I’M away this week to a small town called Carhaix, in Brittany, for a literature festival focused this year on “Scotland”. I have been advised to be careful – there is likely to be a fairly small number of people who will be intensely interested.

I’m told most of them will be speaking Breton, so even schoolboy French will not suffice. And it can be very wintry in Brittany at this time of year – cold mists and hard winds. Be well clad...

Great, I thought. I’ll go for that. But I better do some homework first. I got hold of The Turn of the Ermine: An Anthology of Breton Literature, selected and translated by Jacqueline Gibson and Gwyn Griffiths and published by Francis Boutle in 2006.

Boutle is a terrific publisher, making splendid books, devoted to minority language literatures –Breton, Occitan, Galician, Faroese, Latvian and Latgalian, Scottish Gaelic, many more. Check out the website.

A new language is another world, and a new geography is a fresh territory. Go quietly, respectfully, enquiringly and hopefully. You might find welcome. Go otherwise and you might be greeted with hostility.

I started to get a sense of Brittany from the writers. The quickest way in is with Roparz Hemon (1900-78).

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He was a scholar of the Breton language; author of numerous dictionaries, poems and short stories; and founder of Gwalarn, a literary journal in Breton in which many young authors published their first writings during the 1920s and 1930s.

He wasn’t a native speaker of the Breton language but was delighted when in church to listen to the Breton sermons and hymns. He joined the French Army at the start of the Second World War but was wounded and taken prisoner by the Germans.

Returning to Brest in 1940, he was appointed director of Radio Roazhon-Breizh, a Breton language weekly broadcast. In 1942, he helped found the Celtic Institute of Brittany and assisted the Germans, so that later he had to flee there, where he was imprisoned.

After a year of imprisonment, he was sentenced by the Fourth French Republic to 10 years of “dégradation nationale”, meaning he lost his political, civil and professional rights, for the offence of “indignité nationale” (“national unworthiness”) and he went into exile in Ireland, working for the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies.

He never returned to Brittany but continued to work tirelessly for the Breton language revival. He died in 1978 and was buried in Brest.

The National:  Gustave Flaubert wrote of the Brittany coast that ‘here the world ends’ Gustave Flaubert wrote of the Brittany coast that ‘here the world ends’ (Image: Getty Images)

The political volatility of his story highlights the ambiguity of his position – or rather, its vulnerability, its helpless susceptibility to being hijacked in imperialist wars.

Opposing imperial France, he was caught up by imperial Germany and his reputation has been contentious. When his role as a collaborator during the Occupation and his anti-French opinions were made public, his name fell into disrepute.

And yet, you can hear a voice that’s familiar to us from our own cultural history, with Hugh MacDiarmid, Sorley MacLean or Douglas Young.

Here is Roparz Hemon: “In order to work efficiently for Brittany, one must have the mind of a Breton. Do the Bretons have such a mind? Most of them are educated in French schools, often by French people, according to French ways.

“Everything they know was taught to them through the medium of French and what they know best relates to France –French literature, French history, French geography.

"During the whole time, their teachers had a single wish, a single thought: educate them as French people. The French do not have the slightest desire to see the awakening of the spirit of Brittany, whether it be for or against them. They have made this plain.”

The union of France and Brittany is indeed “a kind of union, the union of the sheep with the wolf”. Likewise the union of England and Scotland. MacDiarmid and Roparz Hemon were immediate contemporaries and the aftermath of the First World War was their forcing-ground.

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MacDiarmid thought it was the forcing-ground for Scotland as a whole. In 1927, he wrote:

“It took the full force of the war to jolt an adequate majority of the Scottish people out of their old mental, moral and material ruts … The Scottish Renaissance movement regards itself as an effort in every respect of the national life to supplant the elements at present predominant by the other elements they have suppressed, and thus reverse the existing order.”

That awakening and that movement is still going on. But to stay in Brittany, let’s go back before Hemon to Gustave Flaubert (1821-80). Here he is: “At the lighthouse of Brest. Here the world ends. This is its most advanced point; its furthest limit. Behind you spread Europe and Asia; before you lies the entire ocean. As great a space appears to our eye, does it not always seem limited as soon as we know that it has a boundary?”

And Jean Genet (1910-86), in his extraordinary novel Querelle of Brest (1953), wrote: “Brest is a hard and solid town, constructed of grey granite hewn from Breton quarries. This rock-like quality anchors the port, giving the sailor a sense of security, for it provides him with an advantageous launching-point when outward bound and a haven of rest after the perpetually boisterous billows.

“If ever Brest seems less austere, it is when a feeble sun gilds the waterfront, where the facades are as noble and grand as those in Venice; or again when its narrow streets are thronged with a tumult of matelots; or, finally, under fog and rain.”

The promontory coast of Brittany is redolent with a familiar mystery. There’s a particularly intriguing text in Immacallamh in Dá Thuarad or The Colloquy of the Two Sages, which dates from between the Viking invasions and the ninth-century Sanas Cormaic, “Cormac’s Glossary”.

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The young druid Néde is a son of the druid Adnae. Néde, while studying science in Scotland, is described as going down to the sea: “Luid laa and in gilla co mbúi for brú mara, ar bá baile fallsigthe éicsi dogrés lasna filedu for brú usci – One day the lad fared forth till he was on the brink of the sea, for then poets deemed that on the brink of water it was always a place of revelation of science.”

And in some of the poems I read, that “revelation of science” – that understanding of knowledge, of the facts and truths of life and death – is made evident. I tried making my own versions of them.

Here’s one, The Labour of the Sea (1903) by Jos Kuilhandr (1880-1955):

Widowmaker, fatherkiller,

All your wet howling scars all the wet air –

Shut the door tight, sing by the fire –

You’re not out on hard waves rising up,

Rushing down in the

out-of-control –

All through the day and all through the night,

All through the dawn and the twilight as well –

The rage as it crashes the rocks fills your ears –

Even inside, you can hear it –

Open the door or a window and look: a small boat approaching,

Foam all around, a man in the water, imagine him crying,

His arms and his torso, his legs and joints working,

Straining to death, and no sound is heard –

Only the thunder, the sea, and the wind.

He can fight all he wants. The sea closes over.

He’s down on the floor of the ocean by now, Battered and weighed down by water, Finally eaten by fish. That’s cruelty for widows and orphans, For sure. Only the driftwood survives in the tide.

Flotsam and jetsam, seafoam and bladderwrack.

The seething will cease and the sun comes back out

And nocturnal quiet prevails once again.

Loss is the threnody, sorrow the tone.

Black is the colour. They’re each one, alone.

Yann-Vari Yann (1831-77), who worked as a primary school teacher in Brittany and was part of the 19th-century Breton Revival Movement, has a sequence entitled Miracles (c.1860):

Inland from coast, dark forests grow thick,

Oak trees with branches and leaves all entwined: rich is the cover above us –

Far away at the edges, the long sea is growling, and licking the coasts –

Out of the woods, over the plains, the high mountains rise to gold clouds in the sunshine –

Bushes clog up, dark green in the valleys, the grass extends luscious and yellow in fields –

On the dunes by the edge of the sea, elm trees and pines cut horizons –

The clear blue rivers flow, the stony white roads wind on, the sprightly brown horses are tripping along –

And gallop on hillslopes or else bend their heads and their necks, dragging ploughs, so that we’ll sow the harvest, to make bread to be –

Inland from coast, there’s faith and the church, good hymns and social regularity –

But in Brittany, there on the seashores, look out and listen, you’ll hear songs and see –

Another world that’s still Brittany –

And Anjela Duval (1905-81), who never left her native village in northern Brittany, writes of her life as she continued working on her parents’ farm, after their deaths, in “Call It My Love” (1963)

There’s a scar in my heart that’s been hidden since childhood.

I grew up and the scar just grew deeper.

My lover loved towns and the oceans, the faraway places beyond them.

And I loved the fields of Brittany, here.

Love your beloved, the woman, the man, or love your beloved, this place.

I let one of them go, never saw her again, never saw him again – The scar in my heart became longer.

My love for this place was not shared.

You love what you love and the heart has its aches and its failures They all go away and get money and comfort.

I stay and I work and keep poor, for its worth: My country, my language, my freedom.

TWO great French novels are set in Brittany: The Chouans (1829; third edition 1849) by Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850) and Ninety-Three (1874) by Victor Hugo (1802-85).

The Chouans is the first of Balzac’s epic sequence of novels, La Comédie Humaine, and is a magnificent, Walter-Scott inspired epic in itself, the tale of the royalist uprising in Brittany against the post-revolutionary republic.

It’s about landscapes, coasts and forests, the tactics and strategies of guerilla warfare, comedy and a ghastly and horrible comic character central to the drama is Marche-à-Terre, who uses his Breton name, disobeying French law. He comes and goes throughout the novel, and whenever he appears, you know you’re in for trouble.

The plot centres on a tragic love affair, full of melodrama and action, with a grand-guignol ending, and the novel as a whole is rich in detail and atmosphere, high tension and a broad historical canvas.

Ninety-Three focuses more closely on the French Revolution and centres on two of Hugo’s great characters, Lantenac and Gauvain, heroic leaders of rival factions. It also presents Marat, Danton and Robespierre and we witness their conversations, plottings and plannings, justifications and rationalisations for horror upon horror.

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Hugo, likewise inspired by Walter Scott, had a similar appetite for historical panoramas and landscapes – and old Paris cityscapes – and portraits of characters as sharp as the guillotine blade, which has a lot of work to do before we get to the end of the book.

The story culminates in a dialogue between the central character Gauvain, now imprisoned and sentenced to death, and his interrogator, Cimourdain. I paraphrase some of it here.

In the “terrible serenity” of the prison cell, Gauvain tells us, “Great things are beginning to take shape. Behind the visible there is the invisible. The visible is fierce, the invisible sublime. Under a scaffolding of barbarism, a temple of civilisation is even now in construction.”

Cimourdain replies, “From the provisional comes the definitive. Parallel rights and duties, proportional taxes, military service, a levelling without deviation, and over everything, the law: a straight line. The republic of the absolute.”

Gauvain corrects him: “I prefer the republic of the ideal. Where would you place devotion, self-sacrifice, the magnanimity of benevolence? Where would you place love? To put things in balance is good. To put things in harmony is better. Above the scales there’s the lyre. Your republic weighs, measures, regulates; mine sweeps all up into the sky. Yours is a theorem – mine is an eagle.”

Cimourdain: Clouds! Dreaming of harmony! Man should be made in the image of Euclid.

Gauvain: Calculations! Algebra! Better humanity takes after the image of Homer.

Cimourdain: Beware of the poets.

Gauvain: Yes. Beware of the breezes, sunbeams, fragrances, flowers, constellations. Military service? No. Instead, peace. Taxes to help the poor? No. Instead, eliminate poverty. Proportional taxes? No, no taxes. Eliminate parasites: priests, judges, soldiers. They squander your riches.

Do not throw dung in the sewer but rather put it back in the fields. Cultivate the soil. Let each person living here have their own land, and the land will have the people who live on it. Make good use of nature, all the winds, all the waterfalls, the tides of the sea, the waves of the ocean, all the watery movements of the country. Tap into the veins of the earth. Fountains of force will come forth.

Cimourdain: Dreams.

Gauvain: No. Reality. We go forward. You want barracks – I want schools. You want a soldier – I want a citizen. You want a man formidable – I want a man who is thoughtful. You want a republic of swords – I want a republic of minds. But now is a storm, a pestilence, a horror of miasma, the fury of a hurricane. We come through all this and go forward.

Cimourdain: A dream, once again.

Gauvain: No, not a dream but a goal. No more slaves or pariahs or convicts or damned. I want all that is absent from beehives and anthills: art, poetry, geniuses, monuments, libraries, counsels, and wisdom, liberty there at the forefront of mind, equality at the forefront of heart, fraternity, sorority, the forefront of soul. No more chains. Wings open and spreading for flight in the air.

As they speak, the gleam of the dawn grows brighter. We have so much more to learn.