24 Apr 2014

A wodhesta kewsel Kernewek? Cornish get minority rights

More than just pasties: there has been a Cornish king, a flag, and a language. No wonder Cornish people have just won “minority rights” in the UK.

Cornwall has a special place in the hearts of many Brits. Summer holidays, beautiful beaches, an excuse to eat clotted cream at 4pm and the most calorific sandwich substitute since the Scotch egg.

But now the region, and its people, really are special: they’ve been granted “minority rights” by the government. This means Cornish people will receive the same rights and protections as other minorities in the UK, alongside the UK’s other Celtic people, the Scots, the Welsh and the Irish. Government departments and public bodies will have to take their views into account when making decisions.

Communities Minister Stephen Williams said: “This is a great day for the people of Cornwall, who have long campaigned for the distinctiveness and identity of the Cornish people to be recognised officially.

“The Cornish and Welsh are the oldest peoples on this island, and as a proud Welshman I look forward to seeing Saint Piran’s Flag flying with extra Celtic pride on March 5 next year.”

So what makes Cornwall and its half a million people so special, and so different? Here is a (by no means comprehensive) list. And we’re sorry it’s not in Cornish.

The language

Cornish is a language in its own right – Kernewek – although the United Nations was not convinced it was still alive, marking it as “extinct” for a while until it overturned this decision in 2010. The last speaker to use Cornish as a first language is said to be Dolly Pentreath, who died in 1777, although this is disputed.

The language has made a comeback in recent years, with a standard written form for use in schools and public life agreed in 2008. So is it a dead language? Giss on!(Don’t talk rubbish! – apparently).

The king

Yes, Cornwall was a kingdom, from around the 6th century. However, after King Dungarth of Cerniu (Cornwall) drowned in the River Fowey in 875D, the area fell under Saxon control and eventually King Athelstan united Cornwall with the rest of England, calling himself “Rex Totius Britannae”, king of all Britain. Poor Dungarth is, thus, the last known independent King of Cornwall.

Well, apart from contemporary comedian and campaigner Edward Rowe, also known as the Kernow King, who responded to the news that Cornish people would be granted minority rights with the following remarks: “I think there is always going to be a certain degree of pessimism when politicians are involved – are they going to be chasing votes, for example. But it is great for Cornwall to get the recognition for its culture and heritage that it deserves.”

The food

It’s arguably the most famous Cornish export: the pasty. The first references to it come during the 13th century, although it really came of age in Cornwall in the 1800s.

A genuine pasty has a ‘D’ shape and is crimped on one side, with a filling of beef, swede, potato and onion. And since 2011, it has to be made in Cornwall – the European Union gave the humble pasty “protected geographical indication” status in 2011.

The people

In 2012 a study found that Welsh and Cornish people can claim to be the “purest Britons” – from the point of view of DNA at least. They are seen as the most genetically distinct, possibly because they are a “relic” population, tracing their ancestry back to the tribes which came to Britain after the last Ice Age 10,000 years ago.

The symbols

Cornwall has its own flag, a white cross on a black background. And it has had it for a while: the first definitive reference to it was in 1838. The flag itself was the banner of Cornwall’s patron saint, Saint Piran.

He’s the patron saint of tin miners and, as communities minister Stephen Williams said, his saint day is 5 March. There is also Cornish tartan.

The geography

Right at the bottom of the United Kingdom, Cornwall is cut off by geography from the rest of the UK. The county’s one city, Truro, is 218 miles from London as the crow flies – or around 284 miles by road. That’s about as far away as Paris.

The prejudice

If the Cornish people need “minority rights”, that must be because until now, people have been abusing them, right? Well, possibly. There are certainly some who feel that the Cornish have been prejudiced against, and the BBC upset a few people recently with some slightly dodgy accents in its adaptation of Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn.

However, campaigners for the new rights focused more on giving the region special status, including economic concessions such as reductions in fuel duty, in recognition of its location and heritage.

But maybe they are still smarting from old barbs. When the aforementioned Athelstan (Rex Totius Britannae) embarked on his campaign to unite the UK, that did occasionally mean a bit of evicting people as well – notably the Cornish from Exeter in around 927 AD.

This event was later described by William of Malmesbury like this: “Exeter was cleansed of its defilement by wiping out that filthy race.”

Bit harsh.