Why Cornwall is so different from its neighbouring counties

Cornish Flag with Kernow Text 3D Illustration

The Cornish Flag (minus Kernow) is instantly familiar - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Gool Peran Lowen! Happy Pirantide! This month's St Piran’s day is likely to be a quiet subdued celebration of Cornwall's patron saint

St Piran's Day falls on March 5, and although we will not be able to enjoy the public events and processions which normally mark Cornwall’s National day many organisations plan to go online with their celebrations. It is a strange irony of the times that this means celebrations will be accessible to Cornish people around the globe and the likelihood is that many more will be able to connect with their Cornish heritage than in previous years. Threats to homogenise Cornwall within a greater south west region rumble on and Pirantide is a good time to reflect on exactly why Cornwall is so different from our neighbours to the east. 

The flag of the English county of Devon

Devon county flag - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Somerset, Dorset and Devon have all created a county flag of their own in recent years which are a wonderful addition to regional colour and pageantry. At times we see them flown alongside the Cornish flag, but it is important to remember that we are not comparing like with like here.

The white cross against a black background of the St Piran’s flag has a quite different history and unique symbolism. It was already a long-established symbol of Cornwall’s distinct identity when described by Davies Gilbert in his history of Cornwall published in 1838. Gilbert’s book was based on a still older, unpublished history dated 1750. The symbolism of white, as molten tin flowing against the background of black rock takes us  still further back in time to the 5th Century and the legend of St Piran.

The story of St Piran is one of many interwoven themes, but the origin of the banner is that he discovered tin when accidentally heating a rock containing the ore so that it became molten and formed a white cross against black rock as it flowed. 

Dorset County flag, United Kingdom waving banner collection. 3D illustration

The Dorset county flag - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

An immediately obvious difference for the visitor travelling into Cornwall is the prominence of Celtic place names that have more in common with Wales and Brittany than Devon, Somerset, or Dorset. Not that those counties do not have equally fascinating place names, they certainly do, but the difference is that their origins lie in Wessex and not the Celtic world. Less visible but an equally important part of Cornwall’s distinctiveness that spreads beyond its borders are the Cornish surnames that we explored in February’s column.

The Cornish language is of course a dynamic part of modern Cornish identity and goes far beyond landscape and genealogy. With a rising number of people using Cornish along with bi-lingual signage the language is an increasingly important marker of our distinct identity. 'Brand Kernow' is something special that the Cornish business community has which is not shared over the border and our language also plays an important role here. 

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In historic times a separate and distinct Cornwall was acknowledged through institutions like the Duchy of Cornwall and included in the titles of Henry VIII. We saw an echo of this when the Cornish flag was included amongst the banners flown by the royal barge during the Queen's jubilee celebrations. In the modern world the Cornish people have been formally recognised as an ethnic minority alongside of the Scots and Welsh by the UK Government. 

Flag of Somerset is a county in South West England, United Kingdom of Great Britain

Somerset's county flag - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

This brings us to another important event in March, the 2021 census on 21st March. Can you record your ethnicity as Cornish? Well, the answer is that you certainly can. It is not the simple tick box that we had hoped for on the paper form and in section 15b ethnic group you need to indicate “other” and manually write in Cornish. You will also be able to indicate Cornish under ethnicity in the online version. Ethnicity is about cultural identity, about where your heart is and where you feel you belong and that should be your guide as to which box to tick. So, when it comes to the census, dare to be other, dare to be Cornish! Kernow Bys Vykken.
 

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