Kihnu island, 40km southwest of Pärnu in the Gulf of Rīga, is almost a living museum of Estonian culture. Many of the island’s women still wear the traditional, colourful striped skirts nearly every day. There are four villages on the 7km-long island, plus a school, church, lighthouse (shipped over from Britain), museum and combined library, internet point and council building in the centre of the island. Long, quiet beaches line the western coast.
The islanders are among the minority of ethnic Estonians who follow the Russian Orthodox religion. After WWII a fishery collective was established here, and fishing and cattle herding continue to be the mainstay of employment for Kihnu’s inhabitants.
In December 2003 Unesco declared the Kihnu Cultural Space a masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity. This honour is a tribute to the rich cultural traditions that are still practised, in song, dance, the celebration of traditional spiritual festivals and the making of handicrafts. In part, the customs of Kihnu have remained intact for so many centuries thanks to the island’s isolation.
Many of the island’s first inhabitants, centuries ago, were criminals and exiles from the mainland. Kihnu men made a living from fishing and seal hunting, while women effectively governed the island in their absence. The most famous Kihnuan was the sea captain Enn Uuetoa (better known as Kihnu Jõnn), who was said to have sailed on all the world’s oceans. He drowned in 1913 when his ship sank off Denmark on what was to have been his last voyage before retirement. He was buried in the Danish town of Oksby but in 1992 his remains were brought home to Kihnu and reburied in the island’s church.