British Isles

2008/9 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Geography of Great Britain

British Isles

The British Isles in relation to mainland Europe
Location Western Europe
Total islands 6,000+
Major islands Great Britain and Ireland
Area 315,134 km² 121,673 sq mi
Highest point Ben Nevis (1,344 m (4,409 ft))
Flag of Guernsey Guernsey
Largest city St. Peter Port
Flag of the Isle of Man Isle of Man
Largest city Douglas
Flag of Ireland Ireland
Largest city Dublin
Flag of Jersey Jersey
Largest city St. Helier
Flag of the United Kingdom United Kingdom
Largest city London
Population ~65 million
Density /km²
Ethnic groups Britons, English, Irish, Scottish, Ulster-Scots, Welsh, Cornish, Channel Islanders, Manx

The British Isles ( Irish: variously Na hOileáin Bhriotanacha, Oileáin Iarthair Eorpa, Éire agus an Bhreatain Mhór; Manx: Ellanyn Goaldagh; Scottish Gaelic: Eileanan Breatannach; Welsh: Ynysoedd Prydain) are a group of islands off the northwest coast of continental Europe which comprise Great Britain, Ireland and a number of smaller islands. The term British Isles is controversial in relation to Ireland, where many people may find the term offensive or objectionable; the Irish government also discourages its usage.

There are two sovereign states located on the islands: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and Ireland. The group also includes the Crown dependencies of the Isle of Man and, by tradition, the Channel Islands, although the latter are not physically a part of the archipelago. There are other common uncertainties surrounding the extent, names and geographical elements of the islands.

Alternative names and descriptions

Several different names are currently used to describe the islands.

Dictionaries, encyclopaedias and atlases that use the term British Isles define it as Great Britain, Ireland and adjacent islands, typically including the Isle of Man, the Hebrides, Shetland, Orkney. Some definitions include the Channel Islands.

Many major road and rail maps and atlases use the term "Great Britain and Ireland" to describe the islands, although this may be ambiguous regarding the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. Another alternative name is "British-Irish Isles".

In addition, the term "British Isles" is itself used in widely varying ways, including as an effective synonym for the UK or for Great Britain and its islands, but excluding Ireland. Media organisations like the The Times and the BBC have style-guide entries to try to maintain consistent usage, but these are not always successful.

Encyclopædia Britannica, the Oxford University Press - publishers of the Oxford English Dictionary - and the UK Hydrographic Office (publisher of Admiralty charts) have all occasionally used the term "British Isles and Ireland" (with Britannica and Oxford contradicting their own definitions of the "British Isles"), and some specialist encyclopedias also use that term. The BBC style guide's entry on the subject of the British Isles remarks, "Confused already? Keep going." The Economic History Society style guide suggests that the term should be avoided.

Other descriptions for the islands are also used in everyday language, examples are: "Great Britain and Ireland", "UK and Ireland", and "the British Isles and Ireland". Some of these are used by corporate entities and can be seen on the internet, such as in the naming of Yahoo UK & Ireland, or such as in the 2001 renaming of the British Isles Rugby Union Team to the current name of the " British and Irish Lions".

As mentioned above, the term "British Isles" is controversial in relation to Ireland. One map publisher recently decided to abandon using the term in Ireland while continuing to use it in Britain. The Irish government is opposed to the term "British Isles" and says that it "would discourage its usage".


Also, see the section on the geography of the Channel Islands.
Satellite Image of the British Isles (excluding Orkney and Shetland); close to the coast of France
Satellite Image of the British Isles (excluding Orkney and Shetland); close to the coast of France

There are more than 6,000 islands in the group, the largest two being Great Britain and Ireland.

Great Britain is to the east and covers 216,777 km² (83,698 square miles), over half of the total landmass of the group.

Ireland is to the west and covers 84,406 km² (32,589 square miles).

The largest of the other islands are to be found in the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland to the north, Anglesey and the Isle of Man between Great Britain and Ireland, and the Channel Islands near the coast of France.

See also:

  • List of islands of England
  • List of islands of Ireland
  • List of islands of Isle of Man
  • List of islands of Scotland
  • List of islands of Wales

The islands are at relatively low altitudes, with central Ireland and southern Great Britain particularly low lying: the lowest point in the islands is the Fens at −4  m (−13  ft). The Scottish Highlands in the northern part of Great Britain are mountainous, with Ben Nevis being the highest point in the British Isles at 1,344 m (4,409 ft). Other mountainous areas include Wales and parts of the island of Ireland, but only seven peaks in these areas reach above 1,000 m (3,281 ft). Lakes on the islands are generally not large, although Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland is an exception, covering 381 km² (147 square miles); the largest freshwater body in Great Britain is Loch Lomond at 71.1 km² (27.5 square miles). Neither are rivers particularly long, the rivers Severn at 354 km (219 miles) and Shannon at 386 km (240 miles) being the longest.

The British Isles have a temperate marine climate, the North Atlantic Drift ("Gulf Stream") which flows from the Gulf of Mexico brings with it significant moisture and raises temperatures 11 ° C (20 ° F) above the global average for the islands' latitudes. Winters are thus warm and wet, with summers mild and also wet. Most Atlantic depressions pass to the north of the islands, combined with the general westerly circulation and interactions with the landmass, this imposes an east-west variation in climate.


Heathrow is the busiest airport of Europe in terms of passenger traffic and the Dublin-London route is the busiest air route of Europe, and the second-busiest in the world. Europe's two largest low-cost airlines, Ryanair and easyJet, operate from Ireland and Britain respectively.

The English Channel and the southern North Sea are the busiest seaways in the world. The car ferry, M/F Ulysses, traveling the Irish Sea is the largest in the world. The Channel Tunnel, opened 1994, links Great Britain to France and is the second-longest rail tunnel in the world. The idea of building a tunnel under the Irish Sea has been raised since 1895, when it was first investigated, but is not considered to be economically viable. Several potential Irish Sea tunnel projects have been proposed, most recently the Tusker Tunnel between the ports of Rosslare and Fishguard proposed by The Institute of Engineers of Ireland in 2004. A different proposed route is between Dublin and Holyhead, proposed in 1997 by a leading British engineering firm, Symonds, for a rail tunnel from Dublin to Holyhead. Either tunnel, at 80 km, would be by far the longest in the world, and would cost an estimated €20 billion. A proposal in 2007, estimated the cost of building a bridge from County Antrim in Northern Ireland to Galloway in Scotland at £3.5bn (€5bn). However, none of these is thought to be economically viable at this time.


An image showing the British Isles sitting on the north-west of the European continental shelf.
An image showing the British Isles sitting on the north-west of the European continental shelf.

The British Isles lie at the juncture of several regions with past episodes of tectonic mountain building. These orogenic belts form a complex geology which records a huge and varied span of earth history. Of particular note was the Caledonian Orogeny during the Ordovician Period, ca. 488–444 Ma and early Silurian period, when the craton Baltica collided with the terrane Avalonia to form the mountains and hills in northern Britain and Ireland. Baltica formed roughly the north western half of Ireland and Scotland. Further collisions caused the Variscan orogeny in the Devonian and Carboniferous periods, forming the hills of Munster, south-west England, and south Wales. Over the last 500 million years the land which forms the islands has drifted northwest from around 30°S, crossing the equator around 370 million years ago to reach its present northern latitude.

The islands have been shaped by numerous glaciations during the Quaternary Period, the most recent being the Devensian. As this ended, the central Irish Sea was de-glaciated (whether or not there was a land bridge between Great Britain and Ireland at this time is somewhat disputed, though there was certainly a single ice sheet covering the entire sea) and the English Channel flooded, with sea levels rising to current levels some 4,000 to 5,000 years ago, leaving the British Isles in their current form.

The islands' geology is highly complex, though there are large numbers of limestone and chalk rocks that formed in the Permian and Triassic periods. The west coasts of Ireland and northern Great Britain that directly face the Atlantic Ocean are generally characterized by long peninsulas, and headlands and bays; the internal and eastern coasts are "smoother".


Population density per km2 of the British Isles. Dublin and London, with respective population densities of 1,288 and 4,761 are shaded blue.
Population density per km2 of the British Isles. Dublin and London, with respective population densities of 1,288 and 4,761 are shaded blue.

The demographics of the British Isles show dense population in England, which accounts for almost 80% of the total population of the region. In Ireland, Northern Ireland. Scotland, Wales dense populations are limited to areas around, or close to, their respective capitals. Major populations centres (greater than one million people) exist in the following areas:

  • Greater London Urban Area (8.5 million)
    • London metropolitan area (12—14 million)
  • West Midlands conurbation (2.3 million)
  • Greater Manchester Urban Area (2.2 million)
  • West Yorkshire Urban Area (2.1 million)
  • Greater Glasgow (1.7 million)
  • Greater Dublin Area (1.6 million)
  • South Yorkshire (1.2 million)
  • Tyne and Wear (1.1 million)

The population of England has risen steadily throughout its history, while the populations of Scotland and Wales have shown little increase during the twentieth century - the population of Scotland remaining unchanged since 1951. Ireland, which for most of its history comprised a population proportionate to its land area, one third of the total population, has since the Great Famine fallen to less than one tenth of the population of the British Isles. The famine, which caused a century-long population decline, drastically reduced the Irish population and permanently altered the demographic make-up of the British Isles. On a global scale this disaster led to the creation of an Irish diaspora that number fifteen times the current population of the island

Population of Ireland since the Great Famine v Total for British Isles
Ireland British Isles  % of total Graph
1841 8.2 26.7 30.7%
1851 6.9 27.7 24.8%
1891 4.7 37.8 12.4%
1951 4.1 53.2 7.7%
1991 5.5 62.9 8.7%
2006 6.0 64.3 9.3%

Political co-operation within the islands

Between 1801 and 1922, Great Britain and Ireland together formed the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. In 1922, twenty-six counties of Ireland left the jurisdiction of the United Kingdom following the Irish War of Independence and the Anglo-Irish Treaty; the remaining six counties, mainly in the northeast of the island, became known as Northern Ireland under the Government of Ireland Act, 1920. Both states, but not the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands, are members of the European Union.

However, despite independence of most of Ireland, political cooperation exists across the islands on some levels:

  • Travel. Since Irish partition an informal free-travel area has continued to exist across the entire region; in 1997 it was formally recognised by the European Union, in the Amsterdam Treaty, as the Common Travel Area. There have recently been reports that the UK Government is planning to end this arrangement, although the details are not yet clear.
  • Voting rights. No part of the British Isles considers a citizen of any other part as an 'alien' This pre-dates and goes much further than that required by European Union law, and gives common voting rights to all citizens of the jurisdictions within the archipelago. Exceptions to this are presidential elections and referendums in the Republic of Ireland, for which there is no comparable franchise in the other states. Other EU nationals may only vote in local and European Parliament elections while resident in either the UK or Ireland. A 2008 UK Ministry of Justice report proposed to end this arrangement arguing that, "the right to vote is one of the hallmarks of the political status of citizens; it is not a means of expressing closeness between countries."
  • Diplomatic. Bilateral agreements allow UK embassies to act as an Irish consulate when Ireland is not represented in a particular country.
  • Northern Ireland. Citizens of Northern Ireland are entitled to the choice of Irish or British citizenship or both.
  • The British-Irish Council was set up in 1999 following the 1998 Belfast Agreement. This body is made up of all political entities across the islands, both the sovereign governments of Ireland and the United Kingdom, the devolved governments of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, and the dependencies of Guernsey, Jersey and the Isle of Man. It has no executive authority but meets biannually to discuss issues of mutual importance, currently restricted to the misuse of drugs, the environment, the knowledge economy, social inclusion, tele-medicine, tourism, transport and national languages of the participants. During the February 2008 meeting of the Council, it was agreed to set-up a standing secretariat that would serve as a permanent 'civil service' for the Council.
  • The British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body ( Irish: Comhlact Idir-Pharlaiminteach Na Bretaine agus Na hÉireann) was established in 1990. Originally it comprised 25 members of the Oireachtas, the Irish parliament, and 25 members of the parliament of the United Kingdom, with the purpose of building mutual understanding between members of both legislature. Since then the role and scope of the body has been expanded with the addition of five representatives from the Scottish Parliament, five from the National Assembly for Wales and five from the Northern Ireland Assembly. One member is also taken from the States of Jersey, one from the States of Guernsey and one from the High Court of Tynwald (Isle of Man). With no executive powers, it may investigate and collect witness evidence from the public on matters of mutual concern to its members, these have in the past ranged from issues such as the delivery of health services to rural populations, to the Sellafield nuclear facility, to the mutual recognition of penalty points against drivers across the British Isles. Reports on its findings are presented to the governments of Ireland and the United Kingdom. Leading on from developments in the British-Irish Council, the chair of the Body, Niall Blaney, has suggested a name-change and that the body should shadow the British-Irish Council's work.


History of the British Isles

By chronology

  • Modern:
    • History of the United Kingdom
    • Ireland
      • History of Ireland
      • History of Northern Ireland
      • History of Ireland (1801–1922)
      • Irish Free State
    • History of Wales

By country

  • England
  • Ireland
    • Northern Ireland
    • Republic of Ireland
  • Isle of Man
  • Scotland
  • Wales
  • See also:

By topic

  • Settlement of Great Britain and Ireland
  • Constitutional history: Britain, Ireland
  • Economic history: Britain, Ireland
  • Military history of the United Kingdom
  • History of English society
  • Maritime history of the United Kingdom

The British Isles have a long and complex shared history. While this tends to be presented in terms of national narratives, many events transcended modern political boundaries. In particular these borders have little relevance to early times and in that context can be misleading, though useful as an indication of location to the modern reader. Also, cultural shifts which historians have previously interpreted as evidence of invaders eliminating or displacing the previous populations are now, in the light of genetic evidence, perceived by a number of archaeologists and historians as being to a considerable extent changes in the culture of the existing population brought by groups of immigrants or invaders who at times became a new ruling élite.


At a time when the islands were still joined to continental Europe, Homo erectus brought Palaeolithic tool use to the south east of the modern British Isles some 750,000 years ago followed (about 500,000 years ago) by the more advanced tool use of Homo heidelbergensis found at Boxgrove. It appears that the glaciation of ice ages successively cleared all human life from the area, though human occupation occurred during warmer interglacial periods. Modern humans appear with the Aurignacian culture about 30,000 years ago, famously with the " Red Lady of Paviland" in modern Wales. The last ice age ended around 10,000 years ago, and Mesolithic hunter-gatherers spread to all parts of the islands by around 8,000 years ago, at a time when rising sea levels now cut off the islands from the continent. The immigrants came principally from the ice age refuge in what is now the Basque Country, with a smaller immigration from refuges in the modern Ukraine and Moldavia. Three quarters of the ancestors of people of the British Isles may have arrived in this wave of immigration.

Around 6,500 years ago farming practices spread to the area with the Neolithic Revolution and the western seaways quickly brought megalithic culture throughout the islands. The earliest stone house still standing in northern Europe is at Knap of Howar, in Orkney which also features such monuments as Maes Howe ranking alongside the Callanish Stones on the Isle of Lewis, Newgrange in Ireland, and Stonehenge in southern England along with thousands of lesser monuments across the isles, often showing affinities with megalithic monuments in France and Spain. Further cultural shifts in the Bronze Age were followed with the building of numerous hill forts in the Iron Age, and increased trade with continental Europe.

Celts, Romans and Anglo-Saxons

Early historical records of the islands, notably descriptions from Pytheas and Ptolemy, portray numerous named tribes while using Priteni or Pretani as an overall collective term, Hiberni for the inhabitants of Ireland and Albiones for those of Great Britain, though it is questionable if these people identified themselves with any grouping larger than the tribe. Later scholars associated these tribal societies with the Celts the Ancient Greeks reported in what is now south-West Germany, and sub-grouped their Celtic languages in the British Isles into the Brythonic languages spoken in most of Great Britain, and Goidelic in Ireland. They perceived these languages as arriving in a series of invasions, but modern evidence suggests that these peoples may have migrated from Anatolia around 7000 BC through southern and then Western Europe. Genetic evidence indicates that there was not a later large-scale replacement of these early inhabitants and that the Celtic influence was largely cultural. In the Scottish highlands northwards the people the Romans called Caledonians or Picts spoke a language which is now unknown and extinct. It is also possible that southern England was settled by Belgic tribes.

During the first century the Roman conquest of Britain established Roman Britain which became a province of the Roman Empire named Britannia. It included most of the island of Great Britain but never consolidating control over the highlands of Caledonia, and around 180 drew back to Hadrian's Wall with tribes forming friendly buffer states further north to around the Firth of Clyde and the Firth of Forth. The interaction of the Romans with Ireland appears to have been limited to some trade. From the 4th century raids on Roman Britain increased and language links have led to speculation that many Britons migrated across the English Channel at this time to found Brittany, but it has been contended that Armorica was already Brythonic speaking due to trade and religious links, and the Romans subsequently called it Brittania.

The end of Roman rule around 410 was followed by the formation of numerous kingdoms across most of Britain. Subsequent settlement in Sub-Roman Britain by peoples traditionally called the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes created Anglo-Saxon kingdoms ("the Heptarchy") over much of what is now Eastern England and south-east Scotland. Between the 5th and 10th centuries England was divided into areas of British and Anglo-Saxon control, with the latter gradually expanding westward. The Irish raiders known as Scoti attacked many areas of Britain, and that name was also used for Gaels from Dál Riata in north eastern Ireland and later to settlers from Ireland in western Scotland.

National formation

The Vikings arrived in the British Isles in the 790's with raids on Lindisfarne, Iona, and the west of Ireland. They provided another wave of immigration, settling in Orkney and Shetland and then Western Isles, Caithness, Sutherland, Isle of Man, Galloway, Northumbria, East Anglia and Mercia and founding the cities of Limerick, Waterford, Wexford, Cork, Arklow, and Dublin in Ireland. Wessex prevented the further expansion of the Vikings in England, and achieved a united Kingdom of England in 927, which was then ruled by both English and Viking kings until 1066. In 900 A.D. Donald II was the first king of Alba rather than king of the Picts. His successors amalgamated all the kingdoms north of the English border into the Kingdom of Alba, later known as the Kingdom of Scotland, and fixed its southern border on the Tweed in 1018 , approximating the current England-Scotland border. Wales, still divided following the Roman withdrawal, was divided into a number of Brythonic kingdoms, with the exception from one short period of unification, and also suffered from Viking raids in the tenth century.

Ireland, having like England and Scotland been divided among around eighty to a hundred petty kingdoms, began to slowly amalgamate into eight to ten provincial kingdoms by the tenth century. Nominally these were governed by a single High King, with the title floating between an ever fewer number of noble dynasties with increasing national authority. Viking influence in Irish affairs was crushed in the 980 Battle of Tara. Following the 1014 Battle of Clontarf, they turned their attention to Scotland and especially England, conquered by the Viking Canute the Great the following year. The same battle, however, resulted in the death Brian Boru, who had effectively united Ireland, causing a power vacuum and a series of bloody factional wars.

Norman immigration

The Norman Conquest of 1066 first brought England under Norman rule. The Normans would later extend their influence, in different ways, into Wales, Ireland, and Scotland. The Normans were centralisers and expansionists. Their lands within the British Isles were part of extensive holdings across north-Western Europe held within a feudal framework. Wales was brought under their control by the end of the 11th century, but not successfully held until 1283. In 1072 the Normans forced the Scottish king to submit to their feudal overlordship, something they would regularly assert during the mediaeval period. The Normans did not supplant the Scottish political structure, but had great influence over it, eventually supplying the kings of the Scots from 1150 and then asserting independence of the Scottish Crown from that of England. The Scottish Crown gradually gained control of Norse areas, annexing the Kingdom of Mann and the Isles in 1266, and Orkney and Shetland from Norway in 1472. In 1169, the Normans were invited to Ireland to aid a provincial king whose lands had been confiscated by the High King. Papal permission was granted, by the only English head of the Catholic Church to sit in Rome, Pope Adrian IV, for the annexation of the country, to be a feudal possession of the English crown, as the Lordship of Ireland. Although immediately transferred to the king's second son, this reverted to the English crown with John's unexpected accession to the throne of his father.

During the Middle Ages, the Normans slowly intermarried with the previous populations and adopted their language and customs. In England, the Anglicisation of the Norman elite was driven by the slow erosion of their lands elsewhere, but it was 1362 before Anglo-Norman gave way to Middle English to become the language of the law courts. In Ireland, a Gaelic resurgence at the close of the 13th century led the Norman to famously become " more Irish than the Irish themselves", adopting Gaelic customs, laws and language, intermarrying with the native nobility and rebelling against the English crown. The 1360 Statutes of Kilkenny were intended to stem this tide by legislating the death penalty for any Englishman (as the Normans were then known) who consorted with the Irish in this way. However, little could be done, save an expensive re-conquest, to bring Ireland back under English law and by the 15th century only a fortified twenty-mile (32 km) radius around Dublin, known as the Pale, was loyal to the English crown.

Protestant reformation and civil wars

The feudal system decayed and by the end of the sixteenth century was replaced by a system of centralised states. The English throne had come under the Welsh Tudors, who centralised government in England, Ireland, and Wales. In 1603 James VI of Scotland brought England and Scotland into personal union and promoted the existence of a modern British identity.

These changes happened at the same time as the Protestant reformation where the Roman Catholic church had been replaced by national churches to which all people were expected to adhere to. Failure to do so resulted in prosecution for recusancy and heavy fines, and recusants laid themselves open to accusations of treason and loss of land. By 1600 there was a wide range of religious belief within the islands from Presbyterian Calvinists (who were the majority in much of Scotland) and Independents to episcopal Calvinists (in the Church of Ireland and parts of Scotland) to Protestant Episcopalians that retained formal liturgy (especially the Church of England) to Roman Catholicism (which retained a large majority in Ireland).

James, and his son, Charles I, favoured political and religious centralisation and uniformity throughout the British Isles. They favoured episcopal, Armininian churches with a formal liturgy, which antagonised many Protestants. In addition, James, although he followed a policy of relative religious toleration, worsened the position of Irish Catholics by expanding the policy of plantation in Ireland, most notably in the Plantation of Ulster where forfeited lands from Catholics were settled by Scottish and English Protestants and by barring Catholics from serving in public office. Charles tried to force central, personal government. He attempted to bypass institutions he could not control and impose a uniform non-Calvinistic settlement throughout the islands.

The result was the First Bishops War in Scotland in 1639, when the Scottish Presbyterians rebelled against Charles' religious policies. The crisis rapidly spread to Ireland, in the form of the Irish Rebellion of 1641 and then to England, where Parliament refused to raise an army for Charles to fight in Scotland or Ireland, fearing that it would next be used against them. The English Civil War broke out in 1642. Collectively, these conflicts are known as the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, a shifting series of conflicts and alliances within Britain and Ireland. The King's supporters were known as the Royalists and had forces in England, Scotland (mostly episcopalian and Catholic highlanders), and Ireland. The English Parliamentary forces (mostly presbyterian and independents) fought against them, but were defeated in England by 1645. The Scottish presbyterians (the Covenanters) were allied to the English Parliament, while the Irish Catholic Confederates were loosely allied with the Royalists.

By 1649 Parliamentary forces ruled England and executed Charles and the Covenanters had secured Scotland. An alliance between the Catholic Confederates and the Royalists in Ireland resulted in the parliamentary conquest of Ireland, followed by a brutal guerrilla campaign which officially ended in 1653. Charles II repudiated the Irish alliance in 1650 in order to enter one with the Covenanters instead and invaded England. He was defeated in 1651 and the result was that the entire British Isles were brought under the English parliamentary army. There was religious toleration of Protestant denominations (though no episcopalian church), but Catholics were strongly repressed. In Ireland they were disenfranchised and dispossessed with Catholic land ownership dropping from 60% to 8% and their land was confiscated to pay off the Parliament's debts. Some of the land was given to another wave of Protestant immigrants, especially former soldiers, but these were not sufficient to replace the existing Irish, so Ireland became a land largely owned by Protestant landlords with Catholic tenants.

The return of the Stuarts

The restoration of Charles II in 1660 reversed many of the Commonwealth measures: the three kingdoms were separated again, the episcopalian Churches of England and Ireland re-established, a Presbyterian Church of Scotland established, and Protestant nonconformism repressed. A small proportion of the confiscated lands in Ireland were restored, bringing Catholic ownership up to 20%. 1685 brought Charles' brother, James II, a Catholic, to the thrones. James suspended the laws discriminating against those not adhering to the national churches; but he attempted personal rule with a large standing army and heavy-handedly attempted to replace Anglicans with Catholics. This alienated the English establishment who invited the Dutch William, Prince of Orange to depose James in favour of his daughter, Mary. On William's landing, James fled first to France and then to Ireland where the government remained loyal to him. Here he was defeated, and the position of the Protestant Ascendancy cemented with the imposition of Penal Laws there that effectively denied nearly all Catholics (75% of the population) any sort of power or substantial property.

James and his descendants attempted to recover the throne several times over the next sixty years, but failed to gain sufficient active support and were consistently defeated.

Kingdom of Great Britain and social revolutions

The 1707 Act of Union united England and Scotland in the Kingdom of Great Britain. The next century saw the start of great social changes. Enclosure had been taking place over a long period in England, but the British Agricultural Revolution accelerated the process by which land was privatised, commercialised, and intensively exploited, and caused it to spread throughout the British Isles. This resulted in the displacement of large numbers of people from the land and widespread hardship, including the Highland Clearances in which many of the residents of the Scottish highlands were systematically removed to make the land available for sheep farming. In addition, the industrial revolution saw the displacement of cottage industries by large-scale factories and the rapid growth of industrial towns and cities. The British Empire grew substantially, stoking the growth in industrial production, bringing in wealth, giving rise to large-scale emigration, and making London the largest city in Europe.

Social unrest and repressive government accompanied these upheavals. The ideals of the French Revolution were widely supported and led to a full-scale rebellion in Ireland. A result of the rebellion was the start of the end of Ascendancy hegemony in Ireland and its political unification with Great Britain in 1801. Unrest throughout the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland continued well into the 19th century, but was increasingly legitimised and able to find an outlet in Parliament from the Great Reform Act of 1832 onwards. The role of religion in determining political markedly decreased from the Catholic Relief Act in 1829 onwards. The social upheavals continued with widespread migration from the countryside to towns and cities and abroad. Ireland suffered a famine from 1845 until 1849 which resulted in its population dropping by a third through death and migration. This included large-scale movements to Great Britain, especially to the north west of England and western Scotland. Emigration from the whole of the British Isles overseas continued, especially to the English-speaking parts of the British Empire, the United States, and other countries such as Argentina.

The twentieth century

Prosperity increased in England through the nineteenth and into the twentieth century and politics became increasingly popular and democratic. The suspension of the Home Rule Act 1914, the subsequent Easter Rising, and the Anglo-Irish War led to the formation of the Irish Free State in 1922, which subsequently survived the Irish Civil War. The Irish Free State existed until a new constitution in 1937. The Irish state held dominion status until 1949, when it became a republic. During World War II, the Irish Free State stayed officially neutral under a state of emergency.

Six counties in the north-east were politically separated from the rest of Ireland under the Government of Ireland Act, 1920, forming Northern Ireland. They remained part of the United Kingdom with a devolved government until 1972 , when direct rule was imposed from London following the failure of a power-sharing assembly. There have been extensive periods of unrest in Northern Ireland which has seen several periods of direct rule in the subsequent decades as the parties within Northern Ireland failed to reach practical agreement on power sharing.

Within the United Kingdom there are devolved governments in Wales and Scotland, and in Northern Ireland although each has different powers.

Attempts at long-needed economic reforms by the UK government in the wake of the Great Irish Famine (1845-1849) resulted in mass migration from Ireland to Great Britain. Despite attempts by the Irish governments, north and south, to stem the tide, the pattern continued following independence, with notable post-independence spikes in the 1950s and 1980s. Since the mid-1990s Ireland has grown more prosperous and the Irish Gross Domestic Product per capita now exceeds that of the United Kingdom. Both the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland joined the European Economic Community (now the European Union) in 1973.

The end of the British Empire in the latter half of the twentieth century saw the end of large-scale emigration from Great Britain; instead, there was new non-Irish imigration to Great Britain, especially from the West Indies and the Indian sub-continent. Recently, with the accession of Poland and other former communist states to the European Union, there has been significant migration to both Britain and Ireland from eastern Europe.

Names of the islands through the ages

A 1490 Italian reconstruction of Ptolemy's Geography based on surviving latitude and longitude descriptions, showing Ibernia Britannica Insula ("Hibernia, Island of Britannia", Ireland), Albion Insula Britannica ("Albion, Island of Britannia", Great Britain) and Mona Insula (Isle of Man) separated from the European mainland by Oceanus Germanicus ("Germanic Ocean", North Sea) to the east and Oceanus Britannicus ("Britannic Ocean", English Channel) to the south.
A 1490 Italian reconstruction of Ptolemy's Geography based on surviving latitude and longitude descriptions, showing Ibernia Britannica Insula ("Hibernia, Island of Britannia", Ireland), Albion Insula Britannica ("Albion, Island of Britannia", Great Britain) and Mona Insula (Isle of Man) separated from the European mainland by Oceanus Germanicus ("Germanic Ocean", North Sea) to the east and Oceanus Britannicus ("Britannic Ocean", English Channel) to the south.

In classical times, several Greek and Roman Geographers used derivatives of the Celtic Languages term "Pretani", like "Brit-" or "Prit-" with various endings to describe the islands to the north west of the European mainland, although several included islands not currently viewed as part of the "British Isles", e.g. Thule. Later in the Roman era the term Britannia came to mean more specifically the Roman province of Britain.

Other early classical geographers and also later native sources in the post-Roman period used the general term "oceani insulae", simply meaning "islands of the ocean". Great Britain was called "Britannia" and Ireland was called "Hibernia" and also, between about the fifth and eleventh centuries, "Scotia". The Orkneys ("Orcades") and Isle of Man were typically also mentioned in descriptions of the islands. No specific collective term for the islands was used other than "islands of the ocean".

The term "British Isles" entered the English language in the seventeenth century as the description of Great Britain, Ireland and the surrounding islands, but was not in common use until at least the second half of the seventeenth century and, in general, the modern notion of "Britishness" only started to become common after the 1707 Act of Union. While it is probably the most common term used to describe the islands, use of this term is is not universally accepted and is sometimes rejected in Ireland.

Other descriptions are also used, including "Great Britain and Ireland", "The British Isles and Ireland", "Britain and Ireland", and the deliberately vague "these isles", as well as other less common designations like "IONA" (Islands of the North Atlantic), "The Anglo-Celtic Isles", etc.

Pretanic Islands and Britanniae

The earliest known names for the islands come from copies of ancient Greek writings. These include the Massaliote Periplus, a merchants' handbook from around 500 BC that describes searoutes, and the travel writings of the Greek Pytheas from around 320 BC. Although the earliest texts have been lost, excerpts were quoted or paraphrased by later authors. The main islands were called Ierne, equating to the term Ériu for Ireland, and Albion for modern-day Great Britain. These early writers referred to the inhabitants as the Ρρεττανοι, Priteni or Pretani, probably from a Celtic languages term meaning "people of the forms". , and Pretannia as a place-name was Diodorus's rendering in Greek of this self-description. It is often taken as a reference to the practice by the inhabitants of painting or tattooing their skin, though as it is unusual for an ethnonym or self-description to describe appearance, this name may have been used by Armoricans. There is considerable confusion about early use of these terms and the extent to which similar terms were used as self-description by the inhabitants. From this name a collective term for the islands was used, appearing as αι Πρετανικαι νησοι (Pretanic Islands) and αι Βρεττανιαι (Brittanic Isles). Cognates of all these terms are still used.

In 55 and 54 BC Caesar's invasions of Britain brought first hand knowledge, and in his Commentarii de Bello Gallico he introduced the term Britannia.

Around AD 70 Pliny the Elder in Book 4 of his Naturalis Historia describes the islands he considers to be Britanniae as including Great Britain, Ireland, The Orkneys, smaller islands such as the Hebrides, Isle of Man, Anglesey, possibly one of the Friesan Islands, and islands that have been identified as Ushant and Sian. He refers to Great Britain as the island called Britannia, while noting that its former name was Albion. The list also includes the island of Thule, most often identified as Iceland, although some express the view that it may have been the Faroe Islands, the coast of Norway or Denmark or possibly Shetland.

Ptolemy included essentially the same main islands in the Britannias. He was writing around AD 150, though he used the now lost work of Marinus of Tyre from around fifty years earlier. His first description is of Ireland, which he called Hibernia. Second was the island of Great Britain, which he called Albion. Book II, Chapters 1 and 2 of his Geography are respectively titled as Hibernia, Island of Britannia and Albion, Island of Britannia. Ptolemy included Thule in the chapter on Albion, although the coordinates he gives have been mapped to the area around modern Kristiansund in western Norway.

Following the conquest of AD 43 the Roman province of Britannia was established, and Roman Britain expanded to cover much of the island of Great Britain. An invasion of Ireland was considered, but this was taken no further and Ireland remained outside the Roman Empire. The Romans failed to consolidate their hold on the Scottish Highlands, and the northern extent of the area under their control, which at times was defined by the Antonine Wall across central Scotland, stabilised at Hadrian's Wall across the north of England by about AD 210. Inhabitants of the province continued to describe themselves as Brittannus or Britto, and gave their patria (homeland) as Britannia or as their tribe. The vernacular term Priteni came to be used for the barbarians north of the Antonine Wall, with the Romans using the tribal name Caledonii more generally for these peoples who after AD 300 they called Picts.

The post-Roman era saw Brythonic kingdoms established in all areas of Britain except the Scottish Highlands, but coming under increasing attacks from Picts, Scotti and Anglo Saxons. At this time Ireland was dominated by the Gaels or Scotti, who subsequently gave their name to Ireland and then to Scotland, where it still applies.

Oceani insulae

In classical geography. the world of the Mediterranean was thought to be surrounded by a fast flowing river, personified as the Titan Oceanus. As a result, islands off the north and west shores of continental Europe were termed (in Latin) the Oceani Insulae or Islands of the Ocean. For example, in AD 43 various islands, including Britain, Ireland and Thule, were described as "Septemtrionalis Oceani Insulae", meaning Islands of the Northern Ocean, by Pomponius Mela, one of the earliest Roman geographers.

This description was also used in indigenous sources of the post-Roman period, which also used the term "Oceani Insulae" or "Islands of the Ocean" as a term for the islands in the Atlantic and elsewhere. One such example is the Life of Saint Columba, a hagiography recording the missionary activities of the sixth century Irish monk Saint Columba among the peoples of modern-day Scotland. It was written in the late seventh century by Adomnán of Iona, an Irish monk living on the Inner Hebridean island. No Priteni-derived collective reference is made. Jordanes writing in Getica (AD 551) also describes the various islands, particularly in the western Ocean as "islands of the ocean", naming various islands in the North Atlantic, and believing Scandinavia to be one of them. Jordanes subsequently gives a description of Britain, but does not mention Ireland.

Another native source to use the term is the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum of Bede written in the early eighth century. Bede's work does not give a collective term for the archipelago, referring to Brittania solely as the island "formerly called Albion" and treating Ireland separately. As with Jordanes and Columba, he refers to Britain as being Oceani insula or "island of the ocean".

Isidore of Seville's Etymology, written in the early seventh century and one of the most used textbooks in Europe throughout the Middle Ages, similarly lists Britain (Britannia), Ireland (called Scotia or Hibernia), Thule, and many other islands simply as "islands" or "islands of the Ocean" and uses no collective term.

In the seventeenth century, Peter Heylyn in Microcosmus described the Classical conception of the Ocean and so included in the Iles of the Ocean consisted of all the classically known offshore islands, that is Zeeland, Denmark, the British Isles, and those in the Northerne Sea.

British Isles

The term British Isles came into use in English at the same time as the term British Empire.  This map shows the British Isles (red) at the centre of the empire (pink) at its height in 1897 where England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales are referred to as the Home Nations.
The term British Isles came into use in English at the same time as the term British Empire. This map shows the British Isles (red) at the centre of the empire (pink) at its height in 1897 where England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales are referred to as the Home Nations.

In his Historia Regum Britanniae of around 1136, Geoffrey of Monmouth responded to the slights of English historians with a theme of the sovereignty of Britain which exalted Welsh national history, portraying a once unified Britannia, founded by Brutus of Troy, defended against Anglo-Saxon invasion by King Arthur of the Britons who was now sleeping, one day to return to the rescue. By the end of the century, this adaptation of myths common to Wales, Cornwall and Brittany had been adopted in the service of England, with Henry II of England enthusiastically taking up Arthurian legend, and Edward I of England putting on pageantry to show the Welsh that he was Arthur's heir. The Welsh and the Scots Edward Bruce used the legends to find common cause as one "kin and nation" in driving the English out of Britain. Both Welsh rebels and English monarchs continued such claims, particularly Henry Tudor who had Welsh ancestry and claims of descent from Arthur. His son Henry VIII incorporated Wales into England, but also laid claim to be an heir of Arthur as did his successor Elizabeth I of England.

The rediscovery of Ptolemy's Geographia by Maximus Planudes in 1300 brought new insight, and circulation of copies widened when it was translated into Latin in 1409. This spread Ptolemy's naming of Hibernia and Albion as Island[s] of Britannia. The Latin equivalents of terms equating to "British Isles" started to be used by mapmakers from the mid sixteenth century onwards, for example Sebastian Münster in Geographia Universalis, a 1550 re-issue of Ptolemy's Geography, uses the heading De insulis Britannicis, Albione, quæ est Anglia, & Hibernia, & de cuiutatibus carum in genere. Gerardus Mercator produced much more accurate maps, including the British Isles in 1564. Ortelius, in his atlas of 1570, uses the title "Angliae, Scotiae et Hiberniae, sive Britannicar. insularum descriptio". This translates as "A Representation of England, Scotland and Ireland, or Britannica's islands".

The geographer and occultist John Dee, of Welsh family background, was an adviser to Queen Elizabeth I of England, and also prepared maps for several explorers. He helped to develop legal justifications for colonisation by Protestant England, breaking the duopoly the Pope had granted to the Spanish and Portuguese Empires. Dee coined the term British Empire and built his case in part on the claim of a British Ocean including Britain and Ireland as well as Iceland, Greenland and possibly extending to North America, using alleged Saxon precedent to claim territorial and trading rights. Current scholarly opinion is generally that "his imperial vision was simply propaganda and antiquarianism, without much practical value and of limited interest to the English crown and state." The Lordship of Ireland had come under tighter English control as the Kingdom of Ireland, and diplomatic efforts interspersed with warfare tried to also bring Scotland under the English monarch. Apparently Dee used the term Brytish Iles in his writings of 1577 which developed his arguments claiming these territories. This appears to be the first use of a recognisable version of the modern term.

Elizabeth was succeeded by her cousin king James VI of Scotland, who brought the English throne under his personal rule as king James I of England, and proclaimed himself as 'King of Great Brittaine, France and Ireland'. However, the states remained separate until the monarchy was overthrown in the civil wars of the Three Kingdoms and the Commonwealth of England briefly ruled all before the restoration of the monarchy restored separate states.

The Oxford English Dictionary states that the first published use in English of "British Isles" was in 1621 (before the civil wars) by Peter Heylin (or Heylyn) in his Microcosmus: a little description of the great world, a collection of his lectures on historical geography. Writing from his English political perspective, he grouped Ireland with Great Britain and the minor islands by three asserting points:

  • The inhabitants of Ireland must have come from Britain as it was the nearest land.
  • He notes that ancient writers, such as Ptolemy, called Ireland a "Brttiʃh Iland".
  • He cites the observation of the first century Roman writer Tacitus that the habits and disposition of the people in Ireland were not much unlike the "Brittaines",

Modern scholarly opinion is that Heylyn "politicized his geographical books Microcosmus ... and, still more, Cosmographie" in the context of what geography meant at that time. Rather, Heylyn's geographical work must be seen as political expressions concerned with proving or disproving constitutional matters and "demonstrated their authors' specific political identities by the languages and arguments they deployed." In an era when "politics referred to discussions of dynastic legitimacy, of representation, and of the Constitution ... [Heylyn's] geography was not to be conceived separately from politics."

Following the Acts of Union of 1707 the Kingdom of Great Britain and conflict with France brought a new popular enthusiasm for Britishness, mostly in Britain itself, and the term British Isles came into common use despite the persistent stirrings of Irish nationalism. A desire for some form of Irish independence had been active throughout the centuries, with Poyning's Law a common focus of resentment. After the hugely turbulent sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, a sort of nationalism surfaced among the Irish Protestant population and eventually lead to the legislative independence of the Irish Parliament under Grattan's Parliament - followed after the Act of Union in 1800 by renewed assertiveness of the Irish Catholics, who first agitated for Catholic Emancipation and later for Repeal of the Union under Daniel O'Connell.

Subsequently the Great Irish Famine, the Land War, the failure of William Gladstone and Charles Stuart Parnell to get partial independence or a Bill for Home Rule through the Westminster Parliament lead to the events of and the eventual total secession/independence of most of Ireland from the United Kingdom and the end of British rule in most of Ireland.


     Language branches     Modern languages     Typical spoken locationsA combined Venn diagram showing language branches, major languages and typically where they are spoken for modern languages in the British Isles.
     Language branches     Modern languages     Typical spoken locations
A combined Venn diagram showing language branches, major languages and typically where they are spoken for modern languages in the British Isles.

The ethno-linguistic heritage of the British Isles is very rich in comparison to other areas of similar size, with twelve languages from six groups across four branches of the Indo-European family. The Insular Celtic languages of the Goidelic sub-group ( Irish, Manx, Scottish Gaelic) and the Brythonic sub-group ( Cornish, Welsh and Breton, spoken in north-western France) are the only remaining Celtic languages - their continental relations becoming extinct during the 4th, 5th and 6th centuries. The Norman languages of Guernésiais, Jèrriais and Sarkese are spoken in the Channel Islands, as is French. A cant, called Shelta, is a language spoken by Irish Travellers, often as a means to conceal meaning from those outside the group. However, English, sometimes in the form of Scots, is the dominant language, with few monoglots remaining in the other languages of the region. The Norn language appears to have become extinct in the 18th/19th century.

Until perhaps 1950 the use of languages other than English roughly coincided with the major ethno-cultural regions in the British Isles. As such, many of them, especially the Celtic languages, became intertwined with national movements in these areas, seeking either greater independence from the parliament of the United Kingdom, seated in England, or complete secession. The common history of these languages was one of sharp decline in the mid-19th century, prompted by centuries of economic deprivation and official policy to discourage their use in favour of English. However, since the mid-twentieth century there has been somewhat of a revival of interest in maintaining and using them. Celtic-language medium schools are available throughout Ireland, Scotland and Wales to such an extent that it is now possible to receive all formal education, up to and including third-level education, through a Celtic language. Instruction in Irish and Welsh is compulsory in all schools in the Republic of Ireland and Wales respectively. In the Isle of Man, Manx in taught in all schools, although it is not compulsory, and there is one Manx-medium school. The respective languages are official languages of state in Ireland, the Isle of Man, Scotland and Wales, with equal status with respect to English. In the Channel Islands French is a legislative and administrative language (see Jersey Legal French). Since 2007, Irish is a working language of the European Union.

During the last 60 years there has been a great deal of immigration into Great Britain (less into Ireland). As a result a number of languages not formerly found in the British Isles are in regular use. Polish, Punjabi, and Hindustani (inc Urdu & Hindi), are each probably the first language of over 1 million residents, and a number of other languages are regularly spoken by substantial numbers of persons. Even in provincial areas it has become common for local government to publish information to residents in ten or so languages, and in the largest city, London, the first language of about 20% of the population is neither English nor an indigenous Celtic language. Cornish and the Norman languages of Guernésiais, Jèrriais and Sarkese are far less supported. In Jersey, a language office (L'Office du Jèrriais) is funded to provide education services for Jèrriais in schools and other language services, while in Guernsey there is a language officer and Guernésiais is taught in some schools on a volunteer basis. Of the four, only Cornish is recognised officially under the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages, and it is taught in some schools as an optional modern language. Guernésiais and Jèrriais are recognised as regional languages by the British and Irish governments within the framework of the British-Irish Council. Scots, as either a dialect of or a closely related language to English, is similarly recognised by the European Charter, the British-Irish Council, and as "part of the cultural wealth of the island of Ireland" under the Good Friday Agreement. However, it is without official status as a language of state in Scotland, where English is used in its place.

Shelta, spoken by the ethnic minority Irish Travellers, is thought to be spoken by 6,000–25,000 people, according to varying sources. Although evidence suggests that it existed as far back as the 13th century, as a secret language, it was only discovered at the end of the 19th century. It is without any official status, despite being thought to have 86,000 speakers worldwide, mostly in the USA.


See Sport in Ireland, Sport in the United Kingdom, Culture of Ireland and Culture of the United Kingdom.


A number of sports are popular throughout the British Isles, the most prominent of which is association football. While this is organised separately in different national associations, leagues and national teams, even within the UK, it is a common passion in all parts of the islands.

There are several sports popular in Ireland but not in Great Britain, and vice versa. Cricket, hurling and Gaelic football are probably the best examples of this. Cricket, while being very popular in England and Wales, is rare in Scotland and Ireland. Similarly, hurling and Gaelic football, although hugely popular across the island of Ireland and capable of regularly filling the 82,500-capacity Croke Park, the 4th largest stadium in Europe, are almost unknown in Great Britain.

Some sporting events do operate across Great Britain and Ireland as a whole.

The British and Irish Lions is a rugby union team made up of players from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales that undertakes tours of the southern hemisphere rugby playing nations every few years. This team was formerly known as The British Isles or colloquially as "The British Lions", but was renamed as "The British and Irish Lions" in 2001. In rugby one united team represents both Northern Ireland and the Republic. The four national rugby teams from Great Britain and Ireland play each other each year for the Triple Crown.

Since 2001 the professional club teams of Ireland, Scotland and Wales compete together in the Celtic League. Clubs in the English Guinness Premiership do not participate in the Celtic League.

Between 1927 and 1971 the Ryder Cup in golf was played between a United States team and a Great Britain team, although, in practice, a team representing Great Britain and Ireland. In 1973, the team was renamed so that United States faced an official Great Britain and Ireland team. From 1979 onwards this was expanded to include the whole of Europe. Bowls is also an example of a sport that continues to have a British Isles championship.

Popular culture

The United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland have separate television and radio networks, although UK television is widely available and watched in Ireland, giving people in Ireland a high level of familiarity with cultural matters in Great Britain. People in Ireland also can vote on many British shows such as X-Factor, telephone numbers for the Rep. of Ireland are also available to enter competitions and contribute to comment lines. Irish television is not widely watched in Great Britain. A previous venture, Tara TV by a consortium that included RTÉ, the Republic of Ireland's national broadcaster, to broadcast Irish television in the UK was wound up in 2002 after broadcasting since 1996. RTÉ are now expected to relaunch a new service, RTÉ International beginning in 2009.

British newspapers and magazines are widely available in Ireland and in recent decades have started to produce specific Ireland-orientated editorial copy. Again, as with television, the reverse is not true and Irish newspapers are not widely available in Great Britain. For example, the Irish Times is distributed only in London and the South East of England - although available in two thousand retail outlets, and with plans to extend distribution to Liverpool, Manchester, Birmingham and Cardiff on a trial basis with a possibility to extend to Scotland.

Pubs and beer are an important part of social life in all parts of the British Isles.

A few cultural events are organised for the island group as a whole. For example, the Costa Book Awards are awarded to authors resident in the UK or Ireland. The Man Booker Prize is awarded to authors from the Commonwealth of Nations or the Republic of Ireland. The Mercury Music Prize is handed out every year to the best album from a British or Irish musician or group, though other musical awards are considered on a national basis. It is not unusual for British organisations to include Irish people in lists of "Great Britons" or to include Irish authors in collections of "British" literature. Seamus Heaney made an objection to his inclusion in a 1982 anthology of British poetry by remarking: 'Don’t be surprised If I demur, for, be advised My passport’s green. No glass of ours was ever raised To toast the Queen. (Open Letter, Field day Pamphlet no.2 1983)".

Many other bodies are organised throughout the islands as a whole; for example the Samaritans which is deliberately organised without regard to national boundaries on the basis that a service which is not political or religious should not recognise sectarian or political divisions. The RNLI is also organised throughout the islands as a whole, and describes itself as covering the UK and Republic of Ireland.

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