Cornish Identity – (Very) Early Findings

I’m rapidly approaching the manic writing-up stage of my Masters dissertation relating to what it means to be Cornish.

After holding a large number of 1:1 interviews and one focus group so far, there are a couple of strong themes coming through which are worthy of debate here ahead of the intensive period of focus groups which I am holding in Cornwall over the next ten days. It has been fascinating to discover the topics in which there are broad senses of agreement between born and bred Cornish and those who could be classified as in-comers.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the headline revelations so far among the born and bred is a strong sense that Cornwall being watered down as a consequence of the numbers of people moving into the territory and that, they feel their identity and way of life is being eroded.

Yet, a fascinating aside is that fact that both the native Cornish and the in-comer community feel that Cornwall’s “otherness” is a prime attraction to a large percentage of the in-comers. A commonly held opinion is that “The in-comers like the individualism, they like the difference”, or more powerfully “I moved to Cornwall a couple of years ago and I have never known such a sense of pride and passion in a region. People use that to express their identity.”

Given the concerns that the native Cornish people have over their territory being watered down by in-comers, one may have been forgiven for thinking that there is a very negative opinion of people moving to Cornwall from outside of its borders. Yet this has been far from the case. Examples have been given of people moving into Cornwall, learning Kernewek and then teaching it to people who have lived in Cornwall all their lives. A particularly pertinent point was made by a farmer from the Lizard peninsula who told me: “It’s all about attitude. To be honest, they (in-comers) are better than our dyed in the wool Cornish who get me absolutely spitting bloody mad that they won’t stand up for anything!” There is also respect for in-comers who have skills that local people do not, and who use these skills to help their new local communities.

The real anger so far seems to be reserved for the politicians and officials who do not seem to understand Cornwall and its needs, with the consequence that the people who live in Cornwall are demonstrating more visible signs of their separate identity, whether it be through the Kernewek language, forming local or Cornwall wide groups or re-establishing cultural movements. It is felt that those who are responsible for making decisions are doing so without the appreciation of what they are talking about. There is real disaffection with the imposition of a housing policy which is seen as not catering for local people at all and a sense that even if they covered “Cornwall in concrete from the Tamar to Tresco, they’d still want more!”

Interestingly, there is a strong feeling that there is a wider problem here – not just one of Westminster v Cornwall, but Urban v Rural, with countryside management and infrastructure policy being dictated by people based in urban areas with no idea how this impacts on rural communities.

One of the assertions that I have put to people so far was whether or not they felt that the fact that all six of Cornwall’s MPs are Conservative was a consequence of the large numbers of non-indigenous Cornish now voting in parliamentary elections for Cornish constituencies. Generally speaking, the feeling so far is that this is not the case. Cornwall, it seems, will vote for the candidate that it believes is most likely to put Cornwall first and their particular party second. This was something that probably did for the Liberal Democrats in the last General Election. Cornwall has been a Liberal stronghold since time time immemorial, but after going into coalition with the Conservative party, a large number of people I have spoken to so far feel along the lines of this opinion: “They became Westminster-ised and went too far…they went away from their roots.” You may be forgiven for thinking that if the favoured candidate in Cornwall is one who will always put Cornwall ahead of internal party politics, then Mebyon Kernow should be a shoo-in for a seat at Westminster. However, it seems that the party is just not taken seriously by the vast majority of the Cornish population. They are seen as a bit of a token effort, and, with the exception of two of their regular candidates, not seen as being worthy of voting for. There also has been the point raised that the relationship between Truro and the rest of Cornwall is not good. There is a sense that East Cornwall and West Cornwall simply do not have the same viewpoints about topics, and the danger of this is that if Cornwall cannot come together as one entity, it cannot be taken seriously in London.

In terms of the Cornish language, almost everyone agrees that, at present it is a language that is only really spoken in arranged social gatherings (apart from the small number of families who are completely fluent). Despite this, there is huge respect for the language and a wide sense of just how important it is and how vital it is to preserve it and encourage its wider usage. With all these things though, there is a big difference between people enthusing over the language and actually volunteering to actively spread its use. A number of people have noted concerns about those who may be termed “the gatekeepers” of the language. It has been asserted that such people are of the opinion that “you speak the language proper or not at all” and that using a few words here and there in English sentences or as slang is not something that should be done. Despite this, the people I spoke to who have concerns over language gatekeepers, said it would not put them off trying to use more of the language because, at the end of the day it was about furthering their sense of Cornish identity and that was the most important thing.

What do you think about these topics? Why not have your say by replying to this post OR WHY NOT ATTEND ONE OF THE FOCUS GROUPS IN CORNWALL OVER THE NEXT TEN DAYS AT THESE VENUES:

The locations are:

Penryn – Penryn Rugby Club Clubhouse, Kernick Road, Penryn TR10 8NT  Friday 10th February 7:00pm

Redruth – Cornish Studies Library, Alma Place, Redruth TR15 2AT  Saturday 11th February 10:30am

Rescorla – Rescorla Centre, 10 Hallaze Rd, Penwithick, St. Austell, PL26 8UT  Sunday 12th February 2:30pm

Newlyn – Newlyn Trinity Methodist Church, The Orchard Room, The Centre, Chywoone Hill, TR18 5AR.  Monday 13th February 6:00pm

Among the topics that are likely to come up are:

– Status of the Cornish language.

What does it mean to be Cornish?

Experiences of people who have moved to Cornwall in recent times.

Cornwall’s relationship with Westminster.




  1. A J Pethick · February 3, 2017

    Ignore the continuing diaspora at your peril.


    • bgilby2014 · February 3, 2017

      Agreed! The diaspora and its spread is an integral part of what makes Cornish identity so strong and has, historically played such an important role in cultural and social movements overseas.


  2. Paul Fletcher · February 3, 2017

    I can only sum it up by saying ‘it’s changed’. A childhood growing up in Looe was, on reflection, somewhat idyllic – I seemed to know everyone in the town, if they were not blood relatives I still respectfully greeted them with Aunty X or Uncle Y , help was always at hand, I felt safe. I was proud to be Cornish and ‘go up to England’ (Plymouth) once a year at the end of the school holidays to get new school uniform. I remember the row my dad had at passport control on our first foreign holiday when my dad declared his nationality as Cornish! But it isn’t the same, incomers own the houses, the businesses, you don’t know their names, they walk past you in the street without acknowledgement, is it that the locals changed or is this how they are used to living – I accept change, as a young man I moved away to England to where I could afford a house, I am still proud to be Cornish albeit I emigrated!


    • bgilby2014 · February 3, 2017

      Thanks so much for this Paul – very useful info! Where did you emigrate to?


  3. Liz Hughes · February 4, 2017

    As a (West) Cornishwoman who moved to Australia in 1965, I still have that overwhelming feeling of being totally in the right place when I return. It is a very similar feeling to that described by Australian Aboriginals as that ‘love of country’ meaning the area belonging historically to their tribe (for want of a better word)


    • bgilby2014 · February 4, 2017

      Thanks so much for this Liz – really valuable information.


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