In Finland, everything turns blue and white on 6th December. Blue and white cakes are sold in bakeries; blue and white candles adorn people’s windows; and blue and white streamers, flags and decorations appear in every conceivable space across the country, especially in the capital, Helsinki.
Against this blue and white backdrop, celebrations begin in earnest. Processions, music and speeches echo around town squares, patriotic movies blare out from television sets, and glitzy parties stagger on long into the night. But what’s all the fuss about, you may well ask…?
Well, 6th December is Finland’s Independence Day and, like many countries across the globe, it’s marked with a much appreciated and well-earned day off work! And this year it’s extra special: the Finns will be celebrating 100 years to the day since the collapse of Russian control.
To commemorate the centenary, Finland has played host to a raft of diverse events throughout 2017, many of which have been organised to feature the theme of ‘togetherness’ and include the breath-taking natural landscapes of the country. There have been concerts, conferences, organised hikes, and massive sporting occasions; there’s been a year-long photo challenge trending on social media (#suomikuvahaaste); the government has redesigned the country’s passport; and there have been numerous opportunities to celebrate the contribution Finland has made to the world in fields such as art, architecture and design.
But, it’s not just the national campaigns that have caught the headlines: two Finnish expats living in the USA have also been joining in the fun, but perhaps a little more eccentrically. For over eight months, Jouko Sipila and Risto Sivula have been dragging a bespoke, specially-designed mobile sauna to events across the breadth of America, allowing local people to indulge in the deeply relaxing Finnish tradition of sweating in a box.
With these celebrations in mind, the RSGS has been researching the links shared between Scotland and Finland. And we’ve uncovered much more than a shared blue-and-white colour scheme for our countries’ national flags. Interestingly, one of our Collection’s Volunteers, Kenny Maclean, has been looking into the fascinating historical link between Finland and Scotland via one of Scotland’s earliest industrial protagonists: James Finlayson.
James Finlayson was born in 1772 in Penicuik, a small town just south of Edinburgh. He was a Quaker, philanthropist, self-trained engineer and industrialist who, by 1817, was working as a master machinist in the ironworks of St Petersburg. However, by 1819, Finlayson’s attention had been well and truly diverted from his work in the Russian capital, and drawn firmly to the opportunities available in the small market town of Tampere in southwest Finland.
Having previously visited Tampere, Finlayson had recognised the remarkable industrial potential of the site, chiefly as a result of the ferocious Tammerkoski Rapids. Formed on a steep river connecting lakes Näsijärvi and Pyhäjärvi, these turbulent waters would provide the necessary hydraulic potential to drive his ambition for a major Finnish textile centre, based right in the heart of Tampere.
But, it wasn’t just Finlayson who was keen for such investment: Tsar Nicholas I – who ruled over Finland at the time – was also anxious to promote the development of a thriving textile industry across his vast Russian Empire. As such, the Tsar granted Finlayson a number of privileges to promote his business, including free access to much of the Tammerkoski Rapids, interest-free capital investment, free land acquisition, and the duty-free importation of machinery and raw materials such as cotton.
Factory workers were sourced from local peasant families and trained – in the early years – by Finlayson’s wife, Margaret. To accommodate them, Finlayson developed a block of wooden housing, as well as a Quaker orphanage intended to provide some of the workers with additional protection, training and a religious education.
Though progress was initially slow, productivity soon ramped up at the factories, ensuring their main product, ‘Finlayson Cotton’, was well-known throughout the Russian Empire by the 1830s. Though Finlayson sold off the company in 1836, the brand continued to grow throughout the 19th century under the guidance of two German entrepreneurs. Operating under the title Finlayson & Compagnie, more than 3,000 workers were eventually employed in the business, resulting in it becoming the largest employer in Finland by the late 1800s.
As one might expect, the knock-on effect of Finlayson’s early investment was extremely significant for the small market town of Tampere, driving rapid economic venture and industrialisation in the area. From a population of just 1,000, Tampere grew to be the largest of the Nordic textile centres. Often referred to as ‘the Manchester of the North’, it is estimated that an astounding 40% of all of Finland’s factory workers operated from Tampere by the mid-1800s.
It’s no surprise, therefore, that Tampere later went on to become one of the most significant centres for the labour movement in Finland, forming the stage, most famously, for the Red Declaration in 1905. This historic statement of intent – printed on vivid red paper and published in Kansan Lehti (The People’s Newspaper) – called for universal suffrage and a free press for the workers of Finland, amongst other progressive human rights.
Though the Finlayson brand continues to this very day, foreign competition forced the last of his factories in Tampere to close their doors in 1995, over 150 years after work began on the banks of the Tammerkoski Rapids.
However, in the city Finlayson built, his name lives on. The old de-industrialised factories that once housed whirring reels and frantic workers are now home to an eclectic mix of businesses. Inside the enormous red brick buildings, each with their prominent Finlayson sign, there are stylish restaurants, sleek coffee shops, and decadent home-improvement stores. And, true to its industrial roots, imposing drive chains hang tastefully from the ceilings, gnarly metallic pipes protrude from the walls, and rigid steel girders occupy architectural sightlines.
A spectacle for all, the brown-field conversion of these old factories is a testimony to Finnish design and the exemplary environmental practices recently employed by the country. It’s also a tangible nod to the rich industrial heritage of Finland and Finlayson.
I’m sure the enterprising industrialist from Penicuik would be pleased.
Many thanks to Kenny Maclean for the excellent Tampere research, the hand-drawn map and the photographs included in the article. Written by James Cave.