Cornwall is a place rich in tradition, legend and ceremony. The best known of these are the most attention grabbing – events like Padstow’s own Obby Oss, or Penzance’s Mazey Day. But there is another, altogether quieter, tradition that we think deserves celebrating.
A Cornish Revival
Gorsedh Kernow – the assembly of Cornish Bards – is an organisation that promotes Celtic history, culture and language. It comes from an ancient Celtic tradition that was revived in 1928 by the first Grand Bard, Henry Jenner, who had been inspired by the long established Welsh Gorsedd. Jenner had been instrumental in celebrating the Cornish language at the turn of the 20th century, writing A Handbook of the Cornish Language. He also successfully campaigned for Cornwall to become part of the Celtic Congress, joining languages from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Brittany and the Isle of Man.
Land of a thousand bards
Since then, there have been 1,000 Gorsedh Kernow bards, half of whom are still alive. One of the more recent is John Buckingham, the chairman of Padstow Museum. He was made bard at the annual assembly in 2017 and is very proud of the title. ‘The bard of the Gorsedh Kernow is a way of honouring people who made a contribution to the history and culture of Cornwall. I’ve been well aware of the significance of it for a long time – if you’re interested in Cornish history, you meet a lot of bards, they’re quite normal people otherwise.’
New bards are presented to the world at the Gorsedh ceremony in September. It takes place at a different outdoor venue each year, with the 2022 ceremony due to be held in Hayle. John (from the Padstow Museum) says that the event is quite an occasion. ‘It’s a bit like getting an MBE. You go along and you get your head dress put on and dress up like druids in long robes.’
An Eisteddfod for Cornwall
But even if you’re not part of the bardic ceremony, it’s well worth making the trip to Hayle for Esedhvos Kernow, a cultural festival that is billed as the equivalent of the Welsh Eisteddfod. Events include a book fair, a ceilidh, concerts, talks and the chance to learn the basics of the Cornish language.
How do I become a Cornish bard?
To be considered for the honour, you must first be proposed by an existing bard. Your nomination is then judged by the Gorsedh Council who are looking for people who have given ‘exceptional service to Cornwall by a manifestation of the Celtic spirit or by service to Cornwall’, and ‘to people who qualify by a high degree of proficiency in the Cornish language.’
You don’t necessarily have to live in Cornwall – there are bards living as far away as Australia and North America, who have been invited because of their work promoting Cornwall.
It also helps if you look good in a set of blue robes. Although this isn’t a prerequisite, as John says, ‘They’re not very practical – I trip over mine every year!’
Thank you to John Buckingham at the Padstow Museum for this insight. Read his interview with us about the Padstow Museum.