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Release peace: the magazine

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Painted Dogs and Nosy Neighbours: An Exploration of Finland's History

Article by: Winnie Axworthy

Photo credit: Santeri Viinamäki

A Walk Through the Past

A walk through the Finnish town of Kokkola is a walk of quiet amazement. This unassuming town, tucked away on the north-east coast of the Baltic Sea, is a time machine. Around every corner, a little gem of history waits to transport the unsuspecting visitor into the lives of those in the past. From mythical origins to life under Swedish and Russian rule, Kokkola has kept souvenirs from all of its ages of occupation. This includes four rocks in the sea that saw the birth of the settlement, as well as the only small boat ever to be captured from the British Royal Navy, which lies in Kokkola’s English Park. Further, a district of cosy, colourful wooden houses tell stories of centuries of fishermen and their families in this enchanting town that is intrinsically tied to the sea.

A Town Between Forest and Ocean

The town is surrounded by nature and this has guided the development of much of its history. Ancient spruce forests – home to a surprising number of flying squirrels – encircle the town, while the coast gives access to hundreds of islands, accessible by boat or over the ice in winter. According to legend, the town is named after the eagles (Finnish ‘kokko’) which perched on four rocks jutting out of the icy bay. The white-tailed eagle became endangered in the 20th century, but they are making a comeback and a few nesting pairs are among the residents of Kokkola today.

Dual Identity

In the Middle Ages, Kokkola began to grow into a prosperous town through shipbuilding, the production of tar and fishing among other forms of livelihood. In September 1620, the Swedish king, Gustav Adolf II, named the town Gamlakarleby (Swedish ‘Old Charles’ Town’) and brought in a number of administrative and industrial reforms which boosted the town’s economy. Finland had been under Swedish rule since the mid-13th century, although the two cultures always remained relatively separate. Gustav Adolf’s influence in Kokkola was part of a wider system of reforms in Finland which introduced tighter Swedish control of the country.

Black Gold

Tar is an essential element in shipbuilding as it is used to keep ships watertight. In Scandinavia, so-called peasants had been making tar from wood since the Iron Age. In Kokkola, members of the middle classes would buy tar from peasants working in the area surrounding the town. They would then export it, at first to Sweden and other areas of Finland and later internationally. Kokkola was at one point the largest town in Finland, thanks to the tar and shipbuilding trade.

The Island of a Thousand Stories

A vital element of the trade industry at Kokkola was the lighthouse island of Tankar. The island was essential as it guided boats through the treacherous shallows around the port of Kokkola. As the success of the shipping industry increased, the island gathered more and more inhabitants. Many were employed in the running of the lighthouse, as well as ‘pilots’ who would guide larger ships from the island, 20 kilometres through the shallows to Kokkola. In the summer the island was also home to many fishermen and their families who lived in small, single-room cabins, some of which can still be seen today alongside the island’s museum of seal hunting which shows how the inhabitants of the island earned their living.

A Night of Fire and Light

The tar and shipbuilding industries continued to grow, and with them, the culture in Kokkola flourished. The famous celebration of the Venetian Night Festival (Finnish ‘Venetsialaisten’) grew alongside the prosperity of the town. The festival is celebrated on the last weekend of August. It is a celebration of the lengthening summer nights, with origins from the time when the first fireworks were brought to Finland from Venice. Today the festival is one of the most popular in Finland and draws in thousands of visitors every year for multiple days of festivities.

Painted Dogs and Nosy Neighbours

The old town of Neristan has also been a constant feature of Kokkola since the 17th century. It is an area full of colourful wooden houses, each with its own quirky character. If you look closely you might spy a porcelain dog on the window sill of some of these houses. These porcelain dogs were traditionally used to indicate whether the fisherman of the house was at home – signified by the dogs facing inwards – or away – in which case the dogs would face outwards, awaiting their master’s safe return. Housekeepers of Neristan also used so-called ‘Gossip Mirrors’. These would be positioned so that the street and all its intrigue could be quietly observed through the mirror by one inside supposedly employed with embroidery. These same streets can be discovered today with a free walking tour provided by Visit Kokkola.

A Small Town Defeats the Forces of an Empire

One of the houses in Neristan is the oldest secular building in Finland, dating to 1696. The building is now a museum of Kokkola’s maritime history and includes an exhibition on the Battle of Halkokari. This was a skirmish in the cape Halkokari, Kokkola’s bay, that took place in 1854 between a detachment of the British Royal Navy and the local troops of what was then the Russian Grand Duchy of Finland during the Crimean War. Local volunteers put up fierce resistance against the Royal Navy and succeeded in deterring them from further attacks. During the skirmish, the citizens of Kokkola captured a gunboat which is now the only captured Royal Navy boat of its kind to be on display. It can be found in the aptly named English Park, a short walk down the river from Neristan.

A Hidden Fountain of History

Kokkola is a town very much in touch with its history, and proud of it. The town is home to a range of museums including a fire museum run by volunteer firefighters and a museum of historical life in the area, complete with a stable, forge and sauna from the 19th century. Fancy a visit? Kokkola-Pietarsaari Airport is located 20 km south of the town, or perhaps take a direct 4 hour train from the Finnish capital, Helsinki.

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