What does being Cornish mean to you?

An attempted to tackle the issue of Cornish identity. Written by Nigel Pengelly after consulting various academics and Cornish figures.

What does being Cornish mean to you ?

To any person who is Cornish, it is something that is celebrated all over the world. But when the question: “What does it mean to be Cornish ?” is posed, what does the reply entail ?

It is a question that could be asked to anyone with allegiance to a nation, culture or way of life, but not one that most people have sat back and thought about. How many English people have sat back and asked themselves the same question?

The question of Cornishness has tempted academics and the media over the centuries in a way that someone might try to define the properties of a newly discovered natural element. Some say the very fact we have an adjective such as Cornish is enough to prove that the Cornish exist. But what does it mean to be Cornish ? What makes a person define themselves as Cornish ?

A debate on what exactly is, or isn’t, Cornish could be seen as essentially a sterile debate which creates more questions than answers and generates confusion. It is a debate that may unwittingly put arbitrary definitions and limitations on something which is entirely personal and subjective. There could only be one simple, and valid, question which needs to be answered: ‘Are you Cornish?’

Maybe even better than that is not to even ask the question at all !

However, the Cornish have vigorously defended their right to regard themselves as Cornish over the centuries. So is it ancestry, being born here, living here, wearing a kilt, pronouncing place names correctly or knowing whether a good Cornish pasty should contain carrot or not?

Historically, the Cornish and English stem from different roots and, although the Cornish homeland is today administered as if it were a part of England, unlike Wales in 1536, it was never legally incorporated into England. The inhabitants of much of southern Britain were Brythonic Celts from Indo-Europe. The seeds of Cornwall as we now know it lie in the 5th century Germanic invasions and settlement of lowland Britain. A process of gradual expansionism ensured that the inhabitants of Britain were killed, absorbed into a dominating Anglo-Saxon culture or left to their own devices in the peripheral regions. Retaining a Celtic culture, these regions became know as Scotland, Wales and Cornwall. Some persecuted Celts fled overseas to establish Brittany.

Pointers like the fact Cornwall has never been a shire county of England, that maps up until the reformation show Cornwall as one of the four nations of Britain and that as late as 1856 the Duchy of Cornwall was busy asserting it rights by claiming that Cornwall had never been part of England reveal a different identity. However, the fact that Cornish people have always been delineated as such serves both as a recognition of this distinct background and an affirmation of separate identity. So the existence of a Cornish identity, in the context of it being an alternative and competing identity to that of being English, is an indisputable fact.

Historical revelations that only quite recently have become increasingly common knowledge has reinforced the Cornish identity. In 1549, about 20 per cent of the Cornish male population were massacred by mercenaries on the orders of Duke of Northumberland acting for Edward VI. Roughly every other man of breeding age in Cornwall was put to death. Glasney College, which would have competed with Oxford and Cambridge today, was burned to the ground, Cornish links with Brittany severed and the Cornish language was effectively killed off. A persecution of Methodists took place in the last century when chapels didn’t have graveyards because it was illegal to be buried by a Methodist priest – there had to be a Church of England priest present. Perhaps an element of Cornish identity is being aware of this history.

Some devotees of Cornish identity point to their Celtic roots? The criterion for a Celtic identity is a linguistic one – to be a Celtic country, that country has to have a Celtic language. Cornwall has a living Celtic language – now with European status. This makes Cornwall a Celtic nation and if you are “of Cornwall” in any way then you are Celtic as well as Cornish. However your language is not the ‘be all and end all’ of Celtic identity. If the Welsh or the Bretons do nothing different to the people of London or Paris except speak a different language, what is achieved ? Language (by itself) does not define a culture. If it did, Cornwall would be more English than Celtic – and so would Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man. If a tribe of South American Indians adopted Welsh learned from the emigrants to Patagonia – would they be Celtic?

Today, UK identities are generally given official recognition via courts applying the 1976 Race Relations Act. The Act itself uses terms like “national” and/or “ethnic origins”. The term “ethnic origins” was defined in a 1983 House of Lords appeal ruling by Lord Fraser who said that for a group to constitute an ethnic group for the purposes of the 1976 Race Relations Act it must regard itself, and be regarded by others, as a distinct community by virtue of certain characteristics. He said that it is essential that the group has a long shared history, which they consciously remember, and a cultural tradition of its own. He added that a common geographical origin, a different language, a unique literature, a different religion and a feeling of being oppressed could be relevant. Objective analysis would reveal that the Cornish meet this criteria for recognition.

Fraser said that a group with sufficient of the above characteristics would be capable of including converts.

He stated: “Provided a person who joins the group feels himself or herself to be a member of it, and is accepted by other members, then he or she is, for the purposes of the Act, a member. It is possible for a person to fall into a particular racial group either by birth or adherence, and it makes no difference, so far as the Act is concerned, by which route he finds his way into the group.”

So it is not simply a matter of classifying all those born in Cornwall as Cornish and all those born in England as English. Furthermore, because it is possible to acquire another nationality by adoption, naturalisation or marriage, to delimit identity by place of birth is plainly absurd. In the light of the Fraser ruling, birthplace is also irrelevant, for membership of an ethnic group is subjectively meaningful to the individual. Therefore, “being Cornish” means expressing yourself as such. We now see that far from being an exclusive doctrine, the celebration of Cornishness is wholly inclusive.

Put simply “being Cornish” means “being of Cornwall.”

The real question could be: what is Cornwall ? Apart from being the traditional homeland of an industrious and stoic people, it also a place revered by those whose families once lived there. Some say Cornwall is simply a county of England run by a County Council. Some say Cornwall is a Duchy with a Duke, a Lord High Warden of the Stannaries and a Stannary Parliament (of which the Duke is the Head of State). Others say Cornwall is a Celtic nation with her own language, national flag and Gorsedd (college of bards like Wales and Brittany).

Many Cornish harbour hostility to institutions like the “South West England Regional Development Agency”, “South West Arts”, “BBC South West”, “Devon and Cornwall Police Constabulary”, “South West Water”, “Culture South West”. Anything with “South West” or “˜West Country” in its name is seen as an attempt at border blurring. It certainly means loss of jobs and the associated empowerment, to Taunton, Exeter and Bristol. Two recent surveys drew the same conclusions, that one of the poorest regions in Europe – Cornwall – subsides the richest city in Europe – London – to the tune of £300 million annually.

At the very simplest level, everyone who lives in Cornwall should be considered a citizen of Cornwall, and live with the people of Cornwall without prejudice. Does this mean that everyone who lives in Cornwall is Cornish? In states and countries with political legislatures where citizenship is enshrined within law, then people will choose to take on that citizenship. For example, if a Cornishman chooses to move to Australia and become an Australian citizen, then he is first and foremost an Australian with strong Cornish roots.

Many people, of course, move to Cornwall, some to make their lives in Cornwall and to become part of the community – the choice to become a Cornish citizen is less obvious and is rarely articulated because of the lack of formal processes. In contrast to this example you also have the scenario where a UK citizen might move to warmer climes e.g. Spain or Portugal, but never forsake their citizenship and perhaps never want to integrate themselves within that community and perhaps when they pass away they might choose to be buried in their country of origin. In that circumstance they might be considered as an expatriate – they would certainly self-identify themselves as “British” rather than Spanish or Portuguese.

Cornwall, just like any other part of the world has plenty of expatriate people often choosing to retire to Cornwall, who would never consider themselves as Cornish.

Cultural identity is a very different matter. As well as the citizenship identification, sociologists recognise that people maintain multiple cultural identities. Being Cornish as a cultural identity has a whole range of layers, from being born in Cornwall (“I’m not Cornish, but my children are.”), having a strong accent (“he do speak proper”), having a lineage stretching back to antiquity (“I can trace my family back to the 1600s”), being fluent in the Cornish language (“My a vynn gewsel Kernewek!”) or simply because one wishes to identify with what are perceived to be Cornish values and interests. Some people can claim all of these cultural identifiers and more, but the many people who fulfil some of these cultural identities shouldn’t be seen as any less Cornish.

In other words, and a favourite saying from West Cornwall: “Just because you’re born in an oven, it don’t make you a pasty !?”.

If modern Cornwall is going to be a pluralist and forward-looking society, then we have to be more accepting of people having multiple cultural identities, equally using the citizenship view if people identify themselves as Cornish, then that should be their main identity. While many people in Cornwall are scared of Cornwall’s cultural identity being swamped by our larger neighbour, others stand up for their culture and capitalise on the principle of self-identification. In this way all the people of Cornwall – ancient families, newcomers and exiles – might be encouraged to associate themselves with being Cornish and join in the celebration.

Cornish culture is not going to disappear after a 1,000 years of attacks and repression. The challenge is to stand up and make it stronger for the future so all the people of Cornwall – home and away – can be proud of being Cornish.

Energies should be channelled exclusively into ‘being Cornish’ by doing things which promote a ‘Cornish Cornwall’. This would both enable the positive, and corporate, consolidation of a Cornish identity, for those that already regard themselves as ‘Cornish’ and provide an environment which would facilitate the assimilation of an evolving population.

To “be Cornish” you must be “of Cornwall” and that can be living here, being born here, speaking the language or having ancestors that hail from Cornwall. So if you live in Bodmin, were born in Redruth, are a Cornish speaking Australian or are an American with a great, great grandfather from St Austell – then you are Cornish.

In the end Cornishness has to be self-defining, if you feel Cornish enough to tick the box then tick the box.

The real question here is this; do you feel Cornish enough to do it?

One thought on “What does being Cornish mean to you?

  1. Carole Rashleigh says:

    Being Cornish is being descended from many generations of Cornish.
    Living in Cornwall does not make you Cornish, anymore than if I had been born/live in China it would make me
    For the true Cornish it is a feeling deep in your soul. Of being part of the land of your birth. I have lived elsewhere in the UK and Australia but I am always drawn back.

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