Wayfarer in Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania

by Ellen C. Davies, London: Methuen, 1937

Excerpt covering Kurzeme, pp.164-174:

Kurzeme is the province of Latvia which has more, historical interest for English people than any other, by reason of the close connexion it had with our court for several generations, when its dukes were intimately connected with the Stuart kings. Motoring from Riga by a route which leads through pleasant, smiling country, Jelgava, the capital of the former Duchy of Kurzeme, or Courland, is soon reached, the drive over an excellent chaussee taking only a couple of hours.

Jelgava stands in the middle of a very rich and fertile district, where the methods of farming are very modern and the farmers extremely prosperous. There are many large farms in the neighbourhood of Jelgava, all very self‑contained, with mill, forge and a store where the local labour can supply its needs. In the old days   when alien landowners possessed these properties, this system of purchase from the estate had its disadvantages and was liable to abuse; in the case of the few large properties still remaining   which are usually worked co‑operatively by a group of friends (the land itself being leased from the Government), it seems to be working, quite well, and the goods are reasonably priced.

In pre‑war days the Baltic barons were among the richest aristocracy in Europe, many owning more than 100,000 acres, with a dozen country houses scattered up and down the country. Very frequently they were absentee landlords like the Boyars of Romania,  preferring to live in Vienna or Berlin.  Only when money was urgently needed would they consider leasing some portion of their estates to the ‘grey barons’ as the small Latvian farmers were called, from the colour of their homespun clothing. Even then the peasants, comparatively recently released from actual serfdom, were compelled by law to give certain services to their old masters; which accounts for the custom that still lingers, of the women on the farms working for a specified number of days each year for the benefit of the owner. Land hunger is still great, even though the Latvian Government faithfully kept the promises made to the landless peasants at the time of the Bolshevist invasion, and divided up the land among them. Up to that date, 72 per cent of Latvia was in the ownership of alien landlords. The expropriated owner, if he had not fought against Latvia (which, however, the great majority had done), was allowed to retain 150 acres round his house, together with the outbuildings;  while if there were several sons, an extra allowance was made as compensation. The land was then divided among the peasants in properties of from ten to fifty acres. One cannot help feeling sympathy for the dispossessed owners, who have paid dearly for the sins of their forebears; but the step was a necessary one, and it is impossible to see what else the Latvian Government could have done under the circumstances. The peasants would have felt no satisfaction in driving out the Reds if after that their lot had been once more to remain in subjection to the Balts, whose ancestors had taken the land by force from the people to whom it belonged, namely the Latvians themselves.

Jelgava is attractively placed, as are most Latvian towns, on the banks of the river.  Its beautiful castle was rebuilt by the famous architect of the Russian Imperial Court, Rastrelli, on the site of a much older keep which dated from 1265.  Rastrelli’s Latvian masterpiece is at Rundale, which is a little more south than Jelgava, the Versailles of the Baltic.

During the Great War, the castle of Jelgava was practically destroyed; but the work of reconstruction, carried out by the Government, is almost completed.  The architects have faithfully reproduced the design of Rastrelli, and the result is a very beautiful and stately pile, the central wing, containing the state apartments of the Dukes of Kurzeme, flanked on either hand by two‑storied wings, from which staircases lead on left and right to the main salon. The decoration of the interior has also been excellently copied by means of plaster‑casts, made after old pictures and prints of the original building, and it presents an admirable baroque picture, characteristic of its epoch.

The Great Hall with its series of smaller staterooms opening out from it are already completed, and one hopes that, when the castle enters on its new sphere of activity (it is to serve as the Agricultural College of Kurzeme), visitors will still be permitted to view it, for it is a splendid memorial of the great days of the duchy. One very interesting little room is the one used by Catherine II as her bathroom when she resided there; though that was in the later days when Kurzeme was no longer a semi‑independent duchy, but a vassal province to Russia.

Housed in a separate building are the tombs of the Dukes of Kurzeme and their families. Many of these sarcophagi are very richly and elaborately carved, the majority having the coats of arms of the various members of the Royal House and those of their consorts carved in stone. There are many pathetic little coffins of baby princes and princesses, pitifully many, for the mortality among infants and young children in medieval times was high.

It is sad to relate that German troops during the war broke open many of the tombs rifling the jewels and gold they contained, and taking out several of the skeletons and defiling them in various ways. The poor bones were afterwards decently interred again when the Latvian Army entered Kurzeme.

There are thirty‑three in all of these sarcophagi, one of the most beautiful being that of the Duchess Elizabeth Magdalena, the Pomeranian bride of Duke Freidrich, who died in 1619. It is adorned with some really beautiful carving, a shield bearing  the coat of arms, where the arms of the Duchess are quartered with those of the Duke; while the handles of the coffin are unusually magnificent.

The sarcophagus of Duke Jekaba, equally fine in its decoration, is of particular interest to English people, for this Duke was the godson of our own King James I, who, for reasons which have never been yet explained, had bestowed a pension of £400 a year on the baby’s father, Duke William of Kurzeme. So long as Duke William lived, this pension seems to have been regularly paid; but his son had much difficulty in collecting it, finally sending a messenger to Whitehall. This envoy, Major George Firck, was most graciously received by King Charles I, who presented him with a fine gold chain and many good wishes for his royal master; and sent back to Kurzeme with many promises of payment. With him travelled Sir John Cochrane; and not to be outdone, Duke James hung an equally magnificent gold chain round the neck of the Englishman. But the pension remained unpaid.

Nevertheless, Duke James continued a warm supporter of the Stuart cause, even sending ships of war from his duchy with munitions and money to the total amount of £74,000, an enormous sum for those days, to aid King Charles. Unfortunately there is no record of any of this sum having been repaid. Still Duke James remained faithful to the cause of the Stuarts while Charles I lived, and only after his death did he make terms with the Commonwealth.

 The flag of Kurzeme was already known and respected on the high seas for James was a man of unusual ability. Although the head of only a small state, and vassal to Poland, tucked away in an   obscure corner of Europe and menaced perpetually by powerful neighbours, his territory invaded from time to time, he yet managed to achieve a great measure of success. The odds against him were immense, with Russia, Sweden and Poland struggling for supremacy over the body of his little duchy. Yet the records of his day show that he managed to negotiate shipping and commercial treaties on equal terms with the great maritime powers of Europe: he created native industries in Kurzeme, shipbuilding and working in iron, steel and glass among them; and he obtained possessions overseas and kept them in the teeth of bitter opposition.

Perhaps the ambition of Duke James to found a Colonial Empire may have accounted for his desire to keep friendship with England, for as early as 1643 he was negotiating with the Stuarts for possessions in the West Indies; and he actually did obtain a lease of the island of Tobago (on stiff terms from Charles II) where he sent seven shiploads of colonists from Kurzeme. One wonders how these Letts endured the hardships of their new home where they had to fight perpetually both against the Dutch and French. Several times the little colony was almost wiped out, the survivors being sold into slavery.

After the Restoration, Duke James began to complain to Charles II about the unpaid pension, the old discussion still going on! The delightfully naive suggestion was made that Charles might wipe off the debt by giving James a colony in ‘Africa, America or Scotland‘!

But by this time James was getting an old man, unfitted to deal with a Stuart; and in 1682 he died, a disappointed man. It is interesting to note, how­ever, that even as late as the reign of William III, the pension question cropped up again!

There is one place besides the castle which British visitors should see in Jelgava and that is the cemetery in the church of St. Nicholas where thirty-six British war graves are kept in beautiful order by the Latvian Government. Each has its headstone, with the name and rank of the sailor or soldier above it; while over three graves runs the simple inscription ‘ To the memory of an unknown soldier’, and ‘ To the memory of an unknown British seaman’.  It is a beautiful, peaceful little spot, in which our dead lie, reverently tended by Latvian hands.

Leaving Jelgava, the road runs south, still through charming pastoral country as far as Meitene, where by way of Bauska, where are the ruins of a very fine castle built by the Teutonic Knights, one reaches Rundale, a magnificent building in Rasrelli’s finest manner, dating from 1736. If time is pressing, the road can be retaken as far as Bauska, where the direct chaussee back to Riga begins, the mileage from Bauska to the capital being a little more than seventy kilometres.

But there is much yet to be seen in Kurzeme: its lovely hills and valleys, the charm of the rolling uplands, the fields of blue‑flowered flax and the dense belts of glorious forest.

Making Jelgava the starting‑point for a run, the road turns west to Dobele, a delicious little white and green township, so peaceful and remote that it is hard to connect it with the stormy past of Latvia. It has the ruins of a medieval keep, itself a mere parvenu, built as it is on the site of a far older Latvian castle, where the fierce Zemgalian tribe made a last stand against the overwhelming power of the Teutonic Knights. When the odds were too heavy, the Zemgalians destroyed their castle so that it should not serve their enemies, and moved on into Lithuania, where they concentrated their forces for a great battle in which they were victorious. Every inch of this district has seen stern fighting, but the little town nestling among its wooded hills seems to be very far to‑day from the thought of strife. Cattle now browse in the courtyard of the castle, and the children play hide‑and‑seek around its massive walls

For another fifty kilometres or so, the road crosses meadowland and forest. There are fewer pines here and more deciduous trees,  so that there is greater variety in the landscape; then the  ancient Mill of Saldus comes into view, another place where we touch history in remembering it as the headquarters of Charles XII of Sweden for a while. Here we turned aside to taste the delightful hospitality of a Latvian gentleman farmer and his wife, the latter having lived in America during her childhood.

The farm‑stead, very old and quaint, owned a great flour‑mill, its principal raison d’etre, and here one could see the round of daily life as educated men and women were working it out in the country‑side.

There was something attractively patriarchal about the household despite the youth of its proprietors. Here was a great common‑room where the farm hands had their meals and sat in their leisure hours; there was the spinning and weaving‑room for the women; the huge cellars stocked with every kind of dried, bottled and preserved provisions against the winter days; the vast sheds where those peasants who came bringing corn to be ground at the mill could sleep and eat while they waited for their flour, with stabling for their horses.

Everything was on a big scale: particularly the old kitchen, very attractive with its enormous chimney, and an oven more suitable for the needs of a family of giants than modern weaklings, where the housekeeper was baking delicious, nutty bread from the newly harvested, freshly ground wheat and rye. There is no bread to compare with this save perhaps a farmhouse loaf, direct from a Yorkshire moorland kitchen.

Conditions of agricultural labour are vastly different in Latvia from those in other countries, and here it was possible to learn at first hand something of the way the big farms are run.

Those Letts who have still no land of their own come to work on the farms of other men, and such labour falls into four categories.

Beginning with such casual labour as hay‑making or harvesting demands, these men and women are given free quarters and food and a little money; about two shillings a day for the men and one shilling for the women. They are a nomad, shifting population, usually not purely Lettish, but Polish or Russian in origin.

Next come the seasonal workers, taken on at any season of the year but for a settled period, two or three months. They too are provided with sleeping quarters and their meals are cooked for them in the master’s kitchen, but they have to buy their own food. Their wages are higher, about sixteen shillings a week for the men and nine or ten for women.

Higher grade farm‑workers are those who are engaged for six months of the year, generally from spring to the beginning of autumn. Usually these are unmarried men and girls, and these workers were the ones we saw at the mill, sitting in their common­-room.  There are big sleeping‑rooms for the men and for the women, and usually the girls   sit in the spinning‑room with the farm maidservants. Such farm‑workers may either cook their own food or board with the families of the permanent hands. Our own host preferred to provide them with food from his kitchen. In addition to their wages, which are low (about five shillings weekly), they have certain perquisites, such as their own corn which is ground at the mill, and boots and stockings; and actually they are not badly off, as their term of hiring is for a specified period.

The permanent workers are the aristocrats of the farm employees. They are hired on St. George’s Day, April 23rd, and are required either to give or to take their notice on that date. But our host told us it rarely happens that the permanent workers wish to change, most of them remaining on the same farm for a great many years, often for a lifetime. Usually they are married men with families, and build their own little homes near the central farm‑stead. Their pay is small, but they have all the wood for building their houses, as well as firewood and oil, an acre of land apiece, on which to make the garden, essential for all Latvian homes, and tilled by their wives and daughters. They get sufficient corn and rye for their bread, which is ground for them at the mill; they may buy pigs, a cow and two or three sheep, which graze on the pasture‑land belonging to the farm; in winter their animals may live with those of their master, also receiving their rations. The wool and hides from their own animals ‑ perhaps they will kill a pig and a couple of sheep for food during the year ‑ also are their own property, so by and large they are quite comfortably off.

The mill itself was equipped with the most modern plant and machinery: the house a delightful mixture of new and old. In the drawing‑room were books in several languages, a  new pianoforte with piles of music, Bach and Chopin for our hostess, and Latvian folk‑songs which she was teaching to her two little children, both already bi‑lingual. In her spinning‑room were blankets and covers she herself had woven from the wool of their own sheep, and homespun linen made from their own flax‑fields. These large farms in Latvia are almost self‑contained. Only a few groceries and delicatessen come from the little market‑town close by, or from the stores in Riga, everything else being produced on the estate.

In front of the grey‑brown timber homestead, a pretty little lake stretched out, ducks and waterhens swimming ecstatically about it. Behind the house a big orchard and fruit garden stood; plums and apples, cherries, strawberries, raspberries and currants ‑ white and red ‑ in profusion, each in their season. In the courtyard a great woodstack was piled high with logs, for the oven in the farm‑house kitchen is seldom idle with so many hungry mouths to be fed.

Our hostess possessed her own national costume. That of Kurzeme has red for its predominant colour, as Vidzeme has green, but the long white shawls withtheir interesting border patterns are common to the lands both north and south of the Daugava. The swastika   is one of the most popular of these patterns, a design brought from the East in the twelfth century, when so much trade was carried on between the Baltic lands and Asia. In the north of Latvia you will see striped skirts: probably a Finnish‑Estonian influence here, but the squared patterns of the south are Celtic in origin. The women of Kurzeme wear bright red and black skirts, very full and pleated, with richly embroidered white blouses over which the long shawl is thrown, rather in the manner in which the Welsh women wear their woollen shawls. The head‑dress, adorned with coloured beads or metal ornaments, is very becoming.

From Saldus, the homeward drive to Riga runs northwards by Kuldiga, the oldest town in Kurzeme, with the remains of a castle built in 1242; and nearby the ‘ Rumba ‘ waterfall, very attractive when it is full of water, though rather disappointing on the day we saw it after a very dry summer. The fish make great leaps down the falls and are caught in mid‑air: an interesting sight.

From Kuldiga the shortest route is by Sabile, Kandava and Tukums, a distance of about 160 kilometres; but if time is not pressing, then the drive can be very delightfully extended by going first from Kuldiga to  Ventspils, across to Dundaga, and then through Talsi to Sabile, which would make the entire run from Kuldiga to Riga about 245 kilometres. In that case a stay of one night could be made conveniently at Ventspils, a big port where there are comfortable hotels.

Ventspils itself, ‘ the castle of the Venta ‘, at the mouth of which river the town is built, is a clean, attractive town of great importance to Latvian trade, since its excellent harbour is ice‑free during the winter months. It possesses the ruins of an ancient keep, but this is not to be compared with that of Dundaga, the only one existing in Latvia preserved in its original state. Like another town in Kurzeme, Madona, the origin of the word Dundaga seems to be of Celtic origin ‑ compare it with the prefix ‘dun’ meaning ‘town’ of the Cymri. We shall come to another interesting place‑name later when, having passed Talsi on the homeward run, that pretty town with its attractive little historical museum and its houses embowered in lovely gardens, we reach Sabile.

Sabile stands on the River Abava, and Aber is definitely a Celtic prefix, meaning ‘mouth of a river’. One can find a hundred examples in a Welsh time‑table!

The country between Sabile and Kandava is very lovely: fertile and smiling, its fields framed by low rolling hills and thick woods. Kandava itself is attractively placed, perched oil the side of a steep hill, with an eighteenth‑century church atop of this, and a thirteenth‑century castle with a powder tower and Duke James’s mill in the valley by the river. Kandava is remarkable, too, for a very excellent lunch produced from an hotel with an unattractive exterior; but in the Baltic lands you must never judge of the quality of the meal you are going to eat by the appearance of the building which houses the restaurant.

It is always well to choose an attractive ending for a run, and that between Kandava and Tukums is very pretty. The coat of arms of the latter town is ‘ three pine‑trees on a hill ‘, and incidentally one can buy sonic particularly attractive green pottery in a shop there on the market‑place.

From Tukums to Talsi there is another road, running between the ‘giant mountains ‘ (the name, one would imagine, referring to their original occupants rather than to their size) and the sea, which is in sight for a considerable part of the way. 

And from Tukums homeward through the spa of Kemeri to Riga one covers ground already pleasantly familiar.

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