Estonian Swedes

Island folk

Who are they?

The Estonian Swedes are a historical Estonian minority. Their main areas of settlement were the coastal areas in North-Western Estonia and the islands. They call themselves Aibofolke – “island folk”. They were mostly a rural population, making a living from fishing, seafaring and agriculture.

According to the 1934 census there were 7641 Swedes in Estonia – 0.7% of the total population. Swedes were the majority in Vormsi (Ormsö), on the Pakri islands (Rågöarna), Osmussaare (Odensholm), Ruhnu (Runö) and in the Riguldi district on the Estonian mainland (Rickul). The Noarootsi peninsula (Nuckö) and Sutlepa (Sutlep) had a mixed population. Swedes were a substantial majority in Harju county’s Vihterpalu (Vippal), Kurkse (Korkis) and Naissaare (Nargö).

The Estonian Swedes were characterized by a long time separation from mainland Sweden and Finnish Swedish areas, and there was also isolation from each other. This resulted in the Swedes retaining their dialects for a considerable time, and, on the islands, their village community lifestyle. Each settlement had its own dialect which the mainland Swedes did not comprehend, and the other Estonian Swedes also had trouble understanding. A sense of unity – as Estonian Swedes – started to be formed only in the 20th century.

Arriving in Estonia

The Swedes who arrived in Estonia in the Middle Ages came mainly from Finland. They were mentioned for the first time in the 1294 Haapsalu Town Law. The Swedish settlement during the Middle Ages was extensive – along the coastline from southern Lääne county to Viru county, and included most of the Western Estonian islands. This prevalence was later reduced for a variety of reasons. In Tallinn, almost 25% of the town’s population was Swedish, and in Haapsalu the proportion was even greater.

In comparison to Estonian peasants, the Swedes had personal liberty – they were never made serfs. This liberty was protected by so-called letters of privilege issued by the landed gentry, which were generally extended when there was a change in state power. The special rights of the Swedes also protected them from becoming Estonianized.

Struggle for freedom

During the period of Swedish power at the beginning of the 17th century, the first manor houses were constructed in Estonian Swedish areas. The new masters no longer took into account the rights of the Swedes, who were also obligated to carry out forced unpaid labor, and so began the long struggle by the peasants for their freedom. The court processes extended as far as Stockholm. The mainland Swedish authorities repeatedly confirmed the Estonian Swedes privileges, but this had no effect in practice.

In 1710-171I the plague broke out in Western Estonia, and a large number of Swedish villages died out. Estonians moved into the empty farms and thus began the Estonianization of the Swedish areas on the Estonian mainland. But on the islands, the Swedish identity was restored due to the arrival of new settlers from Finland and Sweden.

After the Northern War disputes with the landed class continued and intensified. There are historical records of the tenancy of farms being rescinded in Vormsi and Noarootsi. In 1781 the Swedish community on Hiiumaa was expelled and they settled in Ukraine – they established their own village Gammalsvenskby on the base of the Crimean peninsula. This marked the end of the Swedish community in Hiiumaa, since the remaining Swedes in Reigi and Kärdla quickly Estonianized. The old special rights for Swedes survived only on the Pakri islands, Ruhnu and Osmussaar.

The Estonian Swedes were never officially made the mother serfs, but they were also not actually free. When serfdom was abolished in the Estonia province in 1816, this did not apply to the Swedes. It was only in I856 that the Swedes were made equal to the Estonians.

Age of awakening

In the mid-19th century changes began to occur – creation of local government districts, establishment of schools and buying farmland. The purchase by peasants of the farms they were working proceeded slowly, in some places the determination of and borders lasted until the end of the 1920s. Contacts by Estonian Swedes with country became more frequent, especially church contacts. In 1873, missionaries from the Swedish Evangelical Mission Society arrived in Estonia – of these the best known were Lars Johan Österblom and Thor Emmanuel Thorén. A religious awakening began, which spread from the Swedes to the Estonians. Österblom became famous for his missionary activities in Vormsi, and he also was the founder of the first schools there. Thorén established a district school teachers’ seminary in the Paslepa manor in Noarootsi. The seminary operated for 14 years and produced the first generation of educated Estonian Swedes.

The religious awakening produced a national awakening with Noarootsi as the center. Temperance societies, choirs and libraries were established. On the initiative of parish clerk Johan Nyman and school teacher Hans Pöhl, the first Swedish language calendar began publication in I 903, and this continued to 1940. In 1909 the Swedish Education Society in Estonia (SOV – Svenska Odlingens Vänner) was founded. The Society’s task was the preservation of the national sentiment of the Swedes, promoting education and culture. The Estonian Swedish elite congregated around the SOV, which in 1917 established its own political party – the Swedish People’s Union. In 1918, the newspaper Kustbon began publication, and became an important information channel between the various Estonian Swedish areas.

Republic of Estonia

The time of the Republic of Estonia was a time of rapid cultural and economic development. The Estonian Swedes had the position of Minority Secretary with the Government, and their own representation in the Riigikogu. Within the framework of cultural autonomy, the first mother tongue higher educational institutions were established – Pürksi Agricultural and Folk University (1920) and the Haapsalu Swedish Private High School (1931). Contacts between the various settlements and with Finland and Sweden increased markedly and by the 1930s isolation was at an end. In summer 1933 the first Estonian Swedish choral festival was held in Haapsalu. This optimistic period, however, was blemished at the end of the 1930s by the Estonianization policies towards minorities by the Republic of Estonia.


World War II brought about a sudden end. In 1939, Soviet military bases were set up in western Estonia. By June 1940, all Swedes had been evacuated from Osmussaare, the Pakri islands and Naissaare. After the annexation of Estonia by the Soviet Union, persecution began and the community lost their prominent public figures. The community’s traditional occupations -seafaring and fishing – became questionable, and people started to consider resettlement.

In the autumn of 1940, the first 110 Pakri inhabitants arrived by boat in Stockholm. More extensive resettlement began in 1943. Some of the resettlers were young men, fleeing the German mobilization, and some left officially -women, children and the elderly leaving on the so-called hospital ships. In 1943-1944, approximately 6800 Swedes left Estonia (almost 90%), and 1281 stayed on, for various reasons. The German authorities used the empty farms to settle war refugees from mainly Russia and North-Eastern Estonia.

After the war in Sweden…

The resettlers were initially located in the Stockholm archipelago, which enabled them to continue with their previous occupations. Despite this, in the 1950s, they urbanized rapidly, and now most of the former Estonian Swedes live in Stockholm or its environs. SOV activity continued and the journal Kustbon was again published. The aim of the Society was to unite their people now living abroad, as well as the preservation of the cultural heritage. With this aim in mind, there is continuous documentation and research activity, publication of books and other materials, and annual local folklore festivals. In 1985, the Estonian Swedes youth society SONG (Svenska Odlingens Nya Generation) was established by the Swedish-born descendants of Estonian Swedes. In 1999, this society merged with SOV.

… and in Estonia

After the return of the Soviet forces, the Estonian Swedish areas were closed off by the border zone. Contacts by the remaining native population with relatives in Sweden were cut off. The Swedish language schools were closed and the Swedish language continued only as a language spoken at home. In the process of deportations and collectivization many villages were destroyed and the number of inhabitants was reduced. People were not permitted to return to Osmussaare or Naissaare. Civilian settlement on the Pakri islands ceased in the 1960s.

In 1988, Estonian Swedes again became a topic for discussion. The Estonian Swedish Cultural Society was founded, with the aim of uniting the Swedes living in Estonia and those interested in Estonian Swedish culture. The Society organized the first local folklore festival in Noarootsi, and published the journal RONOR. Swedish was again being taught to the younger generation. In I 990 a high school was established in Noarootsi with Swedish language specialization. This was followed by the establishment of an Estonian Swedish research library and archives and the Coastal Swedish Museum. 


There is no longer an active Estonian Swedish community in Estonia. The only reminders of the past are Swedish language place names and gravestones in the cemeteries. It is estimated that there are 200-500 Swedes or their descendants in Estonia. In Sweden, there are also reducing numbers of the pre-war generation.

The settlement areas for Estonian Swedes have much in common today -due to the previous border zone, nature is unspoiled; there is sparse inhabitation, unusual history and a large number of Swedish-speakers. They have close contacts with the former native inhabitants now in Sweden, and many of these have had their land returned. There is cooperation through the local folklore societies established in Sweden, which unite Estonian Swedes from various settlements. Many local government districts see their future in tourism and in offering vacation opportunities.