Ertach Kernow - Making a song and dance about us
We are now within a few days of St Piran’s Day celebrations, Cornwall’s National Day. This is an important date in Cornwall’s calendar, which hopefully, Cornish folk will remember. Sadly, this year this will happen without the traditional parades and physical celebrations. Gorsedh Kernow is urging people to participate, albeit in a small way, with a call to ‘Fly a Flag for St Piran’ and flying a flag in your garden or a flag in your window.
It’s good to know that many folk who have come to live in Cornwall have embraced our heritage and will have had children born in Cornwall who identify as Cornish. Identifying as Cornish and actively participating in Cornwall’s heritage activities is important if we are to carry on Cornwall’s age-old traditions and culture. Numerous older Cornish people sadly grew up in an age where Cornwall’s cultural identity and activities were discounted as unimportant and discarded.
St Piran’s Day means different things to people. There are those that believe it is a religious event about St Piran, others that it is about politicising the event. Happily, large numbers believe in a wider context that it is about honouring one of our national saints as part of Cornwall’s National day, promoting and celebrating Cornwall’s unique status within the United Kingdom, and our rich historic, cultural and environmental heritage.
Here in Cornwall, we have much to shout about in respect to our Cornish culture. A resurgence in our language is seeing far more people speaking Kernewek, with ever larger numbers attending Cornish classes. Lockdown inevitably led to these moving online as part of the great Zoom revolution and this created even greater opportunities for folk throughout the world joining in. The Newquay Cornish Language Class has attendees from Spain, Boston Massachusetts and California joining those here in Cornwall. Online facilities have been boosted with the Go Cornish project led by Golden Tree Productions, which has a wide range of teaching material.
It's encouraging to see younger people taking real pride in our cultural activities such as dance and music. There are dance groups throughout Cornwall who participate in both traditional and more contemporary aspects of Cornish dancing. These include groups such as Kemysk Cornish Dancers, Hevva a traditional Cornish dance and music group and several groups carrying out traditional guise dancing.
The traditional male voice choirs are supported by many smaller groups singing traditional as well as new songs written in a similar vein, celebrating aspects of Cornish life and history. The number of groups writing and performing Cornwall’s version of Celtic music continues to increase. There is now a large number performing in Cornwall and throughout the Celtic nations at festivals and events often playing instruments that are not commonly seen, including the Cornish bagpipes.
Certainly, folk and Celtic festivals held here in Cornwall have been very successful and the musicians who have been held back from performing physically have been creative in moving online. Although this can’t make up for the physical excitement of attending a live festival or event, with all the buzz and ability to dance and interact with the music, it has enabled artists to maintain interest in their music.
Last year saw the creation of the online Kernow Bedroom Choir, organised between Daniel Woodfield and ‘Into Bodmin’. This project has been a roaring success in gathering people to learn Cornish songs, sing them at home, then a number of videos being produced for viewing online. The Cornish National Music Archive and Cornish music duo, Tir ha Tavas, along with the Kernow Bedroom Choir led by Daniel helped produce the recent virtual Wassel Kernow. This celebrated the age-old tradition of waking the apple trees to encourage a healthy harvest. A new project sees the Kernow Bedroom Choir singing a song written by acclaimed musician Gwenno Saunders. Members of the public are encouraged to join the choir with final submissions by 7th March. The new song ‘Meur ras Dhia Kernow' (Thank you from Kernow) will be available from 23rd March on sounduk.com.
Of course, Cornwall’s archaeology is a huge part of our heritage and ranges from the Neolithic stone chambers and quoits, through the Bronze Age and Iron Age hillforts, cliff castles and settlements. Settlements such as Chysauster and Carn Euny are well known as are the hillforts of Castle an Dinas at St Columb, Castle Canyke at Bodmin and Chun Castle near Penzance, with many others throughout Cornwall. Sadly. some of our cliff castles are being eroded by the sea and now can only be determined by a semi-circular ditch and embankment stretching out from the cliffs. One such cliff hill fort, Castle Crane, was observed by Dr William Borlase in the mid-18th century. The number of stone circles, quoits, standing stones, sites and other objects of interest from ancient times lie in the thousands. The ones that are of greatest interest to the public are usually managed by the Cornwall Heritage Trust.
The Cornwall Heritage Trust continues to do good work not just helping maintain sites of antiquity and historic interest, such as Trethevy Quoit and others, but also assisting in numerous projects through grants and resources. Primary school children are encouraged to visit Cornwall Heritage Trust managed sites with School Transport Grants to help cover costs.
Cornwall has the largest number of museums and archives of any UK local authority. They’re busy collecting and preserving artefacts, documents and images of all types. The relatively new Kresen Kernow has sadly been somewhat underutilised since its opening due to COVID-19 restrictions. This wonderful new building now houses all the collected documents that have been stored at different locations, including outside Cornwall, in state-of-the-art storage conditions with research facilities. Local town and village archives and museums house and share their local material.
I have written about groups such as the Cornwall Archaeological Society who have their representatives out in the field monitoring sites of historic interest and adding to the knowledge stored and shared on the Historic Environmental Register. This can be accessed online and with numerous organisations and volunteers feeding into it is a very valuable resource.
We in Cornwall have excellent facilities at Truro and Penwith College with courses backed by Plymouth University providing a degree course in Archaeology and a foundation degree course in History, Heritage & Culture. That the college is so proactive in running these courses is a positive step towards teaching and encouraging interest in Cornwall’s multi-faceted heritage sector.
Sadly, one aspect of Cornwall’s cultural heritage is in decline and that is our national dialect and accents. However, there are those throughout Cornwall who have worked hard over many decades collecting and sharing words, phrases and stories. Paul Philips and Trevor Smitheram from the ‘Old Cornwall’ movement have made great efforts as part of that ongoing work. This is part of a project that will be shared on the new Kernow Goth website over the next few months.
Here we can only touch on some of the wonderful historic, cultural and environmental heritage that Cornwall has. The forthcoming virtual festival, information online at www.newquaystpiransfestival.org will have many examples. The St Piran’s celebrations are a good time to reflect and appreciate all that we have here in Cornwall that is unique and to cry loudly ‘Kernow Bys Vyken’.