Guernsey culture has been moulded by its unique history over the centuries and adapted to fit in with modern life. Visible from the coastline of Europe, its Anglo-French influences are still evident from local surnames to road names and even our local language, D'Gernesiais.
Fishing and farming were traditionally how Guernsey people got by, and there is evidence both are still essential industries in the island. An off-shoot of the growing industry is ‘hedge veg’, a much-loved local tradition that still thrives today. Excess of anything grown, from vegetables to flowers, is put out on the hedge with an honesty box, displaying a sense of trust often lost in the modern world.
For a real taste of what the local community is all about, head to Le Viaer Marchi, a celebration of all things Guernsey, and a must see for those who love cultural holidays. Held on the first Monday evening in July, you can have a flutter on the Crown and Anchor, a local gambling dice game, try local cider and traditional food and see Guernsey craft in action. From folklore and witchcraft to ancient language and our traditional dishes the past is woven into the present in Guernsey.
Guernsey Family History
Islanders' roots spread far and wide in every direction.
While Guernsey folk are historically linked to the Normans, there are a host of colourful reasons for how people found themselves arriving – and staying – on the island.
Names such as De Carteret, Duquemin, Robilliard and Le Cheminant are still very common on the island and are clues to the island's interesting history.
After the conquest of England by William, seventh Duke of Normandy, some people were rewarded with land in Guernsey - while others were banished from the island after falling out with the Duke.
Wars between Britain and France span the centuries and the persecution of French Protestants, or Huguenots, was pivotal to the expansion of the population.
The Huguenots came mainly from areas of France such as Normandy and Picardy and ended up in Guernsey during two specific periods in history. The first was in the mid 16th century following the accession of Queen Elizabeth I to the throne of England in 1558. The second wave, which began in the 17th century, was a result of persecution by Louis XIV of France.
The shipbuilding industry also brought new inhabitants to the island, particularly between 1812 and 1894. Many arrived as seamen or shipmates of the schooners, brigs, cutters and brigantines, which were built in the island during this period. Since WWII, more have migrated to the island, mainly from the UK, following the return of evacuees after the liberation from German occupation in May 1945.
Large numbers of Guernsey people emigrated to America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand in the 19th Century. This emigration was partly as a result of the strict Guernsey inheritance laws. At the time, only the eldest sons inherited land and wealth. This combined with the opening up of the New World, which promised a new start and new opportunities.
For more information on Guernsey family history please contact the Priaulx Library and La Société Guernésiaise, Family History section
Over the generations, local families have handed down stories of witchcraft and fairies and, as a result, Guernsey’s history and mythical legends have become inextricably linked.
Evidence of witchcraft, or at least the belief in it, can be seen all around the island. Traditional granite houses often have a 'corbel', or 'witches' seat', a protruding stone, specifically designed for them to rest on. It was thought safer to be kind to witches and encourage them to sit down outside rather than to anger them and experience the havoc they could cause.
Many legends exist around witchcraft and the headland between L'Eree and Perelle has had a long association with the practice. Known as the Catioroc, it was believed to be the meeting place for the island’s witches and wizards. The island's spell casters were said to meet there on a Friday night after dark, which was known then as 'le Sabbat des Sorciers'. Witches and wizards were also said to meet at Les Eturs, four times weekly and at the Longfrie crossroads.
In 1484, Pope Innocent VIII, declared that witchcraft was heresy and a war was declared against all purported witches and wizards. Anyone suspected of practicing witchcraft was persecuted and often tortured into making a confession. Anyone convicted in Guernsey was burnt alive at the bottom of Tower Hill, St Peter Port. A number of properties in the area still have their original 16th and 17th century wooden front doors and, burnt into them are circles that were thought to ward away witches. In an 80-year period between 1560 and 1640, 44 people were burnt at the stake and 35 were banished from the island for life.
Le Creux es Faies
La Table Des Pions at Pezeries Point, Torteval, is a stone circle built in the 1700s, known locally as the Fairy Ring. Superstition suggests that if you walk around it three times and make a wish it will come true - but its origins are rooted in history, not superstition. With a spectacular backdrop of cliffs and roaring seas, the circle was where members of the Chevauchee parade would rest to eat.
The Chevauchee was a parade that took place every two years to check the Chemain du Roi, or 'path of the King', was kept clear. Starting in the north of the island at Vale Church and ending back at Grand Harve, Pezeries Point was one of the stopping points for the officials of the Royal Court who made the procession. While the officials ate in a specially constructed tent, the Pions who accompanied them were not allowed and a table was dug into the common to allow them somewhere to eat.
Where the stories of fairies and witchcraft became a part of the legend is unclear, but it remains a popular piece of local folklore.
Legend has it, there were two different types of fairy - those who invaded the island and the indigenous species, known as Pouques, who inhabited Guernsey.
One of the oldest Guernsey legends tells of two such fairies, Le Grand Colin and Le Petit Colin, who used to bake at night using the furze oven of a local couple, Colette and Jacque. Colette had become aware of their existence but did nothing as every morning, in way of recompense, there was a lovely white loaf, Guernsey gâche and sometimes even a Bean Jar left on the table.
However, when she told her husband he was not so tolerant and tried to catch the fairies. Once the two Colins found out, they were very angry and marched out of the cottage, banging the door behind them and Colette and Jacque would never again wake to find food left on their table.
The fairies that invaded the island were generally not as pleasant as they had a tendency to steal local women. One fairy prince from across the seas put a spell on a beautiful local girl, Michelle and took her away to fairyland, leaving behind a magical pink lily to comfort her family. The flower, now known as Nerine sarniensis, or the Guernsey lily, is to be seen blooming in island gardens in October, as well as at the Nerine Festival, held at Candie Gardens.
It is said that Guernsey was once invaded by an army of fairy soldiers who landed at Vazon and killed all the local men - apart from two who had hidden in an oven. Legend has it there was a great battle in Rouge Rue, St Peter Port, and the road is so named because of all the blood that flowed there.
These invaders had fallen for the beauty of Guernsey women after a compatriot had brought one home as his bride. Once victorious, the fairies treated the local women well, often marrying them, tending the fields and bringing food to the table.
Fairyblood and Guernseymen
It is said that Guernseymen are shorter than average because of the fairy blood running through their veins, which also has made them polite, industrious and helpful. Local witches, benefited too as they no longer needed broomsticks to fly due to their inherited invisible wings.
Bienvnus a Dgernesi
Guernesiais, also known as Dgernésiais, Patois and Guernsey French, is the local dialect which originated from the Norman language.
Once the island's native tongue, it has now all but disappeared as a language spoken in the home. However, a recent drive to reinstate it as a spoken language has resulted in it being taught in a number of local primary schools.
The use of the dialect as the island’s first language came to an end in the post-war period. Many children were evacuated during the occupation of the islands by German forces between 1940 and 1945 and, when they returned, they spoke English.
The written language can still be seen today in street names, surnames and food types and heard in the occasional greeting between locals.
Guernseyman Jan Marquis has been at the forefront of the drive to rejuvenate the old language and has a real passion for the history of his native tongue. Jan said;
"Guernsey Norman French resembles the language of William the Conqueror, and it has been spoken here for the best part of a thousand years."
'It was only really in the 19th century that English began to take over from it, but now the language is severely endangered and most people that speak it fluently are elderly; in their 70s, 80s and 90s. We need to explore ways of expanding the teaching of it in primary schools and to try to get it into the national curriculum.'
Whilst hundreds of island children have embraced the opportunity to learn Dgernésiais, Jan has no illusions about the sheer scale of the task in hand and he is the first to admit that school lessons on their own are not enough.
"We have to encourage people to speak it. There are a lot of grandparents out there, or even great grandparents, who didn't speak it to their children, so we're now encouraging them to speak it to their children's children, because it has got to be a living language."
To find out more about the Guernsey Language, visit the Guernsey Language Commission's website