Journey to Brittany this summer - taking the temperature and enjoying time among our Celtic cousins
Updated: Aug 11
Returning to Brittany in July each year is greatly anticipated. This year was the chance to meet old friends, make new ones, take the pulse of the land and sea and after touring, spend a fortnight at l’Île Tudy in South Finistere.
Our point of departure, Portsmouth holds little appeal while the overnight sail on Brittany Ferries oldest vessel Le Bretagne offers the immediate, welcoming ambiance of being abroad. The ship itself was launched from St Nazaire in 1989, Breton built, it feels well cared for in its thirty-fourth year and is older than most CalMac vessels.
I remember cruising on Le Bretagne from Plymouth to Santander in 1990, fine dining and elegant fittings. The company, created in 1962 to open direct trade links to the UK and later Ireland, commissioned a Breton theme for their new flagship. This was won by Sandy Goudie, talented son of Paisley and a Scottish artist steeped in the old Brittany. His marriage to a Breton doctor’s daughter gave them long summer holidays in Loctudy where he painted in great detail from croissants to ocean-going yachts, from old-style Breton funerals to gavottes and traditional Bigouden costumes.
Looking at the results on board after thirty years, Le Bretagne displays the landscape and people of the old Brittany that was enduring the rapids of change. Due to the European Common Market’s agricultural plans, M Mansholt demanded increased food production that was embraced by the French government to target Breton peasant farming. This necessitated ripping up hedges, trees, the old peasant field boundaries, the talus, and hastened the demise of the Breton and Gallo languages and culture.
Brittany became the most productive region of France. It’s crops and seafood entered many new markets by direct routes. Brittany Ferries direct access to the UK and Ireland with its expanding fleet began to set new standards and stimulated the tourist boom in Brittany, and easier road access to the warmer SW of France. The routes to Santander and Bilbao made the overnight sail a cruise, weather permitting in the Bay of Biscay. Only Brexit in 2016 and the Covid lockdowns of 2020 and 2021 provoked a cashflow crisis of cancelled sailings and fewer holidays. The French state partly met the costs but trade slowly adapted.
Gaelic songs in Brittany
On landing at St Malo, we headed for Meslin near Lamballe. Friends from Brittany Scotland Association hosted us. Alix Quoniam had learned Gaelic songs from the finest tradition bearers in the Hebrides, in particular Flora MacNeil. Alix was keen to remake these musical contacts and had recently written ‘De Balades en Ballades aux Îles Hébrides d’Écosse’ as a travelogue of her island-hopping and learning. Back in 2007 we first met Alix in a stunning concert at the start of a book festival I curated for a slew of island writers to appear at the Ouessant Salon du Livre Insulaire.
his year, thanks to the Brittany Scotland Association, we met up again. Alix hopes that Scotland’s greatest Gaelic poet of the 20th century, Sorley MacLean, can be better celebrated. I pointed to Black Cuillin, an ambitious suite of traditional music composed by Duncan Chisholm and friends based on Sorley’s epic poem The Cuillin. At Celtic Connections Festival in January 2023 it gained five star reviews. It is special meeting folk who live far from Scotland who champion our culture. More of which later.
Agricultural pollution concerns
Alix’ husband Yves Pucher, a retired solicitor, had been active in the Breton campaign to eradicate algues vertes. This poisonous green weed that releases deadly H2S lies in dense swathes on many picturesque beaches in spring and summer but whose sources activists and scientists link to intensive pig farming have been denied for decades, until this very month, at every official level from local communes to the upper echelons of the French state.
We were lucky to meet one of the local campaigners, André Ollivro, who delivered a copy to Yves Pucher of the cartoon history of their struggle. The story is told in both French and now Gallo, the local language of Côtes d’Armor and Ille et Vilaine in the north and east of Brittany. Such cartoon books, bande dessinée (BD) are common in France, not just for fiction. Algues Vertes – l’histoire interdit – is a journalist’s persistent enquiry over a decade. A film of the same name was released in late June. We went ‘to the pictures’ in Quimper a week later and within the month 200,000 cinema goers have seen it.
On 20th July a decision by a judge at the Administrative Tribunal in Rennes, the Breton regional capital, made the direct link between excess nitrate fertilisers as the origin of the algues vertes. It Early action was called for to change the feed system, not just clean up the green slime from tourist beaches.
Nevertheless, André Ollivro was in the news on 27th July receiving a warning for walking on a restricted beach. The prefecture of Côtes d’Armor, the top French official’s regional office, restricts access to beaches covered with algues vertes, which the authorities spend millions on their, now, safe removal. André was, of course, doing research which the authorities continue to fear.
Intensive pig farming in closed sheds requires maize grown all over France now for pig feed, supplemented by imported soya, much of it GMO, from South America. Industrialised production results in huge human and environmental costs in Europe and Brazil. This did not occur on small family farms before Mansholt.
Driving through inland Brittany
Our journey through the Brittany this summer continued to the far south of the Morbihan to visit a family friend at Camoël near the mouth of the river Vilaine. As you drive through small towns and villages they look half dead. Houses facing the roads are shuttered, most life lies round the back, but many are now second homes and holiday gites. Small places have few shops as large supermarkets dominate each region.
Tourism is the biggest Breton industry not just on the coasts. But at the coasts over-tourism is linked to lack of homes for local people and in the case of small islands like Bréhat a limit of day visitors has been imposed. On Ile de Groix large graffiti at the port complains that too many holiday lets provoke a housing crisis. Some seasonal workers, we read, were being housed near St Pol de Leon, in north Finistere, in ‘bungalows de chantier’ – converted shipping containers.
Keep local control in the Brière
The area of marshes north of Nantes is called the Brière. It has been home to wildlife and human life for centuries. The thatched cottages around its edges are distinctive. At around 490km2 and covering twenty-one communes the area is very special. But the wishes of local people are being ignored by the French state which wants to designate it a National Park. As a regional park they control their own destiny.
Compared to the Norfolk Broads, the Brière retains much of its network of waterways and marshes which you can visit in flat bottomed barges. East Anglia suffered the near total loss of fen life from the enclosure acts of parliament in the 17th and 18th centuries to become wheat fields that replaced reedbeds and dams, weirs and ditches that drained their land. The Briérons are resisting central control and asserting their rights today.
Graffiti for local housing and air pollution
Driving north towards Quimper, and then to our holiday destination, l’Île Tudy, graffiti on bridges over the autoroute warned of air pollution killing thousands each year, perhaps not so many in rural Brittany. Homes for seasonal workers was painted up, and some times painted out. I recall the price of pork featuring in the past.
We met up with friends from Brittany Scotland Association at Plohinec across the river Goyen from the popular resort of Audierne the fishing and holiday town close to the spectacular Point du Raz. A redundant large yellow shipping beacon tops the main roundabout. Perched on it a huge poster ‘Marins en colère’ – so what were the fishermen angry about this season?
A familiar tale emerged. They opposed increased inshore areas becoming highly protected marine area. Apparently the French government had been backing down. However, on 21st July the designation of the second French marine reserve was announced. It covers 19,700 ha off the north coast of Côtes d’Armor around Sept-Îles, a few kilometres off Trégastel Plage, a popular seaside resort on the Côte de Granit Rose.
It had taken ten years to fix, delineate and expand the reserve, only the second in France, the other being ‘des Bouches de Bonifacio’ off the southern tip of Corsica.
It is increasingly obvious from the reduced numbers fishing boats, returning to port after a day or longer at sea, that old facilities like fish markets and engineering support firms are cutting back. Posters in Loctudy foretold the potential loss of three hundred jobs. Catches reduce, species decline, it’s a sadly familiar tale. Certainly, shellfish still crown the ‘assiette de fruit de mer’ in local restaurants and locally produced oysters and mussels are plentiful and tasty as ever. But you see far more pleasure craft than fishing vessels. Even the ancient right to hand-pick cockles, razor clams etc at extreme low tides is now restricted to protect the resource.
Century of Breton culture celebrated
The hundredth edition of the Festival de Cornouaille took place in Quimper/Kemper with a four-day programme where all concerts seemed to be booked out when we inquired. Even the traditional fest-noz , night dances required an entry fee. We took in some of the fringe around the Ceili Bar where the street is filled with revellers. We chose a late evening gig by ace bombard player David Pasquet.
The festival finale begins with a huge procession winding round the old streets. In early evening the queen and her attendants are crowned high on the balcony of the Breton Regional Museum and greeted with huge cheering crowds gathered in the streets below. They all line the street alongside the River Odet to applaud the triomphe de sonneurs. Marching pipe bands, Celtic dance groups in myriad local costumes accompany the queen through the crowd. The tunes are very traditional and the end of the march disbanded, once again, in the packed street in front of the Ceili pub where beer flows and old friends meet again. But is the younger crowd today any less Breton today?
Brittany hosts huge summer festivals. Les Vielle Charrues held in Carhaix in its 20th year, its predominantly pop culture attracts tens of thousands from across France.
The 100th Festival de Cornouaille has a modest budget of £1.4m euros and was deemed an artistic success in a much more traditional mode. Lorient hosts the huge InterCeltic festival over a week in early August. We did not manage to stay this time to enjoy the Year of Ireland. All seem to report recovering footfall after the Covid 19 crisis.
Workers strikes and riots birthed widely popular Breton protest music
The peasant and workers struggles in the 1960s and 70s saw huge demonstrations and a flourishing of Breton Celtic protest music as did the prolonged campaign to stop nuclear plants being built at Plogoff, close to the Point Du Raz. They created a rebel élan into the 1980s and 1990s. The Breton language school movement begun in 1977 was a challenge to Paris decree of French language only in state schools. On reflection that era saw the peak of Breton musical innovation and language activism . Today in hypermarket Le Clerc, its Espace Culturelle in Quimper displays less than one small section of Breton and Celtic CDs. Steaming and digital downloads are the listening and viewing choice of the young as in Scotland. But our TVs show Breton dance circles and Breton pipe bands go from strength to strength involving thousands of young dancers, bombard, binou and Highland pipers and far more diverse percussion than heard in the militaristic Scottish tradition.
he festnoz scene features strongly in local community celebrations with outdoor food, such as crêpes, frites, moules, saucisson etc. And Festival de Cornouaille featured nightly dances and a dance marathon as a finale. Locals, young and old carry on the tradition which used to be a strong symbol of identity with local variations.
Taking the Breton temperature
The emphasis in shops and restaurants on local food is evident. A backlash against industrial farming indicates a new uptick of environmental awareness exemplified by the prolonged campaign against the causes of the algues vertes focus on powerful agriculture conglomerates and complicity with the French state. The annual event in l’Île Tudy - ‘Si la mer monte’, (If the sea rises) raises awareness and concern in the Brittany I enjoy in 2023. Common issues of lack of affordable housing for the young, growing concerns over climate change and an influx of rich climate escapees from inland and further south add to a period of uncertainty.
What is my big take on Brittany this summer and it’s way of life in the Celtic north west? It has a better chance to adapt to multiple global crises as the region of France with abundant food supplies and a maritime temperate climate, but only if more vital policies can be made locally.
On the day we sailed back from Roscoff to Plymouth news broke of the Scottish government finance minister Shona Robison attending a Celtic Forum and signing a memorandum of understanding in Rennes with the Breton Region alongside representatives of Cymru, Eire, Galicia, Asturias and Cornwall. Scottish historic and cultural links were displayed and a determination to work with our European neighbours was underlined.
The main Scottish/Breton agreement was to share expertise on offshore wind and tidal power. The hidden, or not so hidden, constraint is the nuclear obsession of Paris and London which the Celtic countries reject. The spirit of cooperation among small nations and peoples is a vital ingredient in the European scene today and must be supported in Brussels.
Rob Gibson, August 9 2023