With over 800 islands and islets, Brittany boasts almost 70 per cent of the island bodies of metropolitan France. Some support thriving local communities while others are home to only seabirds and the intrepid traveller. This is a brief sketch of some of the main inhabited islands, starting with those off the north-west coast and moving counter-clockwise around the peninsula to the south coast of Brittany.
Île de Bréhat
Just a mile or so off the charming north coast town of Paimpol is Bréhat, perhaps one of Brittany’s prettiest islands. Bréhat consists of two main islands that are linked by a bridge at low tide, surrounded by nine much smaller islands and scores of islets once said to have been populated by the dead.
No cars are allowed on the island, so you will need to be prepared to walk or rent a bicycle to fully explore; the striking pink granite rock formations and Guerzido beach are well worth discovering. The north west tip of the south island offers a wonderful view of the coast and its surrounding isles. The 18th century cross there is named after Saint Maudez who is thought to have had an oratory on l’île Maudez, a small island 2km offshore. Legend has it that the saint was chased away with rocks when he first tried evangelising Bréhat in the 6th century; the inhabitants invoking the Devil to rid themselves of his preaching. Maudez promptly took-up one of the island’s menhirs and sailed it across to his island where he set it into the ground. This was not his only miraculous deed; he is also said to have rid the isles of snakes.
On the north island, the impressive chasm at the Pointe du Paon once served as an oracle for young girls; casting a stone into the abyss, the number of bounces on the rocks was said to indicate the number of years separating them from marriage. Local legend says that some of the boulders in the field nearby were once men, shepherds who neglected their flock by paying too much attention to a mermaid of great beauty; they were turned to stone for their effrontery.
This picturesque island became quite fashionable in the 1890s and was, for a time, home to a small artists’ colony and has inspired such renowned artists as Marc Chagall, Paul Gauguin, Auguste Matisse, Henri Rivière and Paul Signac. A population of almost 2000 was noted in the middle of the 19th century but this has since dwindled to about 400 permanent residents. The island boasts several options for overnight accommodation and is connected to the mainland by a regular 10-minute ferry service from Ploubazlanec.
Île de Batz
The Île de Batz lies just off the northern coast from the port of Roscoff and is well worth visiting for its wonderful white sandy beaches. The island enjoys such a mild micro-climate that, at the turn of the last century, a wealthy Parisian was encouraged to establish an exotic garden here with plants from all over the world. The years following the Second World War saw the garden neglected and untended until the site was rehabilitated in the late 1980s. It now boasts a collection of over 2,500 exotic plant species native to Africa, America, Asia and Australia, including many rare palm trees and is open to the public most of the year.
If you want to view something equally unusual, the church in the main settlement contains the stole used by Saint Paul Aurelian to subdue a marauding dragon. Local legend says that in the early 6th century Saint Paul was welcomed to stay on the island on condition that he delivered it from a ferocious dragon that terrorised the place, devouring its people and cattle. After a night of prayer, and accompanied by a local warrior, he set off for the dragon’s lair. At the saint’s command, the dragon emerged in a terrible fury but Paul was unmoved and immediately wrapped his stole around the animal’s neck and led him towards the far end of the island. There, he cast the beast into the sea, in the spot that is now called Trou du Serpent.
Prior to the First World War, almost 1,400 people lived on Batz but the number of permanent residents is now closer 460. Nonetheless, the island possesses a thriving community and offers a number of accommodation options for today’s visitor. Bicycles can be rented here but, as it is only a little over three square kilometres (1.2sq miles), the best way to explore the island is on foot. You will discover beautiful coves and sandy beaches on most of the tracks that lead off the main, pedestrian only, coastal pathways particularly on the southern coastline. A few small islets and large rock formations lie close off the northern coast, giving a most picturesque view of the sea but for a magnificent panorama; climb the stairs to the top of the lighthouse. A regular ferry service connects the island to the mainland at Roscoff in less than 15 minutes.
Lying some 20km off Brittany’s north-west coast, the Île d’Ouessant, known as Ushant in English, is the westernmost point of metropolitan France. A stony and relatively flat outcrop of some 8km by 4km (5 miles x 2 miles), the island is surrounded by a number of smaller islands, the largest of which being the privately owned Île de Keller. Bereft of trees and battered by the Atlantic winds, the island has little cultivated land and in times past offered a very challenging way of life.
Historically, the majority of men were seafarers and were usually absent for months if not years at a time; a state of affairs that fostered a strongly matriarchal society. It was the women of the island, typically when they were in their mid-twenties, who asked for a man’s hand in marriage and afterwards retained their maiden name. It was the women who worked the land, looked after the animals and collected the seaweed for burning, while maintaining the home and rearing a family.
The isolation of the island saw it retain endemic breeds of horse and sheep characterised by their dwarfism; the native horse died out in the late 19th century but thankfully the sheep, the smallest breed in the world, managed to survive. The island is also home to a species of black bee that has been virtually wiped out by pesticides and parasites on the mainland and is highly regarded for the quality of its honey.
The island seems to have been continuously occupied since around 4000BC and was first noted by Himilco, the 5th century BC Carthaginian navigator about a thousand years before the arrival of Saint Paul Aurelian who is said to have sailed to the island in a stone boat. Given its strategic position marking the southern entrance into the English Channel, the area witnessed a number of significant naval battles between the 16th and 20th centuries. The treacherous reefs and currents that surround Ouessant, coupled with the strong Atlantic winds, made travel to and from the island notoriously difficult until the early 20th century. Over the years, hundreds of ships and lives have been claimed by these same rocks and generations of islanders have selflessly risked their lives to aid those in distress.
An old Celtic tradition held that the bodies of the dead were borne to the island whence the souls flew to the sacred isle of Albion; the themes of death and loss predominate throughout the island’s legends that contain dark characters such as the malevolent korrigans of the Pointe de Pern, vindictive mermaids off the seashore and the seagull of death.
Home to almost 3000 people in the early years of the 20th century, the island has a permanent population of little more than 820 today. It is possible to tour the island by mini bus or taxi but if time is not at a premium, I recommend exploring one of the many marked hiking trails that cross the island but be aware that the coastal paths are reserved exclusively for pedestrians and therefore prohibited for bicycles. A daily ferry service from Le Conquet connects the island to the mainland in about an hour.
Nine kilometres to the south-east of Ouessant, sitting just 15km from Brittany’s west coast, Molène is the main island of the Molène archipelago; a group made up of 19 islands. These islands are peppered with megalithic monuments although, as is the case on other Breton islands, the ones that we see today are but a fraction of what Neolithic man left; the ready availability of cut stone having proved too much of a temptation to the island’s builders over the years.
Like those of Ouessant, the people of Molène once had an undeserved reputation as wreckers. However, they also shared a much merited reputation for their unfailing assistance to any unfortunate enough to come to grief on the submerged reefs that surround their island. Of the many shipwrecks that have occurred near Molène, that of the SS Drummond Castle, on the night of 16 June 1896, has left an indelible mark on the island.
Having inexplicably sailed between Ouessant and Molène, rather than taking the established route to the English Channel via the north-west of Ouessant, the 4,500 ton steamship, en route to London from Cape Town, struck a set of reefs known as the Pierres Vertes. The ship, carrying 245 passengers and crew, sank in less than 15 minutes a little after eleven o’clock at night and it was not until 07:30 the following day that the first two survivors were found by a fisherman from Molène. Three hours later, another survivor was found by a fisherman from Ouessant. Sculling for home, he found the bodies of a two year old girl and a crewman who had survived the night but had lost his grip on a makeshift raft sometime around 09:00. Eighteen bodies were found that day and taken to Molène where they were washed and sewn into sheets. Honouring the custom of the island, crucifixes and candles were placed near each body and the islanders took turns to keep a vigil for the dead overnight.
Other bodies were found over the next few weeks and eventually, in total, about a hundred victims were recovered from the waters around Ouessant, Molène and further afield. The consideration shown by the islanders in the search operations as well as their dignified treatment of the dead were highly regarded in Great Britain. Solemn declarations of gratitude were sent by Queen Victoria and the Archbishop of Canterbury and these were soon followed by the bestowal of official medals and awards. Other tokens of appreciation included a processional cross, a remarkable vermeil chalice adorned with precious stones, and a gold paten for the island’s church. With only two watches on the island, a large clock striking the hours was also commissioned for the bell tower of the church, overlooking the last resting place for 29 victims of the disaster.
At the time, the only source of drinking water on the island was an unreliable well that often delivered brackish water. A legend attributes this well to Saint Ronan, who, discovering no water on the island, struck the ground with his staff, causing water to appear. Addressing the water supply problem on Molène was seen as a practical mark of gratitude and a large impluvium and cistern was installed in 1897 which remained in use for some 80 years.
The decline of the local fishing industry was an important factor in the population shift on the island; dropping from over 670 permanent residents in the 1920s to around 140 today. Managed tourism is important to Molène and there are several accommodation options available for those looking for more than a day-trip. While it essentially a vehicle free island, the roads and paths are well maintained, allowing you to visit the sites of interest with relative ease. Be aware that the museum dedicated to the Drummond Castle disaster is only open in the afternoon; if it is closed, just let them know in the town hall and they will arrange access. A daily ferry service runs from Molène to Le Conquet and Brest on the mainland; it is the same boat but catching it at Le Conquet will cut your crossing time to just 30 minutes.
Île de Sein
About eight kilometres (5 miles) off the Pointe du Raz on Brittany’s Atlantic coast lies the Île de Sein; reputed birthplace of the wizard Merlin and sacred burial place of the druids. The island was described by 1st century Roman geographers as home to a group of nine female virgins known as the Gallicenae. These virgins were said to be Celtic priestesses and powerful seers who only shared the secrets of the future with those pilgrims who made the dangerous journey to personally consult them. Ascribed great magical powers, the Gallicenae were able to dominate the elements; conjuring great storms, exciting or calming the winds according to their wishes. They were also said to be able to shape-shift into animals and to possess the ability to cure the most impossible of diseases.
Man’s links with this island stretch much further back than the ancient Celts, as attested by the two menhirs known as ‘the talkers’ which stand near the church dedicated to Saint Guénolé. A local legend tells how this holy man helped to keep safe the islanders’ souls: Saint Guénolé, weary of making the difficult journey between the island and his abbey at Landevennec, decided to connect the island with the mainland; a plan that was met with much joy by the inhabitants. Contemplating on how this might be achieved, he was approached by a handsome young man but noting his sweet tongue and cloven hoofs, Guénolé recognized the Devil himself and asked: “What do you want from me, Polig?”
“I want to go to that island I spy in the far distance. It is known that you are planning a bridge and, so, I shall borrow it when it is built,” said the Devil.
“You shall not pass to there! If such is your intent, I shall not build the bridge!” replied the saint.
“Then you will be denounced as a liar, for you gave the people your word. You will lose your holiness and will inevitably become my disciple because the lie will stain you.”
Saint Guénolé was at a loss; if he honoured his commitment to build the bridge, the Devil would cross to the island and take the souls of its people but if he abandoned his obligation he would become a liar and thus a fisherman of the Devil.
As ever, God was watching and seeing the saint’s dilemma, offered him the chance to perform a marvellous miracle. Whereupon Saint Guénolé threw a bridge of ice across to the island and waited for the Devil, who soon appeared. Gloating in triumph and already enticed by all the souls that he would be able to corrupt, the Devil rushed onto the bridge but with his first few steps, his burning hooves melted the ice and he was cast down into the swirling waters below. The Devil’s violent reaction at being tricked accounts for the fierce currents that separate the island from the mainland.
Sein barely emerges above sea level and in the 19th century was almost totally submerged on several occasions, necessitating the folk of the island having to take refuge on the roofs of their houses. Like other island communities, the inhabitants once had a reputation as ship-wreckers and looters and while there is scant evidence for the former, it is important to remember the grey area between the latter and exercising the rights of salvage. What is beyond doubt is the fortitude and bravery generations of islanders have shown in rescuing the victims of the many deadly shipwrecks that have taken place amidst the 25km of reefs that stretch away from the island.
A population of 1,300 was noted in the 1930s but this has, over time, reduced to about 240 permanent residents today. The island is car-free but being only 2km long and half a kilometre wide at its broadest point, is easy to get around on foot. The ocean views are wonderful and you will soon appreciate why this area is well known for its seabirds and lighthouses. If you are feeling energetic, the panorama from the top of the Goulenez lighthouse is worth climbing its 250 steps for. It can be reached from the mainland by ferry from Audierne in about an hour.
Îles de Glénan
The Îles de Glénan are an archipelago of nine islands and a similar number of islets lying about 16km (10 miles) off the south coast of Brittany. The islands are achingly picturesque and offer a tropical scene of fine white sandy beaches surrounded by clear turquoise water. Between the 15th and 18th centuries, the islands were a known haunt for the pirates and privateers that plundered the merchantmen plying the Bay of Biscay. Many of the islands once supported fishing communities; 70 permanent residents were noted at the end of the 19th century. The islands’ meagre resources would have been stretched to sustain such numbers, especially when swelled by the transient fishermen and kelp gatherers who typically stayed for three months of a year.
A local legend tells that the islands were part of the mainland until relatively recently but their separation likely dates back thousands of years. That they were once part of the mainland is attested by the many megalithic monuments scattered across the islands; the sea level having risen about ten metres in the last 6000 years. At the end of the 18th century it was reported that a large submerged dolmen could sometimes be seen some three kilometres (1.8 miles) west of the Île aux Moutons.
Similarly, the lake in the centre of the Île du Loc’h was reported to contain “druidic stones”. This small lake was also said to be the home of a malevolent fairy whose great wealth surpassed that of all the kings combined. Here, she seduced hapless men, turning these unfortunates into fish and serving them as a meal for her guests. While this may technically be the largest island of the group, the main island is Île Saint-Nicolas and it is here that you will find the archipelago’s only restaurants.
At low tide it is possible to walk across to the island of Bananec which is home to a renowned sailing school. Contrary to what you might read in some guidebooks, it is possible to stay on the Glénans; you can either book a bed in the hostel near the jetty or enrol for a course in the diving school. The islands are only accessible between April and September when there are regular sailings from Bénodet and Concarneau; the journey taking about an hour and a quarter.
Île de Groix
The Île de Groix, measuring around 7km by 3km (4 miles x 2 miles), is Brittany’s second largest island and lies 14km (9 miles) off the southern coast. The island once dominated France’s tuna fishing industry; about three quarters of the nation’s catch being landed here for almost a century. While the canneries have disappeared, fresh fish continue to dominate the menus of the island’s many bars, cafés and restaurants. The decline of the fishing industry is mirrored in the island’s demographics; home to some 6000 people before the First World War, Groix has a population of about 2,250 today.
While it is possible to take your car to Groix, I suggest that you save yourself the cost and hassle and hire a bicycle if you not happy walking. The island has many hiking trails that allow you to easily discover the local sights particularly the many fine beaches, of which there are about a dozen worth exploring. The beach known as Les Grands Sables is definitely worth visiting; a large expanse of soft white sand and crystal clear water. It is also said to be the only convex beach in Europe, slowly moving westwards with the currents. La Plage des Sables Rouges is another beach worthy of a look; it is so named because of the predominantly red sand found there. If you want to avoid any crowds and are sure-footed, the small sandy beaches at the Baie des Curés on the south coast and at Poulziorec on the north coast will reward the effort with their rugged charm and clear turquoise waters.
Groix also has its share of megalithic monuments, albeit four less that at the turn of the last century, one of which, the menhir of Kergatouarn, is reputed to the stone boat that Saint Tudy used to cross the sea from the mainland. This would have been only a few hundred years before the Viking ship-burial took place at the harbour of Locmaria; to date, the only such grave found in France.
There is some debate as to the derivation of the name Groix; many claim that it is a euphonic attempt to render the Breton word groac’h. If so, that produces the enigmatic name of “island of witches” and is perhaps the remnants of some old folk memory regarding powerful women living there at one time. Possibly this is the “small island, not very far out to sea, situated off the outlet of the Loire River; inhabited by women … possessed by Dionysus [who] make this god propitious by appeasing him with mystic initiations as well as other sacred performances” mentioned by the 1st century Greek geographer, Strabo?
Popular belief in the presence of witches was still found in Groix around the turn of the last century when it was said that they sometimes kidnapped fishermen. It was also claimed that, at night, they would tell terrible things to the wives of absent husbands and hold a Sabbath in the house.
The island’s folklore is deeply imbued with its landscape; the striking cliff chasm known as Trou de l’Enfer (Hell’s Hole) was said to be the home of a sea monster, a thickly furred beast with the head of a man displaying disjointed teeth and fingers of abalone shells. Further along the coast, the jagged cliffs of Pen Men concealed the lair of a vicious mermaid who crushed children against rocks for sport. Happily, the locals are far more welcoming and the island is a wonderful place to laze away a few days. A 45-minute ferry ride connects the island with the mainland at Lorient and runs several times a day.
In case you think the island’s lore is all doom and gloom, there is one I know with a happy ending. A fairy’s breath is usually lethal in Breton lore but there is a tale of an impoverished leper on Groix who was visited one night by an old crone. Discovering the poor man very near to death, the wizened fairy promptly recited some charms and breathed on the man’s sores, leaving him miraculously cured.
The islands of Brittany all enjoy unique seascapes, landscapes, legends and identities and give the lie to the early representations of them as a bland cordon of islands strung regularly around the Breton coast. The islands were generally ignored up until the end of the 19th century, inspiring only indifference in the travel writing of the period; how times have changed!