age is best which is the first,
When youth and blood are warmer;
But being spent, the worse, and worst
Times still succeed the former.
Then be not coy, but use your time,
And while ye may, go marry:
For having lost but once your prime,
You may for ever tarry.
And I have not one second’s hesitation in saying that glasses would be raised high to these sentiments in Käsmu! By the wee small hours all the business of the world was played out in miniature to the sound of an ancient concertina. The dancers whirled even faster as the night wore on, lovers closed in on one another, drunken men quarreled, women soothed ruffled feathers, old girls gossiped and, past their dancing years, beat time to the music with their walking sticks , tired children slept on rows of chairs and one ‘Droppings’ author sat keeping warm with her back to the stove and watched it all with relish. Everyone was very merry by the time the party broke up at 4.30 in the morning and we all tipped out into the pitch black of one of the last freezing nights of winter. I , being old and feeble (and a just a few sails to the wind) was escorted over treacherous tracks (read ice-rinks) by my cousin while her other half lit up the road with a torch (street light, what street light?).
The sea shanties were especially appropriate as Käsmu has been a sailor’s village since time immemorial. Its heyday was in the first fifty years of the 20c, both in the late Tzarist times and the Estonian time. It was then that the village became known as the ‘Captain’s Village’ (or the ‘Millionaires Village’) because quite large ocean going boats were built there and the Käsmu captains sailed the seven seas carrying salt, pitch and timber and , very lucratively, vodka, during the era of prohibition in Finland (1919-32). They sailed far beyond the Baltic. In 1891 Captain Kristenbrun sailed out of the bay in the Salme (named after his youngest daughter) to Riga , then on to Bristol and the USA. Others sailed to Finland and Arkhangelskoyoe, Murmansk or Odessa in Russia or to India, Africa and the Americas. Once, when out and about in the world, some Käsmu lads were asked ‘Where is this Käsmu? We’re always hearing about it but we can’t find it on the map!’ My cousins family, on their father’s (Jüriska) side actually owned a big boat – Võitleja , ‘Champion’, a painting of which adorns the walls of Kalda (‘Longshore’), the family home . Most Käsmu vessels were wooden sailing ships and called after the women of the families of the captains - Salme, Annette, or dramatic names such as Egmont (after Beethoven?), Tormilind ‘Stormbird’ or Võitleja , ‘Champion’. See them at http://www.eesti.ca/main.php?o.... The first iron boat was the Nemrac, built in the UK (original name = ‘Carmen’), brought to Käsmu in 1923.
A thriving community of 500 people came to an end with the Soviet annexation of Estonia in 1940. 50% of the population was exiled to ‘the cold land,’ 50 managed to escape. My maternal grandmother was Männik and some of the exiled were Männiks, relatives of one of the captains who sailed out of Käsmu in the pay of the Kristenbruns. In 1944 the captains who had not been exiled in 1940 were arrested and also sent away in cattle trucks. A further 6 more were taken in the 1949 collectivisation as part of the Stalinist ‘elimination of the kulaks [rich peasants] as a class.’ The coast was closed , and the fiercely independent fisher folk were rounded up into the Õige tee (the ‘Right Way’), later the Kirov, fishing kolhoz (collective farm).
Käsmu is quiet now but is returning to life as a small but select seaside holiday spot. My coz pointed out several new, handsome wooden houses built in the Swedish style, as befits the Rootsi rand, the Swedish coast. I awoke the morning after the party with no hangover – a testament to the art of sensible boozing. The wind was up and the sea was choppy as I took a short turn along the strand supported by my new walking cane (aka ‘tipple stick’ and I leave you to guess why) acquired in Greenwich market and with a rather fierce brass bird with a sharp beak as it’s handle . Apart from a few hardy Terns wheeling in the clear, bright sky or sitting on one of the many rocks preening a wing or performing a pedicure, I was the only living creature on the shore. Käsmu is balm to the soul. Under the seemingly boundless sea and sky and with the sound of the sea slapping on rocks dragged from god knows where by the retreating glaciers of the last ice age, my mind once again turned to poetry, and although Bob Browning (1812 –1889, from Camberewll, South London) wrote this about Italy, it fits serene Käsmu Bay on a beautiful Spring morning like a hand fits into a glove:
The year's at the spring,
And day's at the morn;
Morning's at seven;
The hill-side's dew-pearled;
The lark's on the wing;
The snail's on the thorn;
God's in his Heaven -
All's right with the world!
Whilst in ‘the west’ I visited Ireland for the first time in my life to see an Estonian relative who has since gone to the USA on her way to bigger, if not better things. I stayed in lovely little Wexford, on the west coast - a port of narrow winding streets that can trace it’s founding (by the Vikings) back to the 9c. It has a Wildfowl Reserve (whose is address is North Slob and has nothing to do with the author of ‘Droppings’) with some wonderful coastal walks just beyond the harbour that include a classic Gothic view of a ruined medieval castle perched on a cliff above a rocky inlet. And the pubs! I recommend ‘Simon’s Pub’ in the high street. A real classic with a dark interior, comfy seats, pictures on the wall of old Wexford and the horse-owning landlord and his family (who pull pints behind the bar) at the racetrack and the best Guinness ever. Oh, and there’s an Estonian bar maid with an Irish accent. I stayed in McMenamin’s Town House, that Ülle was minding while the owners were taking a break in Spain. McMenamin’s gets a five star ‘Droppings’ award for being one of the best guest houses I’ve ever been in – comfortable, stylish (in a polished dark furniture, tiled bathroom, coal fire with scuttle, doilies on the sideboard and kippers for breakfast sort of way) and in the middle of the town. It’s been winning awards for yonks and deserves them! The train journey to Dublin is incomparable. As the train wended it’s way up the coast past raggedy mountains on one side and the Irish Sea (sometimes just an arm’s length from the window) on the other the views of the verdant countryside and ambling, leisurely rivers make you realize immediately why Eire is called ‘the emerald isle.’
On my way back from my walk by the sea I was intrigued by a statute I passed on the quay of a handsome fellow, standing on an anchor, sword in hand, looking very butch and staring out to sea. The big boy is Commodore John Barry (1745-1803) who was born in Tacumshin, County Wexford. Barry started out as a cabin boy in Eire and worked his way up. In 1766 he got his first command sailing out of Philadelphia and made the town his home. He had good reason. Barry was a Catholic, and an Irish one to boot, but there was a lot of religious freedom in William Penn's colony, among the most tolerant of the British Empire. Also, the city was emerging as a great maritime trade centre, importing goods largely from the West Indies. There was plenty of lucrative work for an enterprising seaman One of Barry’s ships was named, rather prettily I thought, the Patty and Polly.
Barry joined the US Navy for the American War of Independence (1775–1783). Any ante-English sentiments were no doubt fuelled by a strong folk memory of Oliver Cromwell’s massacre of some 3,000 Wexfordians in 1649 and compounded when an English landlord evicted the impoverished Barries from their tenanted farm. When war broke out Jack was in command of the Black Prince - a ship in which he had sailed 237 miles in 24 hours - a record for the 18c. The Black Prince was bought by the US rebel government and it was on this ship (re-named the Alfred) that John Paul Jones (see below) first hoisted an archetypal stars and stripes, the Grand Union flag.
Jack Barry went on to a real ‘Boys Own’ career. He was the first American to capture a British man o’war on the high seas, was made a captain in 1776, was highly commended for gallantry in 1778 after a nine hour battle at the end of which he ran his ship aground and escaped with his crew, captured three ships while escorting a Special Commissioner to France in 1781 and fighting the last naval battle of the war in 1783. Altogether Barry captured over 20 ships and quelled three mutinies. He was made No. 1 Captain of the American Navy in 1797 when he was given the courtesy title of Commodore. Our hero remained head of the American marine until his death and he trained so many heroes of the War of 1812 (against Britain again) that he became known as ‘the father of the American Navy.’ In addition to his fighting exploits, he wrote a ‘Signal Book’ (1780) used for communication between ships and was a life long member of the Charitable Captains of Ships Club for the relief of sailor’s widows and orphans. Dr Benjamin Rush, a signatory to the American Declaration of Independence, said of him ‘He fought often and once bled in the cause of freedom, but his habits of War did not lessen in him the peaceful virtues which adorn private life.’
The statue of Commodore Barry in Wexford was a gift to the town from the USA and was delivered by a US Navy frigate in 1956. Each year a parade and wreath-laying ceremony takes place at the statue to celebrate ‘Barry Day.’ Distinguished visitors to the chunky chappie include two Presidents of the U.S.A – John F. Kennedy (whose ancestors hailed from Wexford parts) and general Dwight. D Eisenhower.
And now, about turn, landlubbers! The inspiration for this tale comes from Simon Sebag Montefiore's 'Catherine the Great and Potemkin' - a birthday pressie. It’s a great read; the lead characters are incredibly overblown, proving once more that truth is much stranger than fiction. It would take an author with stupendous imagination to dream up Catherine the Great (1729-1796), Tzarina of all the Russias, and His Serene Highness Prince Grigori Potemkin (1739-1791), her lover and (almost certainly) morganatic husband. The British philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) , who worked for Potemkin (an ardent Anglophile), called him the ‘Prince of Princes.’ It was Bentham who recruited William Gould (a protégé of ‘Capabilty’ Brown) as Potemkin’s peripatetic gardener. Gould created English gardens overnight wherever the enormously extravagant Potemkin stayed using plants carried in the baggage train. As the Prince was always on the move this is rather amazing! Potemkin played an important part in the 1783 annexation of the Crimea into Russia, and, as governor, he organized Catherine’s fabulous 1787 tour. The allegation that he had sham villages built along her route is, at best, an exaggeration. He did, in fact, do much to develop the Crimea (founding the Black Sea Fleet and five towns, including Sevastopol). Montefiore debunks the slur of the fake ‘Potemkin Villages’ saying that there is not a shred of evidence for them and that the story was a slander begun in the 1770s by an embittered Saxon envoy.
It was during Catherine’s rule that the Russian navy was expanded with the help of the British. The most important of these was Samuil Karlovich Greig (1735-1788), born Samuel Greig in Inverkeithing, Fife, who has a handsome neo-classical tomb in the Toomkirik (Dome Church) in Tallinn. And here is the story of Sam the Scottish sailor and more ‘Boys Own’ adventures!
In 1769 the Baltic Fleet of the imperial Russian Navy sailed from Kronstadt, St Petersburg, during the Russo-Turkish War (1768-1774), heading for the Mediterranean to engage the Ottomans. The Admiral was Count Alexei Orloff who had never been to sea in his life but was brother of the (current) Tzarina’s lover and thus had the right social standing. The real sailors were the Scots rear admiral John Elphinston (1722-1785, whose kinsman had served in the army of Ivan the Terrible) and captain Sam Greig. Elphinston complained that the few Russian officers in the fleet were almost useless but Catherine defended them saying ‘the ignorance of the Russians is due to youth; that of the Turks to decrepitude’. The ships suffered damage in the North Sea and by the time a leaky Russian fleet reached Britain, 800 sailors were ill. Most Russian subjects of the time were not sailors - only the Estonians and Livonians (north Latvians) of the Baltic provinces had sea legs. ‘These seasick Russian peasants ‘,says Montefiore, ‘ must have been an incongruously pathetic sight as they re-rigged , watered and recovered in Hull and Portsmouth. They left in spring, caught up with the Turks and fought an indecisive battle off the island of Chios in the Eastern Aegean. Elphinston commented archly that Admiral Grigori Spiridov and Count Feodor Orlov had left their ships before fighting became close-range.
The Turkish fleet retired to Çe?me Bay, protected by the powerful guns of the town. Notwithstanding this, Orlov went on the offensive. Thus at 1 of the clock on the morning on July 7th , 1770, sailor Sam and the Englishman Lieutenant Drysdale stealthily floated fire-ships into Çe?me harbour. Sam lit ‘em up and then he and Drysdale leapt overboard and swam for their lives, dodging both the explosions of their own fire ships and fierce Turkish gunfire. The ‘ingenious ambuscade’ turned the harbour into an inferno. The Russian fleet attacked and eight hours later scarcely a vestige remained of the Turkish town, fortifications, or fleet. Admiral Orlov ‘boasted to Catherine that the water of Çe?me was stained incarnadine and the victorious empress passed on this macabre and distinctly un-Enlightened vision to an excited Voltaire.’ (Montefiore). Cap’n Sam had been promoted to commodore on being placed in charge of the fire ships, but after his success he was promoted again to the rank of admiral on the express wish of Catherine. John Elphinston was made a noble of the Russian state. He settled in Riga, Livonia, with his family.
Sam continued to serve in the Russian fleet. He remodelled the code of discipline, and developed one of the most formidable navies in Europe. He visited Edinburgh in 1777. Scots Magazine reported: ‘On October 2nd, the Empress of Russia's birthday, the Russian frigate in Leith Road gave a round of twenty-one guns, which was answered by the same number from the castle of Edinburgh; and on that occasion the Admiral gave a grand entertainment in Fortune's tavern to ... the Lord Provost and Magistrates, and many of the nobility and gentry in the city and neighbourhood.’ The next day [surprise!] Samuel Greig was given the Freedom of the City of Edinburgh.
Sam also modernized the port and city of Kronstadt, near St Petersburg, headquarters of the Baltic fleet to this day. The Carron Company, based in Falkirk, provided steam powered pumps to drain the docks and a new type of short cannon for use in close combat sea battles. In 1782 Catherine the Great appointed him High Admiral of all the Russias and governor of Kronstadt . His adopted country showered him with honours and his influence was so profound that he is often referred to as ‘the father of the Russian Navy.’
The great Scot’s last scrap was with the Swedes, during the Russo-Swedish War of 1788-1790. In 1788 the Swedes captured the Russian frigates Hector and Yaroslavets at Tallinn (then Reval) and sailed out into the Gulf of Finland heading for Kronstadt. The Russian fleet sailed out to meet ‘em with Sam at the helm and the opponents met 160 km west of St Petersburg, off Hogland Island. Fierce fighting continued for six hours, and the adversaries only separated after dark when the Swedes began to run out of ammunition. The outcome was indecisive but, nevertheless, it was one of the bloodiest conflicts in naval history. One of the captains in the Russian fleet was John Paul Jones, the hero of the American Revolution (see Jack Barry!). Several Brit captains refused to serve with a ‘traitor’ and Catherine dispatched Jones to the Black Sea where he served with distinction. Small world.
Catherine awarded Sam with the highest order that Russia could give – the Order of St Andrew, but Hogland was his last battle. Sam caught a fever at sea and his ship, the Rotislav, headed for Tallinn. An anxious Catherine sent her personal physician, Dr John Rogerson (from Dumfreisshire) to the province of Estonia, but nothing could be done. High Admiral Samuil Karlovich Greig died after a short illness on the 26th of October, 1788, on board the Rotislav, in Tallinn harbour.
The Russian empire expressed lavish sorrow for the loss of one of its adopted son. The admiral’s funeral was conducted with great pomp and magnificence. After lying in state, the body was taken to its sepulchre in the Toomkirk on a splendid funeral bier drawn by six horses draped in black. Sam was attended by a huge procession of nobility, clergy, naval and army officers of all ranks and a large muster of troops. The bells of Tallinn were tolled and cannons were fired from the ramparts and the ships of the fleet. The Greig family remained in Russia. All four of Sam’s sons followed in his footsteps, and his grandson became the imperial Minister of Finance.
Sailor Sam’s elegant marble tomb in the Toomkirik is the work of Giacomo Quarenghi (1744- 1817) born near Bergamo, Italy. Quarenghi was an admirer of the elegance of Palladio, as indeed, is ‘Droppings’, Vicenza lingering in the memory for over 30 years. Quarenghi made enough of a reputation in Italy and England (working in Wiltshire, for the Arundell family and making designs for a country house for Lord Charles Whitworth , ambassador to Petersburg) that he was recruited for Catherine. Quarenghi stayed and worked in Russia until his death. His works in St Petersburg and Moscow made him one of the most famous architects of the 18c. In 1814 Tzar Alexander I made him an hereditary noble. And one last Brit connection - Quarenghi was architect of the ‘English Palace’ in Peterhof (aka the ‘Russian Versaille’), near St Petersburg, a building much loved by Catherine the Great. It was blown up by the Germans during WWII and completely demolished later by the Soviets. Such are the fortunes of war.
Bird Droppings from Estonia: Käsmu laht … Käsmu Bay