Westminster must fully recognise the Cornish identity.

Onen hag Oll, oll adro (One and all, all around) 

By Phili Mills

Phili Mills argues that the Cornish ethnic identity matters. Westminster must explicitly recognize Cornish identity to show that the Cornish people are respected and included. However, the UK government has disallowed a full Cornish identity and, in the forthcoming census, Cornish people must still tick the box that says, ‘Other’. The UK Census does not currently allow an explicit ethnicity as Cornish as it does for other Celtic nations.


The ruins of a Cornish tin mine, photo Phili Mills


Kernow (Cornwall) can mean many things to many people, like a diamond, its multifaceted appearance allows glimpses through windows to alternative experiences.

In an article I wrote for the Cornwall Family History society, I described my genealogical search of far-flung family across the globe from an ancient Cornish line with a belief that “no matter where we travel, each day lived is a day nearer Cornwall, home and family”. Thus, the Cornish diaspora, wherever we are in this world, can still retain our cultural and ethnic identity. 

the Cornish diaspora, wherever we are in this world, can still retain our cultural and ethnic identity. 

The Cornish were known in Old English as Cornwalas (The Corn Welsh), which refers to the Celtic tribe of Cornowii / Cornovii, meaning “Peninsular people of the horn’. We have also been referred to in Old English as the Westwalas (West Welsh). Names for Cornwall have been Cernyw in Welsh, “Kernow” in Cornish Kernev (Veur) in Breton, while the Romans referred to Cornwall as Cornubia. The Cornish, Welsh and Bretons share a Brythonic Celtic language base. 


Granite monolith on the coast, photo Phili Mills

While the Welsh have the advantage of retreating from outsiders with the use of its official language and greater political control, Kernow struggles to retain its rights as a national minority status country and to use its own language in education, culture and everyday life.

Kernow struggles to retain its rights as a national minority status as a country and to use its own language in education, culture and everyday life.

Cornish identity has been maintained culturally by the diaspora overseas, including in places like Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada, S. America, Brazil, and Africa; many people in those countries being descendants of emigrants in the Victorian era of miners, following the closure of many mines in Cornwall. They were economic migrants who left due to poverty.

Cornish identity has also been adopted by some migrants into Kernow; these include intermarriage and the birth of offspring in Kernow. The UK Census does not currently allow an explicit ethnicity as Cornish (as it does for other Celtic nations).

The 2021 review by Westminster based government has decided yet again to disallow Cornish as an explicit identity.

The 2021 review by Westminster based government has decided yet again to disallow full recognition of the Cornish identity. Within Cornwall, some official forms allow this option. To be recognised as a member of a specific ethnic minority nation group on a census form in 2021 it is necessary to opt for ‘Other ethnic group’ and manually write ‘Cornish’ in the box provided. The percentage of those claiming Cornish ethnic and national identity are recorded on census returns.



According to the Office of National Statistics 2011, some ‘Other’ languages were found to be concentrated in local authority areas. Cornish had the highest concentration; 8 in 10 (500) people who reported Cornish as their main language who lived in Cornwall. Yet few people outside of Kernow reported being aware of the existence of the Cornish language. It’s interesting to note that in 2011, 33 people recorded Manx Gaelic as their language supposedly it went extinct in 1974.

Why does it matter to be able to identify yourself as your national minority or to own your own language? Well, your ethnicity is part of your identity and formed from your culture and heritage. Even if you are prevented from officially learning or using your language – for example in schools, on official documents, in law courts and as the 1st language for marriage vows.

You still have that connection to your culture and heritage. It is not so much a matter of nationalism so much as the opportunity to enjoy the variety of all ethnicities and cultures and give them equal value; to know that your community is valued.  

the Cornish are indeed a separate ethnic grouping, a Celtic Brythonic speaking nation of the British Isles, an ancient nation of Britain.

The 2012 study by Oxford university on the genetics of the British Isles is interesting as it states the Cornish are clustered separately from those of Devon, with the natural boundary (River Tamar) being the dividing line. DNA groupings generally show the historical boundaries and the migrations of those people. In 2002 the Cornish language was recognised by the UK government under part 11 of the Council of Europe (not EU), charter for minority languages after many years campaigning. In 2014, we were acknowledged by the UK government as a national minority under the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities. This should entitle the Cornish to more official support to use and promote our language and culture.

Where does this lead us? 

A Cornish, stone ladderstile gate, photo Phili Mills


The Cornish are indeed a separate ethnic grouping, a Celtic Brythonic speaking nation of the British Isles, an ancient nation of Britain. History shows that the Cornish were and still are economic migrants across the world; and yet, many still retain their links to Kernow and our heritage. An example of this retention are the Cornish of Australia where houses, roads, mines and townships bear Cornish names, where Cornish pasties and culture is still enjoyed with some family members returning to Kernow seeking their family heritage both online and in person. In Dell and Menhennet’s book of ‘Cornish Pioneers of Ballarat’, the ‘Cousin Jacks’ as Cornish are known, are noted as community minded and active wherever help is needed. 

Having multi ethnicities within the British Isles is good; we do however need to be mindful that each group has a right to know its heritage, its culture and language without hindrance.

Regardless of our ethnic grouping, or mixing DNA, our various cultures and heritage are an opportunity to share and understand each other, to delight in our variety and differences. Far from being a threat, it is that very opportunity to enhance our society, to educate and encourage greater tolerance of others. Diversity is positive. Having multi ethnicities within the British Isles is good; we do, however, need to be mindful that each group has a right to know and acquire its heritage, its culture and language without hindrance.


References:

  1. CFHS Cornwall Family History society Journal 157, September 2015
  2. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cornovii_(Cornwall) 
  3. https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/culturalidentity/language/art icles/languageinenglandandwales/20130304
  4. https://www.cornwallheritagetrust.org/timeline
  5. https://www.ox.ac.uk/news/20120703geneticmapbritaingoesdisplay  
  6. Who do you think you really are? A genetic map of the British Isles | University of Oxford
  7. https://www.cornwall.gov.uk/leisureandculture/thecornishlanguage/cornishlanguage/cornishlanguageoffice/cornishlanguage

status/#:~:text=The%20Council%20of%20Europe’s%20Charter%20for%20Regional %20or,of%20Europe’s%20Charter%20for%20Regional%20or%20Minority%20Langu ages.

  • Dell & Menhennet, Cornish Pioneers of Ballarat Vol 2, 1997, Cornish Assoc Victoria, Australia.


Phili Mills

Born like many in the Cornish diaspora, far from our homeland, living across the oceans; yet in a heartbeat the soul of Kernow comes alive in a song, a dialect phrase, a photo or memory. I learned a smattering of African languages as we moved around, but to learn any of my own mother tongue I used my father’s maps of Cornwall and listened to the words of Cornish songs.

The Art of Quoits

Art is my connection to the spirit of the Kernow and the remains of my ancestors, silent shadows of our ancestral heritage. Nature is in Kernow is imbued with a special quality, the landscape has its own life force, and its historic structures retain the ambience they held in former times.


Cornish heritage tapestry, Inside chun coyt, by Phili Mills

I use photography, painting and textiles to express the atmosphere and drama of Neolithic Quoits (Dolmen) by depicting the seclusion. And by depicting the prominence, of the view of the outer world from within the inner portals of the chamber.


A Cornish Quoit

Many Quoits are accessible only on foot or horseback. The opportunity to Sketch and photograph is decided by the elements, terrain and light. The power of nature controls our ability to visit these reminders of our human past and inspires me to capture those moments in time and space.

Africa has colour, vast expanses and a vibrancy of culture, yet Kernow slowly draws me in. These are my ancestral lands with their ancient myths, legends, landscapes, sounds and magnetism. The more I have travelled far flung from Cornwall’s shores, the more I find myself drawn back to it. Montessori’s theory of child education (in the slums) alludes to how children can learn to overcome obstacles and difficulties by the very presence of them. Thus I have gained experiential learning and understanding and, I hope, a little resonance of the soul.