The History Of Tar-making & The Kuortane “Terwaviikko” Event

Episodes 55 & 56

When I asked about visiting the Terwaviikko (Tar Week) event in Kuortane, I was quickly introduced to Michael Hutchinson-Reis, a fellow Londoner in Finland, who is now firmly involved in the Lions Club of Kuortane that organises the weeklong wood tar-making event that takes three years of preparation.

Michael invited me to visit the tar pit in Kuortane a few times across the week in July 2022, to learn how tar is made and to witness different stages of the tar-making process, during an event that has great cultural and historical importance to the village of Kuortane.

Show Notes & Links

The Historical Importance of Tar-making in Finland

What Is Tar & What Is It Used For?

In this episode, Michael is specifically talking about the production of wood-tar, using a method that is traditional to the region; dry-distilling (or sweating) the resin from pine tree logs. This produces a viscous, brown liquid that was used as a sealant for waterproofing ships, roofs and even sailors hats.It was also used as a food flavouring and for producing soap and shampoo.

Wealth Creation In South Ostrobthnia

In addition to farming the land, many farmers (or groups of farmers) also produced wood tar. Michael showed this map which details some 400 tar pits in the area around Kuortane. This made a large additional contribution to local economy.

South Ostrobothnia is renowned for large farmhouses and the pride that many locals feel for these buildings and their financial success over the years. The design of the houses and barns, wider on the upper floor, appear almost turbocharged, pumped-up by the affluence that wood-tar brought.

Until the early-1800’s, Finland was not an independent country, it was still part of Sweden. This meant that all sales of tar were made via Sweden and required that a duty be paid to the Swedish King – although not so much that it prevented the industry being profitable, nor the large houses being built.

The Geopolitical Importance of Finnish Tar

Michael also emphasised the impact that Finnish tar had on a global scale. Tar was used to seal the hulls of boats, so the nation with the most boats would, naturally, be an important customer. The largest buyer of Finnish tar was the British Navy, back in the days when Great Britain was a global superpower, a power that was based on its naval strength.

During the first decade of the nineteenth century, the era of the Napoleonic Wars (1803–1815), Great Britain participated in many battles and wars to protect its access to this vital natural resource. This would also prevent Sweden trading with Europe, thus giving France (Britain’s historical enemy) access to Scandinavian tar for its navy. For example, the two Battles of Copenhagen (1801 and 1807).

Also during the Finnish War of 1808-1809 Great Britain backed Sweden in its war against Russia, again in order to secure British access to tar. This war is notable for concluding with control of Finland passing from Sweden to Russia, with the creation of the Grand Duchy of Finland the predecessor of our modern-day homeland.

I couldn’t help but notice the historic pre-echo to the modern day situation of nation states fighting for oli that is located deep below a desert in another country. Just a thought.

It is arguable, and Michael made the point, that the tar industry of Kuortane and beyond had a direct impact in facilitating the global trade of enslaved people. An ‘industry’ that had a direct effect on his life as the son of a native from Trinidad & Tobago, who emigrated to London in 1948 on HMT Empire Windrush.

The “Terwaviikko” Event in Kuortane

Terwa (or Terva) = Tar | Terwaviikko = Tar week

How Is Tar Made?

Preparations for building the tar pit take place over the preceding three years. Pine trees are prepared by stripping the bark on one side of pine trees. This stimulates the tree to produce pihka (a waxy resin or sap) to protect the exposed wood. It is this pihka that will create the tar. As the fire burns, it is managed and controlled so it does not burn too fiercely, but rather smoulders to “sweat” the resin out of the wood.

In the area of woods adjacent to Kuortane Olympic Training Centre, is where you will find the Kuortane’s remaining tar pit. The surrounding is built-up to allow the drain and pipe to be positioned at the bottom and to create a bowl, about three metres deep, for the wood-pile to be built in. Just as important, it allows easy access to the tap when the tar is ready to flow.

During the week of Terwaviikko, these trees are chopped into small logs approximately 50cm (20 inches) long. These are positioned very precisely in a concentric circle layout, with the waxy side facing down to allow the resinous tar to drip downwards. The lower layers of wood are built sloping downwards towards a central tree trunk or “pencil” (which also acts as a indicator of how the fire is burning) while the upper layers start to slope upwards.

When complete, this wood pile will stand about 1.5 metres tall, covered with moss and leafy branches. While at ground level around the base, is a ring of thin wooden planks, the kindling that will start the fire that will burn for days. The crown of moss will be used to smother the flames, to keep the the resin dripping but not burning.

Gallery: Building the Tar Pit

What is Kuortane “Terwaviikko”?

Kuortane Terwaviikko is a public event that is hosted every three years and runs from Wednesday to Sunday. In 2022, when I visited, this was 20th-24th August. On the Wednesday is the lighting ceremony, on the Friday the tap is opened and the tar flows, and on the Sunday the festivities are brought to a close with an outdoor church service, with the remains of the fire adding a smoky ambience.

The Terwahauta is well signposted during the five-day event. Close to the Kuortane athletics stadium, on the Keskustie road, you will see a small gravel car park with a large sign directing you into the woods. Each time I visited, I parked here and walked the 200 metres down the woodland track.

As you approach the tar pit, there is a buzz of activity. As well as the fire itself, there is a bar area, the axe-throwing competition, a stall selling snacks and drinks (including sausages, of course, every event in Finland offers makkara), a stall selling food products made using tar, a tractor-powered lathe slicing wooden shingles for use as roof tiles. These activities were all taking place on both the evenings I visited (Wednesday and Friday) and the event was attended by several hundred visitors.

The “Terwaviikko” Experience

(See video ‘ExploreFinland Visits Kuortane Terwaviikko 2022’ below)

Gallery: The Lighting Ceremony

On the Wednesday, the official lighting ceremony began at 19:00, but the stands/bleachers started to fill-up soon after 18:00, with an increasing urgency among those looking for seats as the fire-lighting moment approached. Just before the lighting ceremony, one of the Lions Club team (all now dressed in traditional costume of South Ostrobothnia) poured some tar on the kindling wood round the outside as an accelerant for the fire.

The leader of the Lions team then climbed up onto the wood pile and delivered an introductory speech, in which he explained the cultural and historical importance of the tar industry to the region. Each member of the team, who was holding a stick with a piece of birch bark on the end, set the birch bark alight and use this to ignite the tarry wood and light the fire. The fire took only minutes to grow quite fierce and the spectators started to move away, back to the bar and the stalls, or just milling around, socialising with friends and family.

I returned on the Friday, when the newest batch of tar would run through the tap. As I approached the area, the woodpile was much diminished and was emitting a thick, white smoke (a good sign that the fire was burning at the right temperature, not too hot so the tar would be burned.)

Once again, there was a big crowd but still plenty of space on the stands/bleachers to get a good view. The final ceremony was shorter that the lighting ceremony, but featured a couple of guest speakers. It finished with the leader of the Lions team inviting people to move across to the tap, so they could be ‘blessed’ with a tarry thumbprint on their forehead and, for the braver souls, a taste of tar on the back of their tongue… OF COURSE I had a taste!

On the Friday, too, the locals settled in for more socialising in the woods with friends, enjoying the warm Finnish summer evening and looking forward, perhaps, to the final event of Terwaviikko, the outdoor church service on the Sunday which brings a spiritual end to this week, in which the Kuortanelaiset celebrate one of the foundations of their local culture and history.

Gallery: The Final Ceremony

Watch & Listen To This Episode

Episode 55: The History & Tradition of Tar-making in Kuortane

Episode 56: Kuortane Terwaviikko: Preserving South Ostrobothnia’s Tar-making Tradition

ExploreFinland Visits Kuortane Terwaviikko 2022

Finnish Words

  • Terwa (or Terva) = Tar
  • Terwaviikko = Tar week
  • Etelä-Pohjanmaa / South Ostrobothnia = the region of Finland that Kuortane is located
  • Pihka = resin or sap
  • Terwahauta = tar pit
  • Hauta = grave, tomb
  • Makkara = sausage
  • Kuortanelaiset = people from the village of Kuortane

Useful Links

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