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Cornishness and Britishness
13 October 2006

Cornish winter surfer

In a continuing series on Britishness, Catalyst asked people in Cornwall how they feel about their identity.

Cornwall (or Kernow in Cornish) juts west into the Atlantic at the southwestern extremity of Britain. It is an English county with a population of just over half a million people, swelled annually by five million tourists attracted by its surf, spectacular coast and moors. Officially the poorest area of the UK, its GDP is 62 per cent of the national average.

Cornwall has its own language, Kernewek, which became extinct in the eighteenth century. There are, however, attempts to revive it, and it is estimated that several thousand now speak the language.

Cornwall has a cultural history which, along with its geography, tends to set it apart from the rest of England

Cornwall also has a cultural history which, along with its geography, tends to set it apart from the rest of England. There are indigenous sports and food and it has its own traditional industries (tin mining and fishing, although these are now largely overtaken or replaced by tourism).

One of the six original 'Celtic nations', Cornwall's historic origins sit alongside those of Brittany, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Scotland and Wales.

There is a Cornish independence movement which campaigns for autonomy and a Cornish assembly. A Morgan Stanley poll in 2004 found that 44 per cent of people in Cornwall identified themselves as Cornish rather than English or British. In England as a whole, only 21 per cent closely identified with their counties.

So how comfortably does the concept of Britishness sit here? What does being Cornish mean? Is it an inclusive concept? Are there contradictions between being Cornish and being British? And does it actually matter?


For many people, Cornishness can take precedence over Britishness - but identity is fluid, and this will vary between individual, time, event, place, or circumstance.

the boundary of Cornishness and Englishness is contradictory, ambivalent and blurred

Many people feel that Cornishness and Englishness are mutually exclusive. But the boundary of Cornishness and Englishness is contradictory, ambivalent and blurred: as in the recent World Cup where there many reluctant (and not a few enthusiastic) supporters of the England team in Cornwall.

There are also many proud Cornish-Australians, Cornish-Americans and other hybrid supra-national identities around the world. 'Cornishness' is thus a transnational ethnic identity.

Being Cornish is incredibly important for many people - but it is very difficult to be Cornish when 'Cornishness' is routinely denied or belittled in the media, and when Cornwall is effectively denied its own institutions. It takes a great deal of will to be Cornish when one is told constantly that Cornwall is merely part of the Westcountry, the South West etc, and when the overwhelming majority of institutions - from television to the police - are centred east of the Tamar.

Cornishness is an ethnic identity that has developed an inclusivity in recent decades. Although there are still many who insist that you can't be proper Cornish without at least two Cornish-born grandparents (or whatever), or that to be Cornish means you are an inheritor of ancient Celtic genes, there has been a much greater willingness of late to embrace incomers who are themselves anxious to embrace Cornishness. However, there are some incomers who display racist and anti-Cornish attitudes - which can make the process of embrace difficult - and it remains the case that it is the 'indigenous Cornish' who are routinely the disadvantaged in socio-economic indicators such as unemployment, poor housing, low incomes, poor health.

There are some celebrated of examples of non-white Cornish people. Some non-white incomers turn out to be the best advocates of Cornishness.

Professor Philip Payton, Institute of Cornish Studies


Primarily I am me but would choose Cornish as the most accurate description of my nationality. I must differentiate this from being a UK and EU citizen.

I am Cornish in the sense of being another nationality than English, however there are many who see themselves as Cornish and English.

I accept that I am citizen of the UK but I see the idea of a 'British nation', British nationalism if you will, as an artificial project of the ruling establishment at nation state building, essentially an English imperial project. Again we must make the difference between nation/country and citizenship/state.

We could list a range of cultural phenomena that indicate the Cornish identity, but each person's list would be different: location, geography, language, accent, history, connection with the other peoples on the European fringe, music, festivals, character traits, poverty etc.

what cannot be denied is that Cornish is one of the competing forms of national identity in Cornwall

National identity is a slippery topic in general. However, what cannot be denied is that Cornish is one of the competing forms of national identity in Cornwall.

I like to think that Cornishness is inclusive as my mother is Irish and my partner French. I also have a friend who is mixed Cornish Pakistani and proud of both aspect of his identity. Our communities can be hostile but they are realistic and come together to confront everybody's enemy - poverty and hardship.

Phil Hosking


I am half Indian, half Cornish. My mother is Cornish by birth and my father is Indian. There was much uproar at the time - from both families. Neither liked the idea of a mixed race couple at all.

I'm 37 and my parents are both in their sixties now. I lived in Cornwall from the age of 18 months to 19 years - all of my childhood and into adulthood.

I feel that I have a strong Cornish heritage due to my mother's bloodline and the many years that I lived there. I return as often as I can, and have both family and friends there.

not only does the flag appear on the back of my car it also appears on my back in the form of a tattoo

I'm certainly proud to have Cornish heritage - not only does the flag appear on the back of my car it also appears on my back in the form of a tattoo. I got it done in Newquay - the tattoo artist's wife said that her husband had instructed her to squeeze me in whatever the time was - he would not be happy with a customer requesting the flag, and not being able to get it done within the county!

When I last visited Cornwall (Falmouth in particular), I was out in the pub, and a local guy called me an emmet!* I was grossly offended, and put him straight - I am not an emmet, I have Cornish blood - I'm half Cornish!

So I believe that you can have Cornish heritage and be of mixed race. Certainly I feel that having Cornish heritage is very important to me and definitely plays a big part in my identity - my house is the only place in Gloucestershire that you can find a proper Cornish pasty. I have two sons 9 and 11 that are keen to tell their friends that they possess Cornish blood in their veins - they constantly ask me questions about Cornwall and my childhood there.

Really, you have to be born in Cornwall to be Cornish I guess. Cornishmen are of the idea that you must have several generations of cornish blood before you until you can call yourself Cornish - which is the case with my mothers family. However, the dictionary definition of Cornish is "pertaining to Cornwall"!

I have friends that insist that Cornwall should be its own country - it's a debatable point. Personally, I feel that it doesn't have to be its own country in order to keep its very strong identity.

I have encountered more racism in the Gloucestershire village where I now live in four years than I did in over 19 years in Falmouth.

Simon Patel


To be Cornish is to be part of a huge world-wide family of folk who have never stopped being Cornish down through generations away from the Homeland and marriage to other types. The 'Cornishness' is still there. It is an indefinable thing. It is a way of life, living and being that comes from a genetic memory I am sure.

Clies Stevens


The majority of Cornish people feel British and Cornish but they are often alienated by the concept of being English which is seen as being rammed down their throats by 'English' government organisations.

A large number of Cornish rugby supporters will support Wales in rugby competitions as opposed to England

A large number of Cornish rugby supporters will support Wales in rugby competitions as opposed to England. Cornish people also link their 'national' feelings to the perceived lack of support for Cornish infrastructure and the massive underfunding in local services. The majority of Cornish people feel a deep sense of injustice at the lack of recognition for their culture, identity etc.

My sister works for the Royal College of nursing, in London. When she got her job she was asked about her ethnic identity. She described herself as Cornish which was laughed at!

People in Penzance quote the 20 year rule: 'you live here for 20 years you're Cornish', however if you participate in the local community it seems not to matter where you are from.

Prior to the 1990s I would have observed that being Cornish was more about civic pride in one's community. However, this is shifting with more cultural recognition, increasing awareness of the Cornish traditional culture.

Simon Reed, Penzance Town Councillor


I feel completely Cornish, English not at all and British only in that I live on the island of Britain and can speak a Brythonic language. Politically I would describe myself as a citizen of the UK, not a British citizen.

'British' doesn't reflect the political reality - at best it is a geographic description of where people come from - at worst it carries the awful heritage of empire.

My identity derives from the nation of Cornwall, one of the constituent nations of the UK. Others continually try to pigeonhole me into an identity that is not Cornish.

Being Cornish means everything - it is riven within my soul. It cannot be detached from me, it is all around me and influences everything about my life. No other interest or identity comes anywhere close. There is nothing more important to me.

If you join the Cornish community then the Cornish community will welcome you with open arms regardless of race, religion, gender and sexuality

If you join the Cornish community then the Cornish community will welcome you with open arms regardless of race, religion, gender and sexuality. Cornish people have links across the globe and recognise that it is important to work together hence the motto.

Some migrants work very hard at maintaining their identity of origin and may well not integrate, imbue children with their source identity and leave Cornwall in the future. Could they be termed Cornish? Probably not because their identity doesn't derive from Cornwall.

Whereas I know Muslim people, Dutch, Swedes, Welsh, Jewish people, Chinese, Fijians and Tongans who have permanently settled in Cornwall and are deeply rooted in the community. They are all clearly Cornish and the community should be inclusive of all migrants - just as Cornish people have been welcomed in their millions around the world.

C Jenkin


I think people who are interested in this kind of thing would be in a better position to address the 'Britishness' question more constructively if they weren't already so busy being upset at being pigeonholed as "English". Until that's sorted, any aspect of the whole national identity issue is only going to end up getting them riled.

I visited a friend in Devon during the world cup, and was taken aback by the huge difference in the number of St George's flags displayed, the moment I crossed the Tamar. You saw a few around in Cornwall - in Devon they were EVERYWHERE.

Saying that your heritage is 'who you are' makes no more sense than assuming you're a pleasant person because your grandparents were

Who you are is just YOU. Today. What you do and think and make of yourself. Saying that your heritage is 'who you are' makes no more sense than assuming you're a pleasant person because your grandparents were... or vice versa. Everyone has (or should have) the chance to define themselves - for good or ill. I'm English, but I'm not responsible for the '66 cup win or the crusades.

Which isn't to say that your ancestry isn't important. I just feel that the moment you use it to define your identity, it becomes a millstone.

Emmet_Guy


The English feudal system in Cornwall is denying Cornish people the basic human right to exist as an indigenous Celtic minority of Britain and own a home in their own land. Cornish people are denied equality of cultural funding and exclusion from the Council of Europe's Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.

1549


To the average man on the street, I'd imagine Cornish culture has more to do with surfing than bards.

Troll


I see my culture being eroded on a daily basis. Diluted to the point of non-existence. We have to hark back to the past because it contains the roots of who we are. The majority of other cultures are afforded this as a right but it seems the Cornish are always singled out as being unreasonable for wanting to keep their culture before World Heritage and their like turn us into a Brand.

cledry_maid


I suspect many people identify with their area of birth, or later in life find somewhere else they feel settled in, and call 'home'. Perhaps it comes from some ancient need to belong to a tribe, or group, but 'belonging' seems to be a basic need for many people.

To me it seems easier to 'belong' to Cornwall than, say Europe, because Europe is too large, and 'strange' to be comfortable in. I've travelled all around Cornwall, and feel I 'belong here', I fit in, my accent is right. I would probably be the same had I been born and lived in Yorkshire, or Essex, but my good luck is that I was born and live here in Cornwall, which has a fairly strong 'brand name'.

I am entirely happy to call myself British, but to me that means partly being 'descended from native Britons' and partly concerns the shared history with other people in the British Isles.

Much of what I feel depends on shared language

It's a thrill when someone from Cornwall achieves something in the world, sporting, artistic or whatever, but failing that I will applaud Scots, Irish, Welsh, and - yes- English people. Much of what I feel depends on shared language. I feel uncomfortable in countries where I can't speak or understand the language well, aware that as soon as I open my mouth and speak, I will be clearly identified as a stranger.

Clearly it must be fulfilling to many people to learn and speak Cornish, and it must be rewarding to 'belong' to the fairly select group of competent Cornish speakers... but I'm not there yet!

Cornwall derives some of its identity from its geography, being the bit right on the end, surrounded almost island like by sea on two sides, and a significant river marking its boundary with Devon, so we're off to a flying start with that, and then there's the kind climate, masses of pleasant beaches, fantastic moors, pretty little towns and villages, slower pace of life.

We have a heck of a lot of material on which to base an identity. If or when the Cornish language reaches a critical mass that would be an additional feature, but I dont think that for me it's essential to 'Cornishness'.

It's satisfying to 'belong to' Cornwall.

Coady


Personally, I'm a bit hacked off with politicians ramming Britishness down my throat at every vaguely relevant opportunity. Britishness does not need defining. Anything that does is artificial.

I'm a bit hacked off with politicians ramming Britishness down my throat at every vaguely relevant opportunity

This infatuation with defining oneself and one's nation, region, community or whatever has come about mainly over the past few years. It could possibly be to do with multiculturalism and the way that a slightly panicked government have tried to paper over the cracks of a dis-unifying nation.

English identity, ethnicity (and race, for that matter) is multi-faceted. And we Cornish form part of that rich hotchpotch of that "mongrel race". I don't find Englishness and Cornishness incompatible.

MyGiddyAunt


What is English ethnicity? It is always the Cornish minority that are asked to define what makes them Cornish in their fight to protect their cultural traditions. This question is rarely asked of a member of the English majority whose cultural interests are automatically maintained because they are in the majority.

Hunlef


People can be Cornish and English and British and Scottish and any number of ishes that they wish. I identify with several ishes. Be boring and have one if you want.

enzedbrit


I see myself as Cornish and that's what I answer when people ask. This is because I feel that Cornwall flows through my veins and it feels like who I am. I have a large Cornish family with a long history in Cornwall.

I don't think you have to be born actually on the soil of a specific country to be from there. I personally believe it is more to do with you physical make up and you personal allegiances.

I am Cornish, I feel Cornish, I support Cornwall, I can't afford to live in Cornwall and nor could my parents but that doesn't exclude me from being Cornish.

fooboo


I find Englishness and Cornishness totally incompatible. I am British and Cornish, definitely not English. I come from the isles called Britain and my nationality is Cornish. To me being called English is an insult.

Angofbew


When a nation has its own historical language, how can we really argue against its right to be defined culturally, ethnically, and politically/socially distinctive; regardless of external opinion, criticism, beliefs, or political control.

Penwithian in California


The way I look at it is this. When I was a kid I used to write my address as:

Richard Quick,
9 Victoria Place,
Penzance,
Cornwall,
England,
Great Britain,
Europe,
The Earth,
The Solar System,
The Milky Way,
The Universe,
Space,
Time,
TR18 4DB

(I've moved now ;o)

It's like an onion skin, the more layers you peel away the closer you get to "me".

I consider myself to be from Penzance - and Cornwall and England and Europe.

When Cornwall are playing rugby I cheer. When England are playing football I cheer louder (at least for the first half)

When Cornwall are playing rugby I cheer. When England are playing football I cheer louder (at least for the first half).

I'm from Cornwall. It's where I grew up and where my family comes from. It's my heritage. I love being Cornish. I love the land and the sea and the history and the language. And I do love the way people aren't rude down here the way they are in London, though I think it helps to go away from Cornwall to really appreciate this.

Cornwall used to be a proto-nation, but it's not anymore. It's part of England, and in turn part of Europe. Personally, I think there are a few people who need to get over it.

I don't see there's any more contradiction in being Cornish and English than there is in being British Asian.

Richard Quick, web designer and owner of www.thepasty.com


* An emmet is a tourist, especially in Cornwall. The word originates from the Old English for ant. See www.worldwidewords.org for more information.

11 Comments
How may people in Cornwall are of celtic descent? probably less than 20%. Pure Celts? 1%The Cornish are thoroughly mixed with the English. Next time you get called an emmet ask out of curiosity the surnames of the Cornish persons parents and grandparents - I bet a tenner there will be some Anglo-Saxon there!!
turnipedd
12 August 2007


I consider myself Cornish never English, I have travelled the whole world and find myself to have much more in common with my celtic cousins than the loud trouble making English I have met.
As for Emmets, Cornwall needs them but as for second homes and being looked down upon because we cannot afford the new bmw and have menial jobs gives them all a bad name.

Sammy
29 July 2007


Anyone who expresses a strong opinion of where they are from seem to forget one simple thing. It had nothing to do with them. Being ‘proud’ to have been born in Cornwall or anywhere else is being prejudice and like it or not you are racist.
R Flower
01 May 2007


I am Cornish of the island of Britain and European BUT never, never, ever English. I look forward to the day when Cornwall can achieve some kind of autonomy such as that enjoyed by the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands and so on, all smaller than Kernow but with a control of their own affairs. Why, there are even smaller nations than Cornwall who manage quite well, Luxembourg for example.
http://www.cornishnotenglish.com

Mike
10 April 2007


i came to cornwall 4 years ago, i work with the public,i meet many cornish people every day, when i came here i had no idea how patriotic the cornish was, BUT i have reached the point where i hate the racist remarks i hear every day in my company, ie bloody londoners, ants taking over, taking our houses etc etc. i came here with no ill feeling at all, but you so called cornish have drove me around the bend with stupid remarks, i now have a real dislike towards most cornish people because of the jokey but offensive remarks i hear but i do change my mind when i meet the nice one every now and then.i would very much like to see the black and asian community take roots here like they have in south london, then being housed by the council and having many mixed race children. bring it on thats what i say. then i would smirk and think to myself now be racist now if you dare.
paul
25 February 2007


Cornwall is a wonderful place as many in the UK like many countries in the UK, England especially there where once many nations, but seems to be the most separated. The problem is that Cornwall hasn't really discovered its own identity yet. I'm sure in the foreseeable future, the Cornish, will be able to call themselves Cornish English or British without having to worry about what other people think. Personally as an economist Cornwall will suffer a lot from separation, mainly from a difference in currency, it's also important to remember what Cornwall gave to England and England gave to Cornwall, and what can be given in the future, the fact is the English have done a lot more for it's fellow Briton's then any other of us, and the important history we share as a whole, such as the two world wars, the most brutal of all wars, we have fought off many more invaders of these isles together much more times then with each other.
Jon W
25 February 2007


As a Celt the idea of independence for Cornwall, Wales or Scotland makes me sick. I'm of celtic stock and I live in England and it may come as a shock to some but the bulk of the 'English' have celtic blood. Just because England has been invaded does not mean that is ceased to be a Celtic land. Anyone who wants to split this land is nothing more than a traitor to it, same as the traitors who have tried and succeeded in destroying British culture in all its forms. Cornish people should be proud of their history and heritage, they should preserve their traditions, but hating the English and trying to divide this land is a disgrace. Anyone in this country could make a case that their area should have independence, from the deprived north citing poverty to the affluent south citing culture and politics. The ideas for Cornish independence are no more valid than people living in the Iceni tribal lands using that as a reason for hatred and seperation. The relative deprivation in Cornwall is mirrored in many parts of the UK, but there are good reasons that Britain hating traitors in Westminster have neglected Cornwall and encouraged the Cornish to break away and thereby destroy the strength of Britain even more.
Cornwall has a history, a history as part of Britain. It seems to me that many in Cornwall are being conned into rhetoric of hate, hate towards their own historical compatriots,a hatred that is not reciprocated. Cornish people like all British people need to wake up to the truth, the truth behind the destruction of British culture and identity, the truth of who is behind the destruction of Britain. If the Cornish don't wake up then one day soon they'll be alone, seperated from their allies with whom they have shared thousands of years of history, and alone and seperate Cornwall will fall, just as England will.

celtic blood
12 February 2007


Very much so, I am from the neighbouring county of devon, and o me it seems that the cornish are very hypocritical. They hate people visitng yet they live off tourism, they hate people surifng 'their waves' and a percentage can eb very hostile towards students and visitoors. Best advice come to North Devon its very similar to Cornwall surf is just as good and we are more welcoming.
tim taylor
08 January 2007


Thanks for a great article and it is satisfying to see at last the establishment giving some recognition to the Cornish people.

I did note however two factual errors in your introduction.

You state that Cornwall “is an English county”. In fact Cornwall is a constitutional Duchy with the Duke having various rights and prerogatives over the territory of Cornwall which normally, in the rest of the UK, would go to the Monarch. The Duchy itself argued succefully that Cornwall is a Duchy in the 1856 Cornish foreshore case. For more details visit the Tyr Gwyr Gweryn website.

You also state that the Cornish langauge “became extinct in the eighteenth century”. There is evidence that Cornish continued, albeit in limited usage by a handful of speakers, throughout the 19th century and into the early 20th century. In 1875 six speakers all in their sixties were discovered; some claim that John Davey who died in 1890 should be considered the last traditional speaker. Others, however, dispute this, saying that Alison Treganning, who died in 1906, was the last traditional speaker. Fishermen were counting fish and farmers counting sheep, in the Cornish language into the 1940s.

Phil Hosking
02 November 2006


I am one of the "emmets" who inflict ourselves on the poor Cornish nation each year. I love Cornwall. As soon as I cross the Tamar it feels as though I'm in a different country. If I ever win the lottery I hope to buy property in Cornwall for cheap rental to Cornish people, with options to buy when they can.
Gill of Ireland and Wales
14 October 2006


My son has been brought up in London, Australia and the east Midlands and he is now a student in Cornwall. Students there seem to be regularly abused as 'foreigners' and the town and gown issues frequently involve violence, theft and ongoing general hostility. Thirty years ago I used to visit Cornwall regularly for surfing and climbing holidays and as a young man I experienced none of the hostility what my son sees on a fairly routine basis. Thity years ago there was not so much relative poverty and no Cernow flags. Might these things be related?
Bill M
14 October 2006


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Commission for Racial Equality

Publisher of Catalyst Magazine, the CRE works to create a just and integrated society, where diversity is valued.

openDemocracy

Independent political discussion and debate based on exchange and participation.

Prospect Magazine

A political magazine, Prospect also includes features on arts and culture, science, economics, history, social affairs and philosophy.

Runnymede Trust

The Runnymede Trust promotes a successful multi-ethnic Britain.

Institute of Race Relations

The Institute of Race Relations is a race relations thinktank.

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