The Hymns and Carols of Christmas

Introduction To Cornish Carols

Ralph Dunstan, The Cornish Song Book (Lyver Canow Kernewek) (London: Reid Bros., Ltd., 1929), p. 83.


Editor's Note: Only carols relating to Christmas are included.
These represent about 1/3d of the total contents.


This section includes what I consider to be the best of the numerous Christmas Carols which have been generally or locally sung in Cornwall, and they fall into four more or less distinct groups.

    1. Variants of Mediæval Carols;

    2. Folk-Carols (not numerous);

    3. The Redruth-Camborne Carols;

    4. Miscellaneous.

To these I have added a few others of Celtic origin which are worthy of general acceptance.

Type 3, the “Redruth-Camborne” Carol, is the true Cornish “Curl.” Its golden age of production was from about 1790 to 1850, and it is this type of Carol which was carried during that period by Cornish miners to every part of the world, and which is probably more sung at the present time in the “Cornish homes far away” than in most parts of Cornwall itself.

I wrote a historical account of Cornish Carols for the 1928 issue of Tre Pol and Pen, to which I may refer my readers (the “Ten Best” Carols I mention in that article are in this book). It will be sufficient to say here that Carols of this type were mostly composed in the great mining district stretching from Gwennap and St. Day to Redruth, Illogan, Camborne, Chacewater, Baldhu and Twelveheads; and they spread in all directions to Helston, Truro, Perran and the clay districts round St. Austell. The wave of musical expression which passed over Cornwall at that time no doubt reached every part of the county ; but the further we go outside the west-central mining region the fewer Redruth-Camborne characteristics appear in the Carol tunes. They become more “syllabic” in the setting of notes to words, and are altogether less contrapuntally-imitative in harmonic construction. Exceptions may be found; but this may be taken as the general rule (based on my own intimate knowledge of hundreds of examples.

Some of the Carols which now pass as “Cornish” probably came from Devon or Somerset — both highly musical counties — and it is not always possible to state their precise origin. For these, the description “West of England,” must suffice.

It should be added that the proper “musical atmosphere” of these imitative Carols can best be attained when they are accompanied by orchestral instruments (preferably wind instruments: flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon), and for this purpose I have given the old instrumental parts to a few of those which most especially need them. Of course, organ, piano and string instruments may also (or alternatively) be used. Not a few of the Carols are extremely effective when sung without any instrumental accompaniment and in a church or concert performance an occasional verse should be sung as an un-accompanied chorus or quartet. In many of the Carols, portions marked "p" were sung by a solo voice to each part.

Carol “Broadsides” were formerly printed at Helston and hawked by peddlers just before Christmas, at a half-penny. I have often seen them attached to the walls of cottages in the neighbourhood of my home. They gave the words of the Cornish variants of Mediæval Carols ; and as time went on they included such words as were available of the Redruth-Camborne Carols. Later, these broadsides were replaced by small penny carol-books, published by Doidge of Redruth; and all prospective carol-singers had one of these in his pocket for several weeks before Christmas.

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