Encyclopaedia Fennica

Through Finland in Carts by Mrs. Alec Tweedie

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Through Finland in Carts, Kindle edition cover
Through Finland in Carts, Kindle edition cover

I’ve just read a book by some Mrs. Alec Tweedie, an English woman who travelled around Finland in 1897. She had previously been to Iceland and Norway; and all of these three countries were as far from popular tourist destinations as possible at the time. Mrs. Tweedie, a woman in her late thirties, recently widowed, went to Finland for three months, with her sister and a local companion, communicating with the locals mostly in German (whenever at all possible; although Finns speaking excellent English were occasionally encountered in surprising places). The book, named Through Finland in Carts, is available for free now in Kindle Store (in fact I stumbled upon it when I just tried typing “finland” into Kindle search). It is the 3rd edition, published in 1913, and containing many notes on the changes in Finland since the time of the actual travel.

Overall I wasn’t a great fan of Mrs. Tweedie’s prose. It seems a bit amateurish and the author is obviously trying too hard at times (although I do admit it strongly reminded me of Three Men in a Boat, sans humor; and Three Men in a Boat is a great book). Still, it was an extraordinarily interesting read for me, since I’m such a big fan on Finland. Mrs. Tweedie she actually paints a very good and fairly complete picture of Finland on the eve of the 20th century, even going to some lengths to describe not only the sights or the people, but also the industry, the agriculture, and in general what the people actually do for their living. So I’ll try to summarize some of the most interesting details mentioned in the book.

  • The actual route was: Helsinki — Vyborg — Valaam — Sortavala — Imatra — Savonlinna — Kuopio — Iisalmi — Kajaani — Oulu — Hanko. Despite the name, the ladies actually enjoyed multiple modes of travel, including also railroads, steamships (including the entire Oulu — Hanko leg), and boats used for trasporting tar. They also changed several other companions over the course of their trip. The one who accompanied them most was “Grandpapa”, a young Finnish man from a wealthy family, who got this nickname from them for his solemn demeanor.

  • The author entered Finland by a steamship, of course, taking 4.5 days to sail from Hull, England. Finland was very little known at the time, and she hadn’t even been able to find a decent guidebook or a map of the country before setting off.

  • At the time Hanko was the only usable Finnish port in winter (due to its relatively outlying location), and even it sometimes had to be closed for weeks. Icebreakers already existed but were not powerful enough to clear waterways for any other seaport. Hanko thus was much more important in those times than now. The author went in summer, of course. In fact she was surprised by how outright hot the Finnish summer was.

  • Helsinki was the only half-decent city they saw. Every other Finnish city is described as a small, ugly and absolutely uninspiring mess of wooden shacks (including Vyborg which had been the second largest city of Finland). I suppose there must have been some exagerration to this, though. Although Finnish cities still are often described as boring, there are certainly some beautiful landmarks and old neighborhoods predating 1897.

  • Very surprisingly, the Finns are over and over described as quite slow and tardy people! Like for example, if a Finn says he will do something “right away”, that means “in 20 minutes” in best case. This is particularly interesting as there is a strong stereotype of Finns being slow (though not as slow as Estonians) in Russia. Which these times does not seem to be true at all.

  • The Finns are also repeatedly described as homely and even ugly people, usually thickset if not outright fat, and with quite rough features. Even women, and especially women. This is of course a subjective matter but I absolutely wouldn’t call a typical modern Finn homely.

  • Nonetheless, the Finns are said to be in general a very friendly, reliable, and welcoming (if introverted and very stoic) people. Many Finns, especially from the rural areas, displayed childlike amazement at meeting actual living “English ladies” (they even were written about in local papers throughout their journey). The author notes that Northern people in general have a sort of moral integrity that is sadly lacking in people from the more southern countries.

  • The Finns are in particular often compared to the Scots, and their cultures are said to resemble a good deal.

  • Bikes were already very popular at least in Helsinki (which had a population of 150,000) back then. The roads however were very rough, both in cities and in the country. The Finns allegedly weren’t much bothered by that, saying “well they’re covered with snow for like half an year anyway”.

  • Women already enjoyed a lot of rights in 1897 (although they were allowed to vote and to be elected into Parliament only in 1906, but Finland still was the first country in Europe to allow that), which was a continuous source of wonder for the author, who was quite feminist-minded. In particular lots of students of University of Helsinki were women. Women however also performed a lot of physically demanding jobs usually performed by men, such as cleaning streets, or building houses. It is also mentioned that Finnish women gained the right to marry freely (without permission of their father, mother, or any surviving eldest relative) in 1864. Divorces, at the moment of the writing, still were not granted freely (adultery and prolonged (one year) absence of one party were valid grounds), which is still claimed to be a much more free state of affairs than was usual in England at the time. Inheritance laws are also described at some length, and were also quite fair to female children.

  • Drinking coffee was already a pretty universal custom (and still is).

  • Finland was a part of Russia in that era, but there still were border controls between Finland and Russia, and obtaining a passport was required to cross the border (although that wasn’t difficult). The author obliviously claims this helps to keep out anarchists, socialists, Jews, and beggars. Yeah, one of these things is not like the others.

  • The censure was active in Finland, just like it was in Russia. Foreign newspapers from Britain, Germany, etc., were available, but entire paragraphs were blacked out from them by hand. This probably worked the same as in Russia, I just had no idea that they actually went to these lenghts. I mean you could just forbid selling any foreign newspapers at all, right?

  • Russian soldiers were occasionally seen at least in Helsinki (looking very shabby). There were very few Russians in Finland otherwise. The Finns were somewhat resentful towards them for being arrogant towards Finland, and not really making an effort to understand it. (Note that this had been just before the Russification policy started in Finland, and practically speaking the Finns had little reason to complain at the time.)

  • The Finns already routinely built summer cottages on various islands and in other remote corners of the country. The author claims that families retreated to these cottages for entire summer. This couldn’t include the breadwinner of the family, I assume?

  • I won’t describe the gastronomical part of the journey as this is honestly the most boring part for me. The peasants brewed and drank a small beer named kalja, for what it’s worth.

  • Despite having a small and poor population, Finland already enjoyed some inventions which were uncommon elsewhere at the time, such as telephone. The author even retells an anecdote where a young man, named Pekka of course, asks a beautiful girl Ilma to marry him over the phone, and she is overjoyed to accept; but when he actually goes to her house, he discovered that it actually was Ilma’s mother who he talked to; she just happened to had been secretly in love with him.

  • Mosquitos and deer flies were extremely, absolutely horrible. In fact it was because of mosquitoes that the author in the end decided against going to the north of Oulu, to Lapland (the original plan was to take a steamer from Oulu to Tornio and continue northwards, presumably along what was to become the Northern Lights Road later). Bed bugs were also a huge bane of peasant dwellings, and a few times prevented the ladies from sleeping at all; another nuisance was a nasty smell from whatever weed the peasants routinely used to stuff the mattresses.

  • Of course saunas are a big subject and have their own chapter devoted to them, but there wasn’t anything particularly surprising — way too hot, awkward that you’re expected to bathe naked, etc. Well there also was the fact that saunas were more often called bastu in the educated circles, which simply means sauna in Swedish. Washing in hot tubs meanwhile was an utterly alien concept for the Finns.

  • Apart from the saunas though there were also anthill baths. Basically an anthill was just plunged into hot water, and then you bathed among corpses of dead boiled ants. That was a, how do you say it, popular cosmetological procedure at the time.

  • Valaam Monastery was pretty much the same as any Orthodox monastery still is to this day. By far the most striking impression of the monastery for the author was meeting a young Russian monk (with a German mother so he spoke German), Brother Sebastian, originally from Moscow, who was sent to the monastery by his rich and influential father three years before for some undisclosed offense. He was already free to return back to secular life after three years, but he claimed he didn’t want to, having been entirely disconnected from the world for so long, not even knowing for sure who the Tzar was at the time. He appeared deeply unhappy.

  • In Sortavala, the ladies saw a festival of Runo singers. Runo singing and Kalevala is described at length; a traditional Karelian wedding was also witnessed. There were also some more modern performances, like a peasant drama named Anna Liisa, by Minna Canth. It is retold in great detail, taking up fifteen pages. It does not actually end with everyone dying, but the heroine confesses to having murdered her own baby, and is arrested and presumably executed in the end. This kind of plot is perfectly normal for Finland.

  • Imatra waterfall is described as if it was the greatest wonder of the world. I wonder if it had been more impressive before the big power station was built. Not that it isn’t impressive now, mind you. The author also laments poor accommodation and spoiled nature, both of these factors deterring possible tourists. Of course nowadays Finland has great accommodation options, and unspoiled (or seemingly unspoiled) nature seems to be the whole point of the country.

  • Juhannus (Midsummer) celebrations with a huge bonfire were seen on Ilkeäsaari, a minor island near Vyborg where the estate of one of ladies’ companions was located. I failed to find this island on any old maps, or even any mentions of this island outside this book. Perhaps the name of the island was misspelled although it sounds valid (and translates as “Bad Island”).

  • Education was very good and accessible, by the standards of the era. Children attended primary school unversally, and pretty much everyone was literate, in stark contrast with Russian peasantry. Each municipality had at least one school. Over a hundred secondary schools also existed throughout the country. Primary schools were free and secondary schools were very cheap. Teachers enjoyed a good salary and were a very respected class. Even the University only demanded a reasonable one-time entry fee (and small fees for examinations and use of laboratories).

  • In Savonlinna, the ladies actually stayed in Olavinlinna castle, which remains the greatest attraction of the city to this day. At the time Olavinlinna was mostly deserted. The ladies were lodged not literally in the medieval halls, but rather in the more modern guardhouse, apparently the same one where entry tickets are sold now. Even that was unversally considered absolutely unsuitable for English ladies, and everyone tried to talk them out of it. The stay was indeed not particularly comfortable (and the castle was quite creepy) but not much worse than some of their other experiences. Punkaharju, a town near Savonlinna the location of which is even more picturesque, was also advised to them by pretty much everyone as one of the great attractions of Finland.

  • Wood, the “green gold” of Finland, was obviously the principal export of the country, and that could be easily seen, with logs transported in sleds in winter, then floated in huge log rafts over all inland waterways in summer, to be collected in great stacks in the port cities like Kotka, where they were sawn on steam sawmills and loaded on ships. In off-season, a million logs could be stacked in Kotka at any single moment; remember that all ports but Hanko were frozen in winter at the time.

  • As far as other exports go, butter and cheese were, perhaps surprisingly, a pretty important one. Much of these were exported to Britain, and the author laments the allegedly sad state of cheesemaking in England itself. Meanwhile the majority of consumer goods and machinery were imported from Germany.

  • Travelling in carts sometimes required the use of cable ferries (lossi), much more common at the time in fact, as lots of bridges didn’t exist yet. The ferries, which were little more than small rafts, were awkward and scary to use. They likely were already free to use just as they are now (or at least no payment is mentioned). Another feature of cart roads were common majatalo houses, basically inns/postal stations, which could differ a lot in the conditions they offfered. They were spaced 8-12 miles apart and operated by well-off local farmers, subsidized by the government. The usual and fairly affordable mode of land travel was with postal carriages.

  • A rural church near Iisalmi was visited and a service there was witnessed but there doesn’t seem to be anything unusual to tell about, apart from the fact that the service reminded the author very strongly of Scotland churches. Peasants were regularly examined by the pastor on their basic knowledge of the Bible. I remember the scene of such an examination from Emil of Lönneberga book by Astrid Lindgren; that was in Sweden of course but it seems that particular custom didn’t differ here. Passing the examination was in particular a prerequisite for marriage. This probably was one of the reasons literacy was so high even among peasants.

  • Author’s sister actually lugged around a bulky photo camera (a kodak; this word for photo camera was pretty much a generic trademark at the time) and took a lot of pictures but consistently failed to find a dark room to develop them. At the end she had to plug all windows and the like, and yet the film still ended up spoiled and thus, no pictures in this book.

  • At Iisalmi, the author witnessed a wedding among the poorest peasants, those who lived in savupirtti houses, which lacked a chimney and were black with smoke from the inside. They were torppari — those who didn’t own land but rather rented it from a more wealthy owner. A funny custom was that the groom wasn’t to (formally) ask for the hand of his bride himself; rather a friend of his accompanied him and spoke for him, while the groom remained silent. Overall despite the poverty these people seemed to be quite optimistic and fairly happy with their lives.

  • The Kajaani — Oulu journey was in a tar boat. The importance of tar as Finland’s major export was falling fast at the time (as its major use is for construction of wooden ship hulls, and wooden ships were already rare), but it still was the traidional industry of Kajaani region (Kainuu). Tar was extracted from trees in tar-pits (tervahauta), large outdoor ovens where wood was left to smoulder, covered over to ensure the absence of air, for days. Tar barrels were then loaded on long narrow dangerous-looking boats, and floated through Oulujärvi lake and Oulujoki river, past Vaala and Muhos towns, to the port of Oulu. Indeed, the modern Oulu-Kajaani highway (National Road 22) along Oulujoki and Oulujärvi is also designated as Tervan tie, “tar road”; I happened to drive on it on my own return trip from Lapland. Tar boats had to pass some narrow locks, avoid storms common on Oulujärvi, and navigate some dangerous rapids on Oulujoki, with help from local pilots. The boat on which the ladies sailed happened to encounter unusual thick fog near the rapids, and had to stop for a while; the ladies slept in a house of a local peasant, who again was very welcoming and glad to help, although the beds and conditions in his house were quite deplorable.

  • In Oulu they witnessed salmon fishing with great nets on Oulujoki river. Nothing much to tell about it. And then they boarded a steamer for Hanko. The steamer was virtually the only ship or machine burning coal, rather than wood, that they saw in Finland. Finland never had its own coal, and why bother with coal anyway if you have so much cheep wood. Oulu-Hanko steamer (actually to continue on to St. Petersburg after Hanko) was moored very close to huge tar warehouses in Oulu, and thus it was imperative for it to avoid sparks flying out of smoke stacks, which was common with wood-burning steamships.

  • Some of the passengers on this steamer were emigrants, which were to depart Hanko for the United States then. I remember seeing a small monument to all the Finnish emigrants in Hanko, depicting birds flying away; it is very poignant. Finnish emigrants generally did well in the United States, and many of them actually returned back to their beloved homeland after getting more or less rich. The steamer meanwhile stopped in Jakobstad, Vaasa (which was noted by the author for having girls and women unusually beautiful for Finland), and Turku (where they were shown some mummies in the crypts of Turku cathedral, whatever these were).

  • Apart from being a winter port, Hanko was (and still is) also a resort town, also particularly favored by Russian nobles and officers. The ladies met a Russian Admiral there, and witnessed Orthodox christening in the local church. And, well, this is where it ended. They departed Finland, noting in the end:

    Our eyes were tired with sights, our minds were chaotic with strange ideas and tongues, but yet we felt how misunderstood that beautiful country is, how well worthy of careful study, and what a delightful new field it opens up to the traveller who, though he believes he “knows all Europe, ” yet has omitted Suomi, one of her quaintest gems.

    Which is pretty much how I feel about Finland myself, anyway.

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