Culture as an expression of ‘National’ Identity in Cornwall

Paulo Freire sees the relationship between a periphery and the state which sees itself as its ruler as being that between the Oppressor and the Oppressed. For Freire, cultural invasion (ie the ‘ruling state’ imposing its own culture on the periphery) is one of the main tools in achieving dominance. “Invaders penetrate the cultural context of another group, in disrespect of the latter’s potentialities; they impose their own view of the world upon those they invade and inhibit the creativity of the invaded by curbing their expression” (1983: p133).

In recent times, indigenous Cornish culture has became a major rallying point for those living in the territory, something which formed an integral part in the Cornish being granted National Minority Status under the Council for Europe’s Framework Convention. This legislation seeks to protect indigenous languages, culture and encourage the national government to recognise this sense of difference and take it into account when considering policy and funding.

But, for all the positivity that was there with the recognition of National Minority Status, Cornwall’s identity on a cultural and linguistic level has not previously received the recognition that it could have. Partly due to the increased impact of in-migration, which, one academic believes is responsible for the fact that “The indigenous population of Cornwall now only make up 40% of the territory’s population” (Author’s interview with Dr. Mike Tripp: 13th February 2017).

However, high levels of migration into Cornwall from elsewhere in the UK are not a new phenomenon. An editorial piece in the West Briton Newspaper from 1967 stated: “The Cornish are a race apart and must remain so; any attempt to instigate permanent mass invasion from the faceless hordes from London must be absolutely rejected” (Buck et al: 1993). The conflicts between the indigenous Cornish and those moving into the area from other parts of the United Kingdom it seems, are not new. Indeed in the 1973 local Cornish elections, an Independent stood pledging to push to introduce “bye-laws to ban second homes, improve public transport and ensure Cornish language and history be taught in Cornish schools” (Deacon: 1983: p 243). All such policies are either finally being implemented today in some form, or have become more realistic now that Cornwall finally has National Minority Status.

Part of the antagonism between the Cornish and non-indigenous population is also due to a lack of awareness of Cornwall’s separate history.  It has been suggested by Angarrack (2008) that Cornwall had a higher status of being “a Duchy extra-territorial to England” (p 13) and “In 1535 the king’s historian Polydore Vergil wrote in his Anglica Historia how Britain was divided into four parts with each part inhabited by Englishmen, Scotts (sic), Welshmen and Cornish people” (ibid p 15).

Alan M. Kent recently observed: “Despite globalization and the encroachment of English culture and media, the fragments (of Cornish culture) exist…we are able to collect and identify them and understand how they fit into Cornwall’s unique history…there may be a few cracks, but the original culture stands proudly before us” (cited in McMahon: 2016: p ix). As frustration grows in Cornwall with the perceived dilution of their separate identity by the sheer numbers of in-comers, organised resistance is beginning to form thanks to greater organisation and interest in Indigenous Cornish cultural groups.

One powerful example was seen last summer, when Cornish cultural group Golden Tree Productions, led by former teacher Will Coleman arranged a The Man Engine Festival Tour. Set up to celebrate the tenth (or, as they put it, the tinth) anniversary of the Cornish Mining World Heritage Site, the Man Engine was described as “the largest mechanical puppet ever to be built in Britain: a colossal metal Cornish Miner, part man, part machine. When he crawled down the road, the height of the Man Engine was 4.5m (about the same as a double-decker bus) but when he ‘transforms’ he stood at over 10m tall (two-and-a-half double-deckers!)” (


The Man Engine in Penzance, August 2016. Photo: Ben Gilby

Originally scheduled to be viewed by 7,000 people on its twenty-two location tour, well over 130,000 people turned out. If the transformation of the Man Engine was not impressive enough, the overall ceremony that it was part of made very clear the important role mining in Cornwall played – and the integral part it played in Cornish culture and the transportation of it around the world as Cousin Jack and Jennies travelled to South Australia, South Africa, the USA and beyond in order to work the Mines. The festival was not just about the parade of the Man Engine through the streets of Cornish towns, it was accompanied by communal singing of Cornish folk songs and sea-shanties as well as stalls and exhibitions demonstrating examples of the indigenous Cornish food, musical instruments, history and fashion.

With huge media interest in the event, not just across the UK, but around the world, including China and Australia – the word has been spread far and wide, and Will Coleman has already announced embryonic plans to take the Man Engine to some of the sites around the world which were previously mined by large numbers of Cornish people, who established Cornish cultural groups in such locations.

Another example is the work by Simon Reed and his team at Cornish Culture. This group have worked for several years at resurrecting traditional Cornish festivals and feast days. The renaissance of events such as St. Piran’s Day, Montol, Hal an tow, ‘Obby ‘os and Golowan now sees them as major events in the Cornish calendar. Attendances at the events have reached such a level that entire town centres are closed off to traffic to allow people to attend.

Ben Gilby (MA Cultural Geography).


Angarrack, John: (2008): Scat t’Larrups? Resist And Survive: Independent Academic Press: Padstow.

Buck, M., Williams, M. & Bryant, L. (1993): ‘Housing The Cornish: Containing The Crisis’ in Payton, P (ed): ‘Cornish Studies One’: University of Exeter Press: Exeter.

Deacon, Bernard: (1983): The Electoral Impact of Cornish Nationalism in O’Luain, Cathal (ed): For A Celtic Future: A Tribute to Alan Heusaff: Celtic League: Dublin.

Freire, Paulo: (1983): Pedagogy of the Oppressed: Penguin: London.

McMahon, Brendan: (2016): Gathering The Fragments: Storytelling and Cultural Resistance in Cornwall: Evertype: Lecanvey: County Mayo.

Tagged , , ,

4 thoughts on “Culture as an expression of ‘National’ Identity in Cornwall

  1. Davydh T says:

    “bye-laws to ban second homes, improve public transport and ensure Cornish language and history be taught in Cornish schools” (Deacon: 1983: p 243). All such policies are either finally being implemented today, or have become more realistic now that Cornwall finally has National Minority Status.

    Except of course none of them are. The recent bye-laws only affect new build of second homes – and do nothing to stop anyone converting existing housing stock into part-time residence as a second home.
    Public transport – still very patchy in Cornwall, bus journeys of a similar length are often much more expensive in Cornwall than many other parts of the UK due to the near monopoly that one particular bus company now has.

    Cornish language and history being taught in schools, unfortunately not really, a few schools have been having taster sessions, and one or two a bit more, but we are still quite a long way from having Cornish language as a regular part of the curriculum in all schools.

    • bgilby2014 says:

      To an extent I would agree with you, but I think further clarity is needed – whilst, you are correct that the bye-laws impact on new builds, it is a start, and with two further locations in Cornwall last week signing up too, the momentum is starting. I would also say that the issue with language is an improving picture, but there are a degree of anomalies in what is happening through the territory and I am in the middle of a piece of research which shows the present trends. The general picture in Cornwall regarding teaching of history and language is still way below where anyone would like, there are areas where Cornish history and language IS being taught in schools. I have views of parents and children among my data that shows this. The picture will only change fully with greater devolution, which is another matter! The key part of the post that covers these areas are “policies…have become more realistic now that Cornwall finally has National Minority Status”. Another issue entirely is the Government implementing what it is supposed to do under the Framework Convention, and given the most recent compliance report of the Advisory Committee on the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities, they are not doing what they should.

  2. This is a very interesting view on contemporary Cornish culture(s) but it I wonder whether some nuance might improve it? The points you make are important but they are reliant on some ptetty black and white oppositions which need challenging if Cornishness is to be well and widely accepted as a distinct un-English set of identities and cultural markers. The example of the incomers and the resurrection of some old customs (btw Montol which we take part in each year is a construction inspired by past customs not a reconstruction as you suggest) is contradictory. He enactment of Cornish customs is substantially partekn in by so-called incomers and cherished by them as much as many Cornish people are not interested and don’t take part. Many Cornish folk tunes are in fact part of a wider commonwealth that needs acknowledging. The separate history you tefer to is not a useful paradigm. What is useful is the Cornish history of resistance to dominant politics and cultures and the lack of acknowledgement in our museums and cultural institutions of this.

    • bgilby2014 says:

      I would agree that the piece was quite black and white, and that was deliberately done because of the majority of the audience of the blog may not necessarily be aware of some of the issues that the piece raises in terms of identity issues in Cornwall, and this is a general piece covering general ground to open debates further – and I hold my hands up to admit that there are elements which are in there to provoke discussion. These debates will take place on my own personal blog, rather than this University departmental one. I totally agree as well that very many people who contribute to Cornish culture are in-comers and the same can be said for those who are learning Kernewek. I have just completed a Masters dissertation looking at this and my data very much highlighted this, and I looked at the cultural sustainability issues related to it. Once my dissertation is marked I can get the theory and data related to this out in the open more, and it will appear on my own blog, Doronieth Kernow. I know that Montol is inspired by past customs. The word ‘reconstruction’ that was used was meant in terms of it being a re-born version – probably not the best terminology, I accept! Where I refer to a separate history it is in terms of the fact that Cornwall’s past is very different to that of wider England – language base etc. I am fascinated by the situation that in many cases, in-comers are driving the renaissance in both language and culture – the consequences of this are something, that as a social scientist and Human Geographer I think are worthy of further study.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: