The Islands of Brittany

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. Here’s 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 rocky 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 has several options for overnight accommodation and is connected to the mainland by a regular 10-minute ferry service from Ploubazlanec.

Brehat and its islets
A view of Brehat ©Jordi Carrió Jamilà

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 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 palms 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, at 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.

Saint Paul and the dragon

Île d’Ouessant

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 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 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 for over 6000 years 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 here from Great Britain in a stone boat. Given its strategic position marking the southern entrance into the English Channel, the area witnessed a number of major naval battles between the 16th and 20th centuries. The treacherous reefs 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.

Cottet Ouessant Ushant
Charles Cottet : Ouessant (1913)

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 sinister 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.

Île Molène

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 just after 23:00hrs 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, the only other 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 lost his grip on a makeshift raft 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.

People of Ouessant Mourning a Dead Child by Cottet
Charles Cottet : Ouessant people mourning a dead child (1899)

Other bodies were found over the next few weeks and eventually, in total, about a hundred victims were recovered from the waters around 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 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 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.

Velleda last of the nine priestesses of the Isle of Sein
Chateaubriand’s Velleda: last survivor of the nine priestesses of Sein

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 lighthouse
Pascale Gonzales : Ile de Sein … le Phare (2003) ©Pascale Gonzales

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.

the Glenan isles
Aerial view of the Glenans ©Vedettes de l’Odet

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 short 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.

Les Grands Sables beach Groix
Les Grand Sables

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.

Blessing the tuna fleet at Groix by Signac
Paul Signac : Blessing of the Tuna Fleet at Groix (1923)

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!

If you want to know more about other beaches to visit in Brittany, you may be interested in this earlier post.

Published by Bon Repos Gites

Enjoying life in Kalon Breizh - the Heart of Brittany.

115 thoughts on “The Islands of Brittany

  1. Gotta give a shoutout to Poseidon loving up on his woman. Also, enjoyed the informative post with more Celtic history. Great to hear from you. Hope you’re having a fantastic Sunday. 🍎🌞🌼🌝

    Liked by 9 people

  2. So fascinating! Thanks a lot for posting such an informative post on different islands in Brittany and their histories. I think I would love to visit Groix – its possible connection to witches, as well as its mythology, is so interesting. The aerial view of the Glenan islands is also simply breath-taking!

    Liked by 8 people

  3. A fascinating article – I really enjoyed reading it. I’ve visited Brittany four times, staying on the west and south coasts, but didn’t visit any of the islands. I think another trip is needed…
    Signac’s ‘Blessing of the Tuna Fleet at Groix’ is such a lovely painting. I haven’t seen it before.

    Liked by 7 people

    1. Thank you! Yes, I suppose if you compare it to say Canada or the US it is surprising but these little pockets maintained their own costumes and dialects right up to about WW2. While those have sadly gone, their accents and identity remain unique.
      I will do a follow-up one day and show you my favourite island 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The many stories and legends are very intriguing. I find the stories of the isles very insightful to the people’s daily lives. I am wondering if you bought a house there whether you still couldn’t drive a car?

    Apparently, whatever rap (lie) Poseidon or Neptune is giving Amphitrite or the sea nymph she clearly isn’t buying it. LOL!

    I say it’s a sea nymph for Amphitrite is usually depicted with a crown and a trident.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Many thanks! No, car free islands are just that! Some farmers are allowed agricultural vehicles but otherwise it’s only the municipal authorities that have vehicles to remove trash etc. In any event, there is no source of fuel on many of the islands 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I can imagine. Wells aren’t a luxury to draw water from and it get awful dark in the country at night after from city lights. I know it’s written in novels about seeing your way by the moonlight but in reality, the moon doesn’t give much light.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Just what we were taught in Sunday school – souls flying to heaven, though, after death. rather than to a an island. These beliefs are all the ties that bind us to each other no matter where we are or what we are. And – a stone boat?!
    Thank you again.

    Liked by 4 people

    1. Yes, there is a rich vein of shared beliefs that are clearly of some antiquity. It would make perfect sense to put your own spin on them to co-opt them into the ‘new’ religion.
      The stone boats are associated with a lot of Breton saints. Some stories I am sure were attempts to Christianise certain menhirs that were still found venerated by the locals and others are, I believe, an attempt to highlight how marvellous is the power of their God.
      As ever, thank you for your feedback – it is always so appreciated! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I knew Brittany had a lot of islands, but 800, wow! Reading about Île de Bréhat makes me a little sad that we didn’t visit while we were in Paimpol. There are just too many things to see in this remarkable region. We saw some of those near tropical-looking beaches on out trip and it still surprises me when I see photos now (not what I expected).

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Some guides say 1000 islands but they include all manner of tiny islets in that figure and why would you need to inflate the numbers anyway? Some occasionally come up for sale but an exclusive house comes at an exclusive price!
      I think you will need to add an island or two to your list of reasons to pay a return visit one day 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. There has. Sadly, the employment opportunities just aren’t there anymore. The islanders do receive tax breaks, well, the permanent residents do. There are not as many abandoned homes as you might think; as elsewhere, there are less multi-generational families now and city dwellers buy up lots of second homes there.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. As it happens, I live on the Chesapeake. The islands in the bay are constantly being worn away by the waves, despite breakwaters. There is evidence of Neolithic man having lived here, as well. No sign of dragons though (LOL).

    Liked by 3 people

      1. A meteor that struck the earth some 35 million years ago is thought to have formed the crater that ultimately became Chesapeake Bay. The prehistoric Susquehanna River then carved a deep canyon. Finally, rising sea levels at the end of the last ice flooded the area.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. anything you’d enjoy writing about — the following week you could reblog it link copy it to your site, so you’d get double the benefit from it

        Liked by 1 person

  8. I absolutely love this post but was particularly glad that the islanders compassionate treatment of the dead from the sunken ship was marked by gifts of thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you!! I am happy that you enjoyed it!!
      Yes, it was quite the disaster – just three survivors – the islanders put to sea to look for victims. The old press reports are quite touching about the respect and care taken over each body. There was no argument about giving Protestants a Catholic burial; the rector and congregation were united in that. In addition to the tokens of thanks I mentioned, a neighbouring island acquired a steeple for its church and another a purpose built jetty. Worthy gestures of thanks to some worthy people.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. This is quite a history lesson. I’m amazed at all the superstitions. My sister-in-law constantly spouts superstitions and even though she is not Celtic, but is Italian. Great post. Thanks for following my blog as well.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. We haven’t been to any of the islands, but I love seeing them from the coast. Especially Ouessant and Molène, I always try to spot the lighthouses in the dark whenever we’re close by.

    Liked by 2 people

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