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All about Deux-Sèvres (79) & Vendée (85)

More rural than its neighbours, Deux-Sèvres has much to offer individuals seeking a quieter life. Without a doubt, the Marais Poitevin is the département's jewel in the crown but there are plenty of other gems to be found if you know where to look.

To find out more about the Deux-Sèvres, read our visitor's guide here.

The Vendée département stretches along the Atlantic coast with 140km of glorious beaches and is home to the Vendée Globe round the world yacht race. Inland, Puy du Fou, the world renowned theme park, draws the crowds. Pine forests, bocages (wooded hills) and marais (marshes) can all be found in the Vendée and were the sites of many battles in Vendées turbulant history.

 

Bressuire Highland Games - discover the celtic traditions

Bressuire Highland Games - discover the celtic traditions

Tossing the caber and throwing a stone in the heart of the Deux-Sèvres? You’d better believe it! For the town of Bressuire has become the focal point of the Highland Games and Scottish culture in France ...

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What does a bodybuilder in his late twenties do when he's already reached the peak of his powers and been crowned French champion? He becomes a star Highland Games athlete, of course, tossing the caber as well as performing alongside traditional Scottish music and dance and, yes, wearing a kilt!

Well, that was the case with 29-year old Amine Amroun (left), who admits that it all happened by accident. "My cousin invited me along to see what was involved and I enjoyed it straight away," he says. That was just 18 months ago. Since then the clinical research assistant has not just enjoyed the sport's unique disciplines and ambiance, but positively flourished in it. He is already French champion and holder of some national records and took part in the European championship for amateurs in Hungary earlier this year.

Of course Amine had a distinct advantage. Unlike the majority of Frenchmen, he lives in the town – Bressuire – that is a veritable hotbed of enthusiasm for the Highland Games and the sports and Scottish culture that surround them. This love of all things Scottish stems from the fact that the historic Deux-Sèvres town has been twinned for the last two decades with Fraserburgh, a busy fishing port in Aberdeenshire. Out of these links a passion for the Highland Games was born and before long Bressuire and its atmospheric thousand-year-old château were welcoming a version of the games itself, complete with athletes, dancing, music and of course a party. The first games took place in 1996 to mark the fifth anniversary of the twinning, the second in 2001 to mark the tenth anniversary, and for the past five years have been an annual event.

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But what started out largely as a social event to mark the cultural exchange has since taken on much larger sporting proportions. In 2001 Francis Brebner, one of the great Scottish figures in Highland Games in recent years and seven times world caber tossing champion, was invited to take part. Entranced by the château setting, he urged organiser Jean-Louis Coppet to develop it further. 'Francis said to me “Jean-Louis this is a magical place for Highland Games - we have to set up a real competition in this castle”,' recalls Jean-Louis. Two years later the first contest was arranged, with professional athletes from abroad taking part and the town hasn't looked back since. Today Bressuire is fast becoming an important centre for traditional Highland Games not just in France but in Europe. In 2009 it hosted the European Highland Games Championships and last year was home to the International Highland Games Federation IHGF World Heavy Events Super Series, for elite athletes in the sport. The town now hopes that in 2015 it will be staging the World Highland Games Championships for professionals – though it faces opposition from Los Angeles and possibly Edinburgh for the honour.

It was a bit strange wearing a kilt for the first time...but I got used to it!

On August 27 2011, meanwhile, Bressuire will again be home to the French championships as part of the town's celebration of 20 years of twinning with its Scottish counterpart. In addition, local organisers have brought in leading Dutch Highland Games athlete Wout Ziljstra to boost the local team's performances. The town even has its own tartan.

So how and why has the quintessentially Scottish idea of the Highland Games caught on so well in this small corner of France? Amine Amroun admits it was the physical aspect of the games that attracted him at first, when his cousin Belkacem Smahi – captain of the local Bressuire team – invited him to give it a go. "It was the sporting side that appealed, it was something different from what I had done before,' he says. 'In body building you trained for the look – in the Highland Games it's all about power, how you look doesn’t really matter!"

However, soon the other sides of the games interested him too. "Then I began to discover the cultural part, the Scottish culture, and I really enjoyed that,' he says. Amine has even come to terms with wearing a kilt. 'It was a bit strange wearing one for the first time...but I got used to it," he says. And just to clear up one perennial question, he and the other competitors wear shorts under their kilts. "It's obligatory," says Amine.

The cultural traditions of the games were also a major appeal for Martine Brunerie, the 55-year-old physical education teacher at the local Collège Supervielle who is an assistant judge at the local games. "I found the atmosphere very appealing, this mixture of music, dance and sport," says Martine, who first became involved in the local games in 2007. But the PE teacher in her ensures that she also gets involved in the sporting side too. For as well as measuring the competitors' throws and ensuring they are within the rules, Martine also does a little coaching of the athletes, working on their technique and physical conditioning. As for the judging, she says she's had no real problems so far. "I learnt the rules as I went along – I read the rules when they were translated into French!"

Highland games Bressuire team

Much of the credit for the success of the games has to go to Jean-Louis Coppet, who founded and continues to preside over the French Highland Games body, the Jeux de Forces Écossais en France. An English teacher for 41 years, his love of Scottish culture stems from an exchange visit to Orpington in Kent many decades ago, when he stayed with a Scottish family. In 1983 he and his family visited Scotland and fell in love with the culture of the games. "The first ones we saw were at Inveraray," he says. "It was so gorgeous, there was a magic about it. But I didn’t expect that one day with the twinning that this could come true in Bressuire!"

Now though the Highland Games are here to stay in this corner of the Deux-Sèvres. Jean-Louis says: "I couldn't imagine Bressuire without them."

The next Highland Games at Bressuire take place in 2013 with the World Championships scheduled for 2015. For more information visit: www.ajef.eu

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THE BRESSUIRE TARTAN

The Bressuire (District) Tartan, to give it its full name, officially came into being in March 2010. Worn by all the town’s competitors during the games, the colours have a special resonance in the Bressuire area and its links with Scotland. The white stripe on a blue background highlights its association with the Scottish town of Fraserburgh, the wine-red represents the nearby Anjou wine region, while the green captures the farming landscape in the area. Finally, the golden stripe represents the golden granite from which a number of local buildings are constructed. 

 

First published in Living Poitou-Charentes in August 2011 – updated June 2012

WORDS: MICHAEL STREETER

PHOTOS: AJEF