St. Cornely was Pope at Rome, from whence he was hunted by Pagan soldiers who pursued him. He fled before them, accompanied by a yoke of oxen, which bore his baggage and on which he mounted when weary. One evening he arrived on the outskirts of a village called Le Moustoir where he wished to stop; having, however, heard a young girl insulting her mother he continued on his way and arrived shortly at the foot of a mountain where there was another small village. He then saw the sea in front of him and immediately behind him soldiers in battle array. He stopped and transformed the whole army into stones. As a souvenir of this great miracle the inhabitants of the surrounding country erected on the spot where he stopped a church dedicated to St. Cornely. That is the reason why these long lines of stones standing to the north of the village of Carnac are seen, and why so often at night ghosts are observed walking in the alleys called 'Soudardet sans Cornely' or 'Soldats de St. Cornely'. Pilgrims from all countries flocked to the place to implore St. Cornely to cure their diseased cattle. He cured them all in remembrance of the great services rendered to him by his yoke of oxen during his flight.
The pilgrims, coming to the 'Pardon of St. Cornely', passed among the stone soldiers. The men were supposed to bring stones, the women earth, and to drop them on an elevation near to Carnac, where in time they formed the mount of St. Michel.
Le Rouzic then goes on to hint that perhaps the worship of St. Cornely actually replaced the original worship of the ox here. Hmm who knows.
From 'The Megalithic Monuments of Carnac and Locmariaquer' by Z Le Rouzic (trans. W. M. Tapp), 1908, which you can see in full on the Internet Archive.
In "Excavations at Carnac" by James Miln (1877) he describes some mounds (the 'bossenno' or Caesar's Camp) to the east of Carnac, which seem to be the ruins of Roman houses. Interestingly, from page 16...
It happened one day when I was absent during the dinner hour of my workmen, that an English lady and her son came to see the diggings. The latter amused himself in working with a pick about that part of the construction in the room No. 1 which resembled a chimney, where he discovered a polished stone celt of a white colour, which he showed to his mother: neither of them, however, was aware of its value, and it was flung aside amongst the debris to be carted away. It was not until the following day, when I happened to show them the polished stone celts in the museum in Carnac, that they informed me of their discovery, and regretted that they had not known better. Exertions were made to recover the lost axe, but without success.
The discovery of a stone axe in what appeared to be a chimney was all the more interesting from its crrelation with a custom still observed at Carnac, that of building into the chimney of the dwelling-house a stone celt which is supposed to preserve the house from being struck by lightning. It is to be noted also that the name of the stone axe or celt in the Breton language is Mein-Gurunn, that is to say, the Thunder Stone.
The legend of Carnac which explains these avenues of monoliths bears a resemblance to the Cornish story of 'the Hurlers,' who were turned into stone for playing at hurling on the Lord's Day, or to that other English example from Cumberland of 'Long Meg' and her daughters.
St Cornely, we are told, pursued by an army of pagans, fled toward the sea. Finding no boat at hand, and on the point of being taken, he transformed his pursuers into stones, the present monoliths.
The Saint had made his flight to the cost in a bullock-cart, and perhaps for this reason he is now regarded as the patron saint of cattle.
I have been informed by a priest, but I know not how far it may be correct, that Carnac signifies literally, in the Breton language, a field of flesh. If this be the meaning of the word, it would lead one to conjecture that these stories were placed in memory of some great battle, or as memorials in a common cemetery of the dead.
The people here have a singular custom, whenever any of their cattle are diseased, of coming among these stones to pray to St. Cornelius for their recovery. Such a practice may be a remnant of pagan superstition continued in Christian times; but I must remark that St. Cornelius is the patron saint of the neighbouring church.
I cannot learn that the peasantry of this country have any traditions about Carnac; and I must here observe than no relations or accounts given either by the poor or more enlightened people of Brittany can be depended upon.
.. Tradition has given to the site of these stones the name of Caesar's Camp, but tradition in such a question is an insufficient guide. M. Cambry, led by another tradition, reported to him by an old sailor, that a stone was added every year, conjectures, though with hesitation, that the monument has some connexion with the astronomy of a remote age.
We pursued this [rough track] until the extreme ruggedness of the plain rendered further advance almost impossible.. I was [pleased] that my drive was at an end, and was not less pleased to find that no garrulous guides pounced on me when I alighted from the carriage.. I was happily alone; for Carnac is one of those places where solitude becomes a luxury, and consequently where guides would be more than usually vexatious and troublesome;
for what could they tell the visitor respecting the mysterious ranks of obelisks, the purposes of which have baffled speculative investigations and learned inquiries?
Nothing beyond the whimsical legend current among Bretons, that the stones of Carnac are the soldiers of a mighty army petrified by St. Cornely, who, being hard pressed by them, took the effectual method of frustrating their murderous purposes by turning them into stone.
The skeletons of the soldiers, adds the legend, may be seen on certain occasions at midnight, in the churchyard at Carnac, performing penance for the sins committed in the flesh against the saint, and listening reverently to sermons preached by Death himself.
If you are curious to know more, you will be shown the pulpit of the grim preacher, a dilapidated stone Calvary, and, if you have sufficient courage, you may even hear the sermon; though, if accounts be true, the penalty of intrusion, on being detected by the ghastly congregation, is far more severe than that with which Tam o' Shanter* was threatened.
p246 of Charles Richard Weld's "A vacation in Brittany' (1856) - now digitised at Google Books.
Within five minutes of leaving Quiberon these fine stones put in an appearance on high ground looking out toward the start of the Cote Sauvage. A quick right turn off the main road brought us to a spot where we could park, but not without narrowly avoiding a gaggle of cyclists that suddenly sped out across the road in front of us where a cycle track cuts across the lane.
Pulling up on the verge I get to examine the stones more closely, a shapely pair which frame a coastal vista. This place should be twinned with Penrhos Feilw in Anglesey, it has much of the same vibe about it, albeit with a bit more room between the ‘goalposts’, but the commanding views are the same, as is the sense of the stones marking out some form of gateway, a symbolic entrance to the start of the Wild Coast perhaps?
If you carry on up the lane, as we had to in order to turn the car around, you soon come to the village of Le Manémuer, a little hamlet of whitewashed houses, all sporting pale blue shutters, which reminded me of the sort of village you’d see on a Greek island, but which sports another 6’ tall standing stone sat amongst a walled shrubbery like some gargantuan garden ornament, yet another of the many fine Quiberon menhirs.
The Cote Sauvage or ‘Wild Coast’ is just that, a meandering jagged coastline of rocky coves and cliffs pounded by Atlantic breakers, which stretches down the west side of the Quiberon penisular, just to the south of Carnac. It is also dotted with more menhirs than you can shake a stick at.
Heading along the coast of the peninsular within two minutes of leaving the town of Quiberon we had already encountered a fine pair of megaliths, and every few minutes the breathtaking views were punctuated with shouts of ‘Oh look there’s a standing stone!’, but there are simply too many to stop at each one (or at the very least to give each visit the time it deserves), that is until you reach the Menhirs Beg-er-Goalennec.
Here two wonderful stones stand on either side of the D186A, one right next to the Les Mouttes restaurant, the other right on the shoreline. Plenty of space to be had for parking here next to the restaurant, so we just couldn’t pass them by. There’s no little ‘property of the state’ marker to give the name of the site, so I’ve no idea what the stones are called until later when I manage to look them up, but I do at least think to get the co-ordinates from the sat-nav!
The more northerly stone stands uncomfortably close to the restaurant, and is a slim rectangular block, somewhat sadly diminished by having had the top five feet or so break off the menhir at some time in the past. Standing behind it and focusing on its shorter companion across the road you get a lovely view along the aligned stones and out to sea. It is busy today though, unseasonably warm weather (well it would be unseasonable in England, maybe late October is always this warm in France?) has bought people out in droves to this popular coastline, and a steady procession of motor homes drives past to obscure the view.
It’s on the shore though that I really fall in love with the place, when I stand next to the heart shaped stone and stare out to sea. The placement of the stone is sublime, along with the great shaping along the top of the menhir (probably due more to the luck of the way the stone has weathered than the artifice of the stonecutter, although you never know?) this second menhir is a bit shorter (but still taller than me, although that counts as tiny in these parts!) and is now set in concrete to keep it stable.
With the sun still warm, and the stone at my back I look out along the coast, and for a minute all the tourists, cars and caravans enjoying their day out at the seaside seem far distant and I imagine the wild coast as it would have been to our ancestors, and it’s clear why they went to such efforts to raise these stones here, the beauty of the land calls out as much to us now as it did 5,000 years ago.
Also known as Mane Groh, this is another well signposted dolmen just outside of Crucano, and right next to a lane just off the main road.
Although we are on our way back home after a hard day megalithing I just can’t pass up the little brown signs signifying an ancient monument without feeling an irresistible urge to stop. I still can’t get used to literally falling over megaliths that at home I’d be blown away by if I’d driven several hours to see a site half as impressive.
And impressive Mane Croch is. The name means ‘the sorceress’s hill’, and it consists of a T-shaped passage grave of satisfyingly chunky stones, which leads into a well preserved chamber. A couple of the capstones have been removed, almost as if someone's taken the lid off so you can look inside, where an axe head carving is visible on one of the orthostats, thanks to being handily outlined in chalk.
It’s yet another site surrounded by woodland, and a path leads off through the woods which takes in other megalithic sites, but sadly it is too late in the day to wander far this evening. We have a meander about nearby and find a jumble of stones that once may have been the remains of a now destroyed dolmen, as well as a small cist near the main site, and the path tantalisingly beckons on towards further unseen megalithic riches. Still it’s no hardship to just spend some time here instead.
Burl says it would have once been covered by a rectangular mound and is aligned toward the SSE. There are several of these types of passage dolmen in the vicinity, and they are certainly unlike any I’m used to from Britain, but having seen so many they all start to blur together and I struggle to remember which one is which but Mane Groh is memorable by virtue of a carved stone trough which sits beside the dolmen.
We have a wander in the woods nearby and come upon a lovely lake, dotted with reed beds and small islets, it sits amongst the trees, and I almost imagine a shimmering arm to emerge clutching a sword, such is the look of the place. Alas no Lady of the Lake today, but we do spot a pair of little egrets wading in the water.
What I forget until later is just how close several other monuments are through the woods nearby, particularly Caeser’s chair, which on my last visit I didn’t get any photographs of as my camera batteries had died, and I’m disappointed that I didn’t get chance to take some today. Still the dolmen is itself a worthy place to visit on its own, so I shouldn’t sound ungrateful. We have the place to ourselves and I happily poke about in the transepted chamber. The shadows lengthen as we sit at the dolmen, tired after the day’s exertions, and thoroughly old stoned out. What can you say, another superb Breton dolmen.