Celtic genes for Cornwall?

My Twitter and Facebook feeds have been awash with comment and reaction to the survey titled ‘The fine scale genetic structure of the population of the British population’ published in the journal Nature last week. The authors examined the DNA profiles of populations in different areas of the UK with a view to identifying historical migrations to the UK from various European locations, and Cornish commentators have picked up on the fact that the results show that the genetic structure of the sampled population in Cornwall clearly differs to the rest of England.

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 10.14.23

ABOVE: The genetic map of the UK produced by the survey taken from this BBC article

The study has been heralded as a victory by some, who regard the findings as conclusive proof that the Cornish are not English – with the Western Morning News’ article going so far as to say that this implies that we are ‘breeds apart’. However, the authors of the study also suggest that the genetic profile in Cornwall is actually much closer to groups in Devon and elsewhere in England than to groups in other mainland Celtic regions of the UK. Further, the study indicates that ‘the Celts’ that historically populated the British Isles actually comprise of several distinct genetic groups originating from different parts of Europe, rather than one homogenous group.

The publication has provoked a lot of (occasionally heated) discussion of Cornwall’s Celtic identity and as such the study, and reactions to it, is very interesting for me since I am currently examining how notions and constructions of Celtic Cornwall were used to promote patriotic sentiment towards Cornwall in the late 19th century. For me, this is an extremely tangled web of how concepts of race, language and culture interact with notions of identity.

This study seems to confirm some elements of the idea that the Cornish identity could be built on the idea of a Cornish race. However, I think that we have moved away from the concept of race as a qualifier for Cornish identity, simply because the term is too blunt – and potentially damaging – an instrument to describe a contemporary and diverse group of people who have different perceptions of what Cornish identity is. In my own case, I was born and brought up in Cornwall, but not bred – both my parents are from England who moved to Cornwall independently, met, married and settled there. I describe myself as Cornish because I feel that the place has unquestionably shaped who I am regardless of my parentage; yet genetically, I’m not one of those pink crosses west of the Tamar river.

In terms of linguistic identity, Cornwall’s own language (Cornish or Kernewek) is an important marker of identity. Once you get over the Tamar it’s obvious that place names in Cornwall are very different to those in England. For the growing minority of Cornish speakers, the debate continues to rage about whether, and if so, when, the Cornish language stopped being a spoken vernacular, and which version of the revived language speakers should use. Indeed there is a case that Cornish has never really died as it exists beyond the lifespans of its speakers (past and present) in the landscape. As a counterpoint though, there are plenty of people who would self-identify as Celtic (not just in Cornwall, but all over the UK, Europe and indeed the rest of the world) regardless of whether they speak a Celtic language or not. Who is in a position to deny self-ascribed Celts their claim to their perceived heritage on the basis of their linguistic ability? I’m learning Kernewek Kemmyn, but I don’t see why this would make me any more Cornish, or Celtic, than someone who is Cornish born and bred who doesn’t speak it. In fact in my research, I have come across the interesting alternative opinion that the revival of the Cornish language is a rather sectarian attempt at gaining credibility for a Cornish cultural agenda and simultaneously creates a false cultural elite. For some perhaps, to paraphrase Louis Armstrong, if you have to learn something to be Cornish, you’ll never know.

So, if racial/genetic and linguistic concepts are not necessarily solid foundations on which to claim or build Cornish Celtic identity, what about Celtic culture? Socially, politically, economically, religiously – Cornwall’s culture has obviously changed and developed over the intervening two thousand years since the Celts were in control of the area we now know as Cornwall, reflecting and reacting to broader cultural changes across the UK. So since we’re talking about a contemporary study based on contemporary population samples, what about the average person on a Cornish street or moor or beach? What elements of their culture would they say make them Cornish – and would they say that these are examples of Celtic culture? Does playing Cornish music make you Celtic? How does that music qualify as Celtic? Is singing in a male voice choir Celtic? Is playing rugby Celtic? What about wearing the Cornish tartan, even though it was invented in the 1960s? Are pre-work dawn surfs Celtic? Or do we ‘elect’ these activities as Celtic in our perception?

All these complicating factors make me question why being Celtic such a central and continual concern for Cornwall? Does Cornish identity automatically include or imply Celtic identity? These aren’t supposed to be silly or rhetorical questions; obviously, Cornwall’s Celtic heritage is a massively important part of Cornwall’s history and has informed (and been deployed within) academic and popular debate for hundreds of years. However, I don’t think that being ‘Celtic’ is the outside boundary of Cornish identity. Personally, I regard Cornwall’s Celtic identity as one of many integral components within a complex and evolving culture that extends a long way beyond Cornwall itself.

I suppose this post essentially asks lots of questions about a topic that there are a lot of very solid opinions about, but very few solid answers because they rely on individual perception rather than an universally accepted cultural manifesto. However, by identifying trends in opinion and performance, we can go some way towards understanding what cultural attributes have been important in Cornwall at different times, and what this tells us about how people perceived, performed and valued their Cornish identity.

Comments, questions and feedback all welcome!

2 thoughts on “Celtic genes for Cornwall?

  1. Interesting points – summarized by identity being a composite construct of place, culture and genetics. In your own case Neal might indicate an Irish or Scots link somewhere.

    One of the most poignant stories i’ve encountered relating to Cornwall is the Breton population of Brittany, something yer no doubt familiar with. If you look at the distribution of Breton speakers there is a distinct clustering west of Saint Brieuc (a “Welsh” priest of the early Celtic church)):


    This seems as clear an indication as any that these populations are descended from arrivals leaving Cornwall during the 5-6th centuries AD, the height of westward Anglo-Saxon incursions. Therefore a Cornish diaspora has been going on for many many centuries and there are a myriad of festivals celebrating Cornouaille identity & ancestry across Brittany at various times.

    If you look at S Wales, there were huge migrations of people from all over Britain & Eire during the industrial revolution, yet their descendants are staunchly “Welsh” in terms of how they see their ethnicity (even if generations of surnames dont include any actual Welsh surnames). Equally if you look further back at the history of Wales, both Irish and lowland Scots migrations are possible to trace through Ogam stones and the stories of the Sons of Cunedda.

    Furthe back again, archaeologists are still at war over whether Neolithic distributions along river valleys in & around 4000BC are the evidence of migrants (see Alison Sheridan) or local hunter-gatherers picking up cultural traits from the continents through acculturation (A Whittle).

    What Cornwall illustrates are the fault-lines between ideas of migration as far as the Tamar and acculturation, indigenous vs immigrant, which are popular themes throughout archaeology – a “local county for local people”? But “identity” is the result of all these processes formulating over many hundreds of years, to include intermarriage, language decline and social mobility, but place names & surnames are pretty good indicators of where things stand.

    I’m a tad skeptical of the Nature article, because another archaeo-genetics dept @ UCL has, for at least the last few years, promoted very different/binary oppositional evidence for Anglo-Saxon migration patterns – 1 of conquest and wide-scale slaughter of indigenous Britains (partially supported by battlefield records across the country and in olde Welsh bardic stories from Clwydd), and another advocating an elite takeover of post-Roman British native elites being supplanted by Anglo-Saxon hierarchies. Some of the best evidence comes through very early recordings of field systems in the midlands, using Anglo-Saxon field division systems that delineate families along parameters of British, Angle, Saxon & Jute ethnicity (and with every conceivable intermarriage mix of those groups possible covered in the time-frame allowed). So while the Midlands/Mercia (and modern Brum accent) were fusions of natives and newcomers, in places like Wiltshire, Somerset, Dorset (south of the M4) the accent is supposedly the result of English dialects spoken in the early courts of King Alfred.

    Like any cultural landscape, political and social concepts of inclusion & exclusion arise and parts of Celtic Britain are, at times, at the forefront of these debates. Eg: i can not apply for numerous jobs in my home nation because i’m not a Welsh speaker, even though my family can trace its ancestry back through west & north Wales for many centuries. Added to this is the whole problematical provenance of the word “Celtic” and its loose affiliations to cultural horizons during the early phases of antiquarianism during the last 300-400 years.

    Apologies for the mishmash of facts here, but its a truly fascinating subject and as a frequent visitor to both Cornwall & Brittany your article pricked my interest. Hopefully some of the above goes to show that we’ve been moving around for far longer than we realize and i’d alos recommed John Koch’s paper on the origins of Welsh/Celtic languages with Tartessian & the Atlantic facade, which Cornwall is in direct relation to:



    Good luck and as a fellow Cardiff post-graduate if you’d ever like to natter further re-some of these themes my email’s included in the post-box thingy above.

    Hope these comments have stayed within your own field of interest!

    1. Deiniol,

      Thank you for your insights and comments! Definitely within my field of interest (which is as broad as the day is long …) and especial thanks for the recommended reading – always keen to see this varied terrain from more perspectives.

      I’m intrigued that the UCL archaeo-genetics research presents an alternative perspective on Cornish genes regarding conquest and slaughter of Britons and the replacement of native hierarchies with an Anglo-Saxon elite. I think I came across a historical perspective that proposed something similar – I think it was an article by Prof. Mark Stoyle. I’ll have to check back for the right publication, but it’s very interesting that this reading may be supported by archaeological evidence.

      Absolutely, we perhaps tend to imagine large migratory groups as a relatively recent phenomenon but it’s important to recognise, as you say, the long history of population movement and the impacts this can have not only in historical record but in how we view that record. The Breton connection with Cornwall is really interesting – one of the earliest discussions I ever had about the Cornish diaspora brought up exactly this early migration, finally shedding light on the existence of the Cornouialle region that I’d been taught about in GCSE French! There are some really strong cultural links going on between the two, particularly in regard to music; for example, there is a contemporary folk group in Cornwall who essentially go on a musical exchange with a Breton group.

      I find the debate surrounding the word ‘Celtic’ fascinating – it still holds such cultural weight and is deployed to aid the most diverse of causes, even though its use and designation(s) have been debated, critiqued and deconstructed across the academy. Let’s natter about all this more, I’ll drop you a line. Hopefully we’ll meet in the department soon too – I’d love to hear about your research.

      Thanks again for such an interesting and thorough comment, best wishes, Kate

      (PS – My grandfather would have said that our Neale ancestors were Scottish pirates – always one for a good story – but I haven’t got far back enough yet to make any comment on that claim!)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.