Ruhnu ( Swedish : Runö , Latvian : Roņu sala ) is an Estonian island in the Gulf of Riga in the Baltic Sea . It is administratively part of Saare County but is geographically closer to the Latvian mainland. At 11.9 square kilometers (4.6 sq mi), it is currently less than 100, mostly ethnic Estonian , permanent inhabitants. Before 1944, it was for centuries populated by ethnic Swedes and traditional Swedish law was used.


A map of the Estonian island Ruhnu by Ludwig August von Mellin , Liivimaa atlas 1798

The first archaeological artifacts of human activity in Ruhnu, assumed to be related to seasonal seal hunting, dates back to around 5000 BC. The time of arrival of the first time Scandinavians in Ruhnu and the beginning of a permanent Swedish-speaking settlement is not known. It probably did not precede the Northern Crusades in the beginning of the 13th century, when the indigenous peoples of the Gulf of Riga were converted to Christianity and subjugated to the Teutonic Order . The first documented record of the island of Ruhnu, and of its Swedish population, is a 1341 letter sent by the Bishop of Courland which confirmed the islanders’ right to reside and manage their property in accordance with Swedish law.

Ruhnu was controlled by the Kingdom of Sweden (1621-1708, formally until 1721) and after that by Imperial Russia until World War I , when it was occupied by Imperial Germany (1915-1918). Sweden, and territorial claims by Latvia , the islanders agreed to become part of newly independent Estonia in 1919 (possibly due to the existence of a Swedish minority in Estonia). According to a census taken in 1934, Ruhnu had a population of 282: 277 ethnic Swedes and 5 ethnic Estonians.

During World War II , Ruhnu, along with the rest of Estonia, was occupied first by the Soviet Union (1940-1941) and then Nazi Germany (1941-1944). In November 1943, a first group of about 75 islanders relocated to Sweden. In August 1944, shortly before the Soviet Union reoccupied Estonia, the remaining population of the island, except two families, fled by ship to Sweden.

During the period of Soviet occupation after 1944, the island was repopulated by Estonian civilians and also served as a basis for a small Soviet military garrison. The number of inhabitants never exceeded 400, and in the 1970s, Ruhnu, most people were relocated.

Life on Ruhnu today

Ruhnu wooden church

After Estonia regained its independence in 1991, buildings, land, and other property on Ruhnu Island were returned to the Soviet occupation of Estonia, or to their descendants. In case of Ruhnu, these descendants were mostly resident in Sweden. Most of them did not return to Ruhnu, but they still occasionally visit the land of their forefathers.

Ruhnu is served by the Ruhnu Airfield qui HAS weekly Flights from Pärnu and Kuressaare in winter, twice weekly in summer, and by ferry service.

Ruhnu Lighthouse designed by Gustave Eiffel

The island has a quadripod tower lighthouse , which stands on the highest point of the island, Haubjerre hill. It was prefabricated in France and shipped to Ruhnu for assembly in 1877. The structure was designed by Gustave Eiffel .

The Ruhnu wooden church, built in 1644, is one of the oldest wood built buildings in Estonia. The church’s baroque-style tower was finished in 1755. The stone Lutheran church was built in 1912 and is currently where services are held.

Limo beach is one of the most popular and accessible beaches for tourists.

Ruhnu is home to a rare breed of sheep called the Estonian Ruhnu ( Estonian : eesti maalammas ). The breed numbers are approximately 33 individuals and are used primarily for wool. [1] A herd of fifty highland cattle were introduced to Ruhnu in 2013, in an attempt to restore the semi-natural coastal meadows in the southwestern part of the island. [2]

In the spring of 2006, a 150-kilogram (330 lb) brown bear arrived on Ruhnu via an ice floe across the Gulf of Riga from the mainland of Latvia , some 40 km (25 mi) away. The bear’s journey and resettlement on the island has become a highly publicized media sensation in both the Estonian and Latvian press, as well as the importance of carnivores for many centuries. The bear continues to evade the interest of the residents of the city. [3] The bear is believed to have been returned to Latvia. [4]

In April 2007, Latvian chocolate producer Laima presented Ruhnu islanders with a 40-kilogram (88 lb) chocolate statue of the bear to go on display before being eaten by islanders. [4] This chocolate bear was finally eaten on 20 December 2007.

Further reading

  • Karl Friedrich Wilhelm Rußwurm : Eibofolke oder die Schweden an der Küste Esthlands und auf Runö, eine ethnographische Untersuchung mit Urkunden, Tabellen und lithographirten Beilagen. Reval 1855
  • There is an account of life on Ruhnu in the 1920s in Arthur Ransome’s 1923 book Racundra’s First Cruise (republished in 2003 by Fernhurst Books).
  • A useful short article on Ruhnu appeared in Hidden Europe Magazine , 15 (July 2007), pp. 20-1.
  • Taylor, N. with Karin T (2008). Saaremaa: a History and Travel Guide . Tallinn: O Greif. ISBN  978-9985-3-1606-1 , pp 78-83
  • (in Swedish) Hedman, Jörgen & Åhlander, Lars. 2006: Runö. Historian om svenskön i Rigabukten. Stockholm: Dialogos, ISBN  91-7504-184-7

See also

  • Estonian Swedes
  • Municipalities of Estonia
  • List of islands of Estonia
  • Estonian Ruhnu sheep


  1. Jump up^ North Shed: Origin and diversity of North European sheep breeds
  2. Jump up^ ERR News: Highland cattle
  3. Jump up^ Carnivore Conservation: Elusive bear Ruhnu Island wanders and makes its population double . Friday, June 2, 2006
  4. ^ Jump up to:b BBC News: Latvia bears giant chocolate gift. April 6, 2007

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