Map of Brittany, showing the ancient sites
I was fortunate and privileged to meet the Breton musician Gweltaz ar Fur, historian and craft shop owner, and asked him about his country’s culture and traditions.
I asked if there is a wide interest in the Celtic tradition in Brittany in recent times. He replied “Yes, certainly. We’ve kept the language, the traditions, and the music, so people feel the difference between Brittany and France. We don’t consider ourselves exactly like the French people, you see. We consider ourselves Breton Celts, culturally different from the Latin French.”
I asked him about the annual Celtic festivals in Brittany. He said, “ We have a number of festivals throughout the year. One of the most famous is the Interceltique Festival, held annually for ten days at Lorient. This will be celebrating its 33rd anniversary in 2003. There is also an excellent festival held in Kemper every year in the last week in July. This is called the Festival of Cornouaille (Cornwall). The Kemper festival is comprised mainly of local Breton artists, musicians, dancers and such, with guest musicians and creative artists from all the other Celtic countries as well.
The Lorient Interceltique Festival is more international and embraces all kinds of music traditional to folk, rock, and classical influences. There are also sections for drama, Celtic sports, and exhibitions of Celtic arts and crafts. Many well-known artists and craftworkers from different parts of the world attend and exhibit their work. Lorient Interceltique is a very large festival, with participants from around the planet. The Kemper festival is smaller and geared mainly to Breton culture.
I asked Gweltaz about himself and his shops in Brittany. He told me “Yes, I was a musician before I started running the shops. The shop in Kemper, which is where I live, was started in 1980, after which I opened another one in Brest in the north of Brittany in 1984. Then in 1990 a third one opened in Lorient. They all go under the name of ‘Ar Bed Keltiek’, which in Breton means ‘The Celtic Realm’. We specialise in everything to do with the Celtic traditions of Brittany, and also provide space for Celtic work from other countries such as music, paintings, books, and Celtic language primers. Books are probably our best-selling items, and we also hold art exhibitions at the shops during the summer months.”
I asked him as a musician, what instruments are used in traditional Breton music. He told me “There are two kinds of bagpipes. We use the small Breton pipes with just one drone. The tuning of these is higher than the Scottish bagpipes. Also for the last hundred years or so the traditional Scottish bagpipes have been in use here. We have ‘bagads’, which are local pipe bands who play traditional Breton music. In these bagads we have pipes and drums, and also bombardes. The bombarde is a specifically Breton instrument that you don’t find in other Celtic countries. It is a primitive type of oboe with a double reed. A fine instrument, and very loud! The Celtic harp is also widely used in Brittany. Alan Stivell, who is a very well known Celtic harpist was the pioneer of this revival of the Celtic harp. He has been performing and recording for several decades now. Another much-played instrument is the small Breton accordion, which is ideal for folk-dance music.”
I asked him about the Breton language and how widely it is used. He replied, “It is the most widely used of all the Celtic languages. Well over half a million people speak Breton, surprisingly this figure is more than Welsh, and also Irish Gaelic. It is very much in regular use, as well as being taught in schools and colleges.”
I then asked about the ancient megalithic sites in Brittany. He told me “Yes, there are many, not just in the area where I live but throughout Brittany. Near Vannes there is the magnificent megalithic temple of Gavrinis, which was built by the same culture as the builders of Newgrange in Ireland. It has very impressive carvings inside, some of the finest of that era to be found anywhere. Then there are the unique and well-known Carnac stone alignments, which are sited over a large area. To the north of Brittany, near the coast, is the fine chambered cairn of Barnenez. Brittany has megalithic sites throughout the country. There are also fine examples of standing stones, some very large, as well as dolmens and other prehistoric structures.”
I asked Gwetaz about Celtic societies and groups in Brittany. He replied, “Yes, we have quite a number. There are Breton Gorsedds, which incorporate bards, druids and so on. There are also many groups where the traditional music, songs, and the language itself are handed down. There is a big interest in this with the younger people, who are keen to carry on all aspects of our ancient and inspiring tradition.
- © David James and Gweltaz ar Fur
Gweltaz has participated in various radio and TV appearances promoting Breton culture, including UK TV’s travel programme ‘Getaway’, introducing people to Breton ancient sites and monuments including standing stones, Celtic Christian chapels and holy wells. The website at www.arbedceltiek.com is an excellent source of information on all aspects of Breton culture.