Cornwall as an ‘almost island’

Philip Hayward and Christian Fleury, ‘Bounded by heritage and the Tamar: Cornwall as “almost an island”’, Island Studies Journal 15 (2020), pp.223-236.

‘Almost islands’, it is argued here, are geo-cultural entities in their own right. This article explores Cornwall’s status as almost an island. It points out how the ‘almost an island’ trope is not restricted to the popular imagination but has been widely adopted by novelists, journalists and those engaged in academic work. Moreover, it holds a particular appeal for two groups that, on the surface at least, may seem to to have little in common.

The late Ronald Perry first pointed out how there was a degree of collusion and overlap between those promoting tourism and Celtic revivalists, this occurring in the Edwardian period. Both benefit from characterisations that emphasise ‘distinction and difference’ over ‘connection and shared experiences’. It appears that this overlap or collusion is still ongoing.

The tourist lobby has successfully adopted tropes of almost-islandness to increase Cornwall’s attraction. Since the 1950s the result has been an inflow of tourists, retirees and migrants. Meanwhile, pro-autonomy activists have also employed Cornwall’s near-island status to make comparisons with real islands. Mann or the Channel Islands are referred to as islands that have a measure of constitutional independence, although in reality their constitutional status is a result of their history rather than their islandness.

While it is in the interests of both pro-tourism and pro-autonomy groups to imagine Cornwall as ‘almost an island’ this article points out how its near island status has different implications for each group. For the Cornish activist there is an element of wistfulness, the ‘almost’ implying a missed opportunity. For the tourism marketer ‘almost’ has ‘substantial value’, as the fact that Cornwall is not actually an island allows hordes of tourists to travel easily to it.

The article is an intriguing addition to the literature on the interactions between cultural and political activists and the tourist lobby in Cornwall, a relationship that calls out for further and more detailed investigation. What is not addressed in this article is the fundamental tension between the two. For the Cornish activist, identity claims rest to some extent on its river border but mainly on its ‘Celtic’ culture and history. The ‘success’ of the tourist entrepreneur in encouraging a massive influx of tourists and migrants from the mid-twentieth century raises important, though rarely discussed, questions around the sustainability and maintenance of that identity.

Further research would also benefit from a more knowledgeable stance than the one adopted in this article. This wrongly situates Cornwall, with Devon and Somerset as part of ‘The West Country’, a designation which was traditionally reserved for Wilshire, Gloucestershire and eastern Somerset. It also states that both Cornwall and Devon ‘share a Celtic heritage’ which is stretching the point somewhat. It says the Cornish language ‘flourished until the mid-16th century’ which is difficult to square with the collapse of Cornish-speaking in east Cornwall before the 1400s. It tellingly mis-spells the name Trevail as ‘Travail’.

 A pity as it raises some interesting questions.

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