Situated mid-way between Guingamp and Carhaix, Callac is a small Breton town that appears to be enjoying a rejuvenation.
In Roman towns, there appears to have been a hill fort overlooking the Carhaix / Tréguier road, on the site now occupied by the town of Callac. In the Middle Ages the area represented the most outlying corner of ‘Upper-Cornouaille’, in the diocese of Quimper, and made up part of the domains of the Lords of Poher. There was a castle in what is now the centre of modern Callac, and a settlement nearby in the village of Botmel. The area was famous for its horse fairs – during the Crusades, horses raised in the forest of Duault and brought to Callac, were in great demand in Palestine, and became associated with the Knights Templar. The weekly Wednesday market is also believed to date back to the Middle Ages.
The fortunes of the town changed after the French Revolution. One of the first acts of the revolutionary government in Paris was to re-organise local government: the old administrative divisions, which were based on feudal and religious traditions, were replaced by ‘Departments’ – for reasons that remain obscure, the area around Callac was included in Côtes du Nord (Côtes d’Armor) instead of in Finistère. It is on record that people in the area lodged many complaints about this arrangement, but to no avail. It meant that they were left without a major town to serve their needs – Carhaix, which was reasonably accessible, and the traditional administrative centre, was now in a different department; and the journey to Guingamp was both difficult and hazardous, with wolves still posing a real threat to travellers.
Callac is situated on the one line that was saved from the old 'Réseau Breton', the narrow gauge railway system that linked the towns of Central Brittany in the early part of the twentieth century. The Carhaix to Guingamp line was converted to normal gauge in the 1960s.
The castle at Callac had been demolished on the orders of Cardinal Richelieu, and a village now existed on its site. This village was centrally located and ideally placed to serve the newly-isolated region and over the course of the 1800s it developed rapidly as a centre of trade and administration. It is from this period that most of Callac’s major buildings can be dated – including the market hall (now the Salle des Fêtes), the church, the mairie (which was originally a school), the schools, and the railway station. By the end of the 1800s, the commune of Callac had reached the peak of its prosperity, and the population had grown to three and a half thousand people – a level that has not been matched since.
At the time, Central Brittany had an essentially rural economy, and almost all employment in the town was connected with agriculture, a fact that contributed to Callac’s decline during the twentieth century.
The old lavoir beside the road which leads to the ruined church at Botmel.
Education was one of the major preoccupations of the nineteenth century and several schools were built in Callac as its prosperity grew. Initially, there was a choice of schools as different orders of the Catholic church competed with each other to provide the best education; but, over the course of the century, central government used the funding that it provided from taxation to force a standardisation and secularisation of schooling across the country. In Callac, this meant that responsibility for the schools passed from the Church to the town council, and then from the town council to the regional authorities, who were themselves subordinate to the central government in Paris.
By the end of the century there were clear rifts between people in Central Brittany, where religion and tradition played a large part in life, and the Republican ideas of the French government. It was widely believed that the mayor of Callac instructed conscripts from the town not to obey orders during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870, and this further fuelled the rift between local and national politicians.
By the time of the First World War, disillusionment with national government was intense: in particular, the ‘French only’ policy introduced into the schools caused deep resentment in what was essentially a Breton-speaking town. Conscription was not supported by popular sentiment and had to be enforced by state authority, and when the war went badly and very many young men from the town lost their lives in a cause that hardly anyone supported, resentment against the government increased.
Wednesday is market Day in Callac.The market lasts from around 9am-12:30pm.
Unfortunately, these woes coincided with a downturn in demand for agricultural products, and Callac was badly affected by the agricultural depression that took place between the wars.
The occupation of the town by German forces during the 1939-45 war, marks, perhaps, the saddest point in its history and the events of this period are still vividly remembered by older residents: the SS had a headquarters in the town square and soldiers were billeted in people’s homes. The market square is now named after the day – 9th April 1944 – when several local people were summarily executed for suspected of being involved in the Resistance. There was intense bitterness against the government in Paris that had done so little to protect Brittany from foreign invasion, and since the war the people of Callac have tended to support communist and other anti-government candidates in local and national elections. This probably contributed to the lack of funding that Callac received in the post-war period.
The popular bread stall, La Baleine, is on the Rue de l'Eglise every Wednesday.
Developments that transformed life in most European towns and cities during the latter half of the twentieth century, passed Callac by, and there are hardly any buildings in the town dating from this period. Ironically, this may prove to be the town’s biggest asset for the future. It is the absence of shopping precincts, high-rise flats, busy traffic, and parking restrictions that is helping to attract people to the town who are looking for a pleasant environment in which to live, away from the problems caused by the failed urban-planning of the past sixty years.
These newcomers are bringing new skills, fresh entrepreneurial initiative, and
Europe-wide business connections, and this has opened up the possibility of a new phase of economic development.
New arrivals often ask why local people give them such a warm welcome; the answer is perhaps that no one has forgotten the trials and difficulties of the twentieth century, and they are simply glad to see new life returning to a town that for a while looked as though it might be forgotten.