5. HILL OF CROSSES


Ristimägi is probably one of the most often-visited sites in Hiiumaa. It is a reminder of the island's long-lasting historical ties with Sweden which ended tragically in 1781. Before this fateful year there were about two thousand Swedish people living on the island. As free people they enjoyed certain priveleges that the Estonian peasants did not. The peasants were literally owned by the landlords and had to work on the manors for free but the Swedes did not. This caused some resentment among the local landowners who wanted the Swedes to do free work for them too. This resentment, combined with a Russian desire to tighten control over the region resulted in a government decree by Catherine II for the forced deportation of the last 1200 Swedish people from the island.

The Swedish had been guaranteed freedom in letters from the Swedish king, but these letters could not protect them from the combined forces of Catherine II of Russia, a high ranking officer in the Russian army and the owners of the various estates on Hiiumaa. A deal was made to deport the Swedes to be farm workers for an area in the Ukraine and their departure was scheduled for August. The pain that the Swedes must have felt by being ordered from their homeland was tempered somewhat by the fact that they were promised good lands, provisions and safe transport. They gathered for a farewell church service at this site and bid farewell to their Estonian friends and homeland.

The journey turned out to be longer and more difficult than expected and many people died during the months of travel. Also, when they reached their destination they found that many of the promises made to them were not going to be kept. During the 1920's the descendants of these ill-fated settlers managed to make their way back to Sweden. This was made possible by an agreement between the Swedish an Russian Governments. Most of them now live on the island of Gotland.

A farmer who lived in this area at the time the Swedes were deported placed a small wooden cross on the spot where this last church service was held. Later, visitors also placed hand-made crosses on this spot and it became a tradition for first-time visitors to the island to make a cross out of sticks that they would find lying around the site. Now there are thousands of these crosses along the path leading into the forest. You too are encouraged to make a cross out of natural materials and add to this memorial.

Local legend tells a completely different story about the origin of this tradition. Long ago, a wedding party was traveling along the road from Kärdla and met another wedding party coming from the opposite direction. The road was too narrow for them to pass each other and each refused to give way. Discussion soon gave way to argument and then a fight broke out among the participants in the weddings. In the resulting chaos, the groom of one wedding party and the bride of the other were killed. After the fighting stopped, the people realized what a terrible thing they had done and were overcome with remorse. They all decided that the best way to put this sad event behind them would be for the surviving groom and surviving bride to be married, thus proving that love triumphs over all.