5 January 2007

Every year schools undertake a census of the ethnicity of their pupils. In January 2006 the results of this for over 72 000 pupils in Cornwall showed that about 23.7 percent were described as Cornish, presumably most of them by their parents. The proportion among primary pupils was in round terms 26 percent and among secondary pupils 20 percent. These are claims of identity by people, how people see themselves and their children.

A different ethnicity is one of the claims of nationalists in Cornwall for distinguishing it from the rest of England.

Ethnicity is a fluid word which can refer chiefly to culture but also to biological descent. It is no longer usual to use the word “race” so ethnicity covers some of what was referred to in the past as race and also culture.

Some nationalists distinguish Cornish people as an ethnic group on cultural grounds. The chief claims for the cultural distinctions put forward are:

(1) Cornwall was politically and administratively incorporated into England at a comparatively late and contested date. Some claim that Cornwall is still legally if not de facto independent of England and a country in its own right.

(2) People in Cornwall historically spoke one of the Celtic Indo-European languages, different from English, related to Welsh and Breton, and other Celtic languages in the British Isles, and now reconstructed and revived. The date of this language’s cessation in general everyday use is unknown and contested but is probably no later than the end of the seventeenth century in the west of Cornwall, the last area to use the language. The reasons for its cessation are disputed.

(3) As a development of (2), the modern culture of Cornwall is claimed to be Celtic and different from English culture (which some apparently see as uniform and undifferentiated) and an affinity, cultural and by some genetic, is claimed with other historically Celtic-speaking areas of Britain. The modern, distinctive manifestations of this Celtic culture in Cornwall, apart from language, are not clearly defined by its claimants or are, to me, unconvincing. Celticity is also used as a marketing tool in Cornwall.

The details of the claims in (1) are much contested; (3) is contested; and the language claim in (2) is accepted but the scale of the revival is contested. A survey in 2000 by MacKinnon/Government Office of the South West suggested that about 300 people spoke one or other of the varieties of the reconstructed/revived Cornish fluently and several hundred spoke it less than fluently. [EDIT: link removed as no longer working May 2011]

There is a long-standing view that a Celtic-speaking people arrived here in what is now called England in the iron age bringing Hallstatt and La Tene Celtic culture from central Europe; and that in the fifth century AD Anglo-Saxons from north Germany and south Denmark invaded and killed many of these Celtic-speakers and drove the rest to the west – Wales, Cornwall, Cumbria; Ireland and Scotland also remained outside the Anglo-Saxon influx. This fifth-century Anglo-Saxon adventus is the view basically told by Gildas in De excidio Britanniae (The ruin of Britain) writing in about 540 AD; and Bede, who was influenced by Gildas’s account, in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (Ecclesiastical history of the English people) written about 731 AD and naming Angles, Saxons, and Jutes as the migrants. Procopius writing in about 550 AD said that Britain had three peoples: Britons, Angiloi, and Phrissones, the last two being Angles and Frisians, I presume (De bello gothico). He also said that people from all three went back to the continent.

This traditional view was challenged in the last quarter of a century. The evidence from archeology and historical writings is inconclusive but some believe that the adventus was a migration here by a smaller elite; the culture was changed without the significant replacement of population. See also the reference below to work by Mark Thomas and others (2006).

Popularly now the present and past Celtic-speaking people are called Celts – the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle called them Welsh – though most Celtic scholars affirm that Celts are a linguistic and not a genetic, biological group. No one has explained satisfactorily how the Celtic language was replaced so thoroughly by English.

Some modern research has questioned the claim of a uniform Celtic people and culture in Britain, though not of the existence of Celtic-speaking peoples. This is another contested area – see work by, for example, John Collis and Simon James.

The claim for the genetic distinction is that in the past and in the present people in Cornwall were genetically different from people in the rest of England and genetically similar to people in historically Celtic-speaking areas such as Wales. The term indigenous is sometimes used to describe these distinct Cornish people and they are usually described as Celts (which is another contested word when applied to people rather than language). Descent is an identifier of Cornish people used by some nationalists; others stress cultural identity rather than biology.

Several recent surveys of the genetic inheritance of the people of Britain and Ireland have looked at the distribution of ethnic genes and these surveys are not easily reconciled. They do not enable a clear settlement of the question of whether the Anglo-Saxon adventus in the fifth century AD was the first migration of Germanic people into England and whether it was a substantial migration or a smaller one of an elite.

Questions are raised too about the origins of the Celtic-speaking people here and whether they are the indigenous people of Britain, that is the first people to settle here permanently after the last ice age in paleolithic times, or a later migration. There is much that is not yet definite.

Research by Cristian Capelli and others was published in ‘A Y chromosome census of the British Isles’ in Current biology journal for 27 May 2003, volume 13, issue 11, pages 979-984. One may read it here.

This research looked at twenty five sites in the British Isles and distinguished Anglo-Saxon (North German and Danish), Norwegian, and indigenous inheritances. They found that the indigenous population was not wholly displaced by an Anglo-Saxon migration anywhere in Britain and that in the south of England the population is “predominantly indigenous.” The results from the Cornwall samples fell midway between indigenous and Anglo-Saxon predominant areas.

See here for research by ME Weale and others in 2002 which found a difference between males in central England and north Wales which, they argued, suggested a large scale migration of male Anglo-Saxons into central England but not north Wales : ‘Y chromosome evidence for Anglo-Saxon mass migration’ in Molecular biology and evolution (2002), volume 19, pages 1008-1021.

These studies seem to require an Anglo-Saxon male migration larger than some consider likely. Mark G Thomas and others (2006) have suggested that an apartheid-like arrangement could explain the Anglo-Saxon ascendancy without an initial very large immigration. Read it here.

Research by Brian McEvoy and others was published in the America journal of human genetics as ‘The longue duree: multiple genetic marker systems and Celtic origins on the Atlantic facade of Europe,’ October 2004, volume 75, number 4, pages 693-702. One may read it through this website.

This McEvoy research challenged the view that the origins of Celtic-speaking people lie in central Europe and concluded that there was a common ancestry in the Atlantic coastal area of Europe from northern Spain to western Scandinavia dating from about 10 000 BC, the end of the last ice age.

The latest research chronologically is ‘Myths of British ancestry’ by Stephen Oppenheimer, a summary in Prospect magazine for October 2006, pages 50-53. One may read it here. His book is The origins of the British: a genetic detective story. Oppenheimer argues in his Prospect article that most of the genetic inheritance of the present British (English, Scottish, Welsh, and Cornish) and Irish comes from the hunter-gatherer migrants from what is now Spain and that Celtic-speaking people and Anglo-Saxons are later arrivals who had little impact on our genetic inheritance. He asserts that Celts, Anglo-Saxons and later arrivals, “are all minorities in the modern British gene pool” (‘What does being British mean? Ask the Spanish’ in the Daily Telegraph 10 October 2006.)

These studies leave one uncertain: more evidence is required before a settled view can be stated. Much is contended.

See also the post of 9 October 2007 How many are Cornish?