British Isles

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A satellite photograph of the British Isles, the island on the right being Great Britain and the smaller one to the left being Ireland

The British Isles is a group of islands of the north-west coast of Europe consisting of Great Britain, Ireland and over six thousand minor islands.[1] To the south and east of the islands lies continental Europe, 21 miles from the coast of Kent at the nearest point. To the north is open sea until the Faroe Islands and Iceland beyond, while to the west is the Atlantic Ocean.

There are two sovereign states on the islands and three crown dependencies. The United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland cover the vast bulk of the British Isles, while between them lies the Isle of Man, a British crown dependency. By courtesy and tradition if not by strict geography, the Channel Islands, consisting of the Bailiwick of Jersey and the Bailiwick of Guernsey, both crown dependencies, are accounted part of the British Isles though they lie closer to France than Great Britain.

The islands' mountains and dales are modest in scale by the standards of the great continents. The highest mountain of the British Isles is Ben Nevis in Inverness-shire standing at 4,409 feet. Their lowest point above water is Holme Fen in Huntingdonshire at 9 feet below sea level. Lough Neagh in the centre of Northern Ireland is the largest body of inland water, covering 151 square miles.

The climate of the British Isles is of the temperate marine classification, with mild winters and warm wet summers. The North Atlantic Drift brings significant moisture and raises temperatures 11 °C above the global average for the latitude. This led to a landscape which was long dominated by temperate rainforest, although human activity has since cleared the vast majority of forest cover in favour of rich agriculture and pasture.

During the last Ice Age, the continent of Europe was attached to the islands: attached to today's Great Britain was Doggerland, now sunk beneath the waves of the North Sea, which formed a land between Great Britain and Europe.

Names of the islands

See also Terminology of the British Isles

The earliest known references to the islands as a group appeared in the writings of sea-farers from the ancient Greek colony of Massalia.[2][3] The original records have been lost; however, later writings that quoted from the Massaliote Periplus (6th century BC) and Pytheas's On the Ocean (circa 325–320 BC)[4] have survived. In the 1st century BC, Diodorus used the Greek form, Πρεττανια (Prettania) from Πρεττανικη (Prettanike),[3] Strabo used Βρεττανία (Brettania), and Marcian of Heraclea, in his Periplus maris exteri, used αἱ Πρεττανικαὶ νῆσοι (the Prettanic Isles) to refer to the islands. Historians today, though not in absolute agreement, largely agree that these Greek and Latin names were probably drawn from native Celtic-language names for the archipelago.[5] Along these lines, the inhabits of the islands of Pretanike were called the Πρεττανοι (Priteni or Pretani).[3][6] The shift from the "P" of Pretannia to the "B" of Britannia by the Romans occurred during the time of Julius Caesar.[7]

The classical writer, Ptolemy, referred to the larger island as Great Britain (Megale Britannia) and to Ireland as Little Britain (Mikra Brettania) in his work, Almagest (147–148 AD). In his later work, Geography (c. 150 AD), he gave these islands the names Albion, Iwernia, and Mona (the Isle of Man), suggesting these may have been native names of the individual islands not known to him at the time of writing Almagest.[8] The name Albion appears to have fallen out of use sometime after the Roman conquest of Great Britain, after which Britannia became the more common-place name for Great Britain. Great Britain would return to use a millennium later, in the Middle Ages though at that time, "Great" it was used to distinguish the island of Britain from the peninsula of Brittany, in northern-western France which had been settled by Britons, which was confusingly similar to the mediæval writers.

The earliest known use of the phrase Brytish Iles in the English language is dated 1577 in a work by John Dee.[9]

Latterly certain strands of Irish opinion have begun to object to the name "British Isles" and several alternatives have been suggested apart from the commonplace "Britiain and Ireland", such as the Anglo-Celtic Isles,[10] British-Irish Isles,[11] Britain and Ireland, UK and Ireland, and British Isles and Ireland.[12]


There are about 136 permanently inhabited islands in the group, the largest two being Great Britain and Ireland. Great Britain is to the east and covers 83,698 square miles, over half of the total landmass of the group. Ireland is to the west and covers 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.

Mountains, plains and waters

Windermere, Westmorland & Lancashire

The islands have mountains in the west and north of Great Britain and around the coasts and south of Ireland: central Ireland and southern Great Britain are particularly low lying: the lowest point in the islands is Holme Fen, Huntingdonshire at 9 feet below sea level, part of the Great Fen, once a vast wetland covering several counties in the east of England. Much of the land in the Great Fen and in the Somerset Levels in Somerset is at or below sea level.

The highest land is in the Scottish Highlands; Ben Nevis being the highest point on the islands at 4,409 feet above sea level. Other mountainous areas include Wales and parts of Ireland.

Lakes on the islands are generally modest, although Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland is an exception, covering 151 square miles. The largest freshwater body in Great Britain is Loch Lomond at 269 square miles. There are a number of major rivers within the British Isles. The river Severn at 220 miles is the longest in Great Britain and the Shannon at 240 miles is the longest in Ireland.

Birds, beasts and plants

Red deer hinds in Killarney National Park

The islands enjoy a mild climate and varied soils, giving rise to a diverse pattern of vegetation. Animal and plant life in the archipelago is similar to that of the northwestern European continent. However, there are few numbers of species with Ireland having even less. All native flora and fauna in Ireland, for example, is made up of species that migrated from the elsewhere in Europe, and Great Britain in particular. However, the only window during which this could occur was between the end of Pleistocene|the last Ice Age (about 12,000 years ago) and when the land bridge connecting the two islands was flooded by sea (about 8,000 years ago).

Originally forests covered all parts of the islands but today only account for about 9% of the land area of Great Britain and 5% of Ireland. These forests were cleared extensively over the past millennium to make way for crop and pasture land. Most forest land in Ireland are maintained by state forestation programmes. Almost all land outside of urban areas is farmland. However, relatively large areas of forest remain in east and north Scotland and in southeast England. Oak, elm, ash and beech are amongst the most common trees in England. In Scotland, pine and birch are most common. Natural forests in Ireland are mainly oak, ash, wych elm, birch and pine. Beech and Tilia|lime, though not native to Ireland, are also common there. Farmland hosts a variety of semi-natural vegetation of grasses and flowering plants. Woods, hedgerows, mountain slopes and marshes host heather, wild grasses, gorse and bracken.

Larger animals, such as wolf, bear and reindeer are today extinct. The largest wild animals today are deer: red deer, fallow deer and roe deer and wild and native to the islands. Wild boar, once hunted to extinction, are now found again in parts, having escaped from farms. Smaller mammals, such as foxes, badgers, hares, hedgehogs, and stoats, are very common. Many rivers contain otters, while seals are common on coasts.

Over 200 species of bird reside permanently on the islands and another 200 migrate to them. Common types are the chaffinch, blackbird, sparrow and starling, all small birds. Large birds are declining in number, except for those kept for game such as pheasant, partridge, and red grouse. Fish are abundant in the rivers and lakes of the islands, in particular salmon, trout, perch and pike. Dogfish, cod, sole, pollock and bass are among the sea fish as well as mussels, crab and oysters on the coastline. There are more than 21,000 species of insects found on the islands.

Neither Great Britain nor Ireland is inhabited by many reptiles or amphibians. Only three snakes are native to Great Britain: the common European adder (the isles' only venomous snake), the grass snake and the smooth snake;[13] none is native to Ireland. In general, Great Britain has slightly more variation and native wild life, with weasels, polecats, wildcats, most shrews, moles, the water voles, roe deer and common toads also being absent in Ireland. This patterns in true also for birds and insects. However, notable reversals of this theme include the Kerry slug and certain species of wood lice, which are native to Ireland but not found on Great Britain.

Domestic animals native to the islands include the mastiff, Connemara pony, Shetland pony, Irish wolfhound and several types of cattle and sheep.

Geological history

The oldest rocks in the British Isles are in the northwest of the Highlands and in Ireland and are 2,700 million years old. During the Silurian period the north-western regions collided with the south-east, which had been part of a separate continental landmass.

Broad history

Hadrian's Wall

Various British tribes were inhabiting the islands by the time of the Roman Empire, which expanded to control most of Great Britain. The Romans traded with Ireland and although a Roman fort has been excavated outside Dublin, evidence of one extensive military campaign in Hibernia, Ireland was never conquered by the Romans.

The Saxons from Germany and Scots from Ireland raided Britain extensively during the late Roman period. The first Gaelic Scots settled in Caledonia during the late Roman period and expanded in later centuries. The first Anglo-Saxon settlers, the ancestral English, arrived in Great Britain after Roman power had collapsed in the 5th century, eventually subduing the Britons occupying the bulk of what is now England and southern Scotland. One of the great debates amongst archaeologists and historians of the period is whether the English drove out the majority of the Britons out or whether they simply came to dominate them culturally. The traditional opinion, and still the dominant theory, is the former: that most of the Britons were slain or expelled, or felled by the early fifth century plague, though rival genetic studies show either that today's Englishmen and Scots are descended mainly from the Germanic tribes or that they are of the blood of those who have lived in these islands since the Ice Age. One study seemed to show the Ice Age ancestry dominant in the female line but Anglo-Saxon ancestry predominant in the male line, which tells a story in itself.

Viking invasions began all over the British Isles in the 9th century, followed by more permanent settlements by Scandinavian peoples and consequent political change. Norse kingdoms were set up in Yorkshire, Orkney and the western islands and on the coasts of Ireland. The Norman conquest of England in 1066 changed the social and political landscape of all the islands. Many influential Englishmen fled to Scotland and created a new élite while Norman lords assumed estates across England. Adventurous Normans assumed leading positions in Scotland too, side by side with the English whom their cousins had expelled. Anglo-Norman power soon expanded into Wales and under Henry II to Ireland from 1169; thus a new Anglo-Norman ruling élite dominated much of the British Isles. By the Late Middle Ages, Great Britain was separated into the Kingdoms of England and Scotland, while control in Ireland fluxed between Gaelic princes, Hiberno-Norman lords and the English-dominated Lordship of Ireland, soon restricted only to The Pale.

Coronation of King Henry IV

By the Late Middle Ages, Great Britain was separated into the Kingdoms of England and Scotland. Power in Ireland fluxed between Gaelic chiefs, Hiberno-Norman lords and the English-dominated Lordship of Ireland. A similar situation existed in Wales, divided between Welsh princes and Anglo-Norman lords, the domains of the former being gradually annexed to the English crown. During the course of the 14th century, the Kings of England would assert a claim to the crown of France, the cause of the Hundred Years War, while the extent of Scottish independence was also fought out. In the sixteenth century, the Reformation came to the British Isles. In 1534, King Henry VIII separated from the Roman Church and made himself "the only Supreme Head in Earth of the Church of England", thereby removing the authority of the Pope from the affairs of the English Church. King Henry also replaced his title "Lord of Ireland", a title granted by a Pope, and became "King of Ireland". Scotland reformed a little later, a Reformation led from the Church not from the Crown, and indeed in the teeth of royal opposition, but a Reformation more comprehensively carried out.

In 1603, Queen Elizabeth I of England died and King James VI of Scotland inherited the throne of England, thus uniting in his person all the realms of the British Isles. His son, Charles I, came into conflict with parliament over his tolerance towards unreformed church practices and the resulting English Civil War (or War of the Three Kingdoms) spread across the islands; it led to a revolutionary republic in the British Isles from 1649 until the Restoration in 1660. In Ireland the war created a new Ascendancy class of Protestants of English descend and obliterated the remnants of Old English (Hiberno-Norman) and Gaelic Irish nobility in Ireland.

James I & VI

The Kingdoms of England and Scotland were unified in 1707 creating the Kingdom of Great Britain. Following an attempted revolution in Ireland in 1798, the Kingdoms of Ireland and Great Britain were unified in 1801, creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland. The Isle of Man and the Channel Islands remain outside of the United Kingdom but with their ultimate good governance is the responsibility of the British Crown.

Although, the colonies of North American that would become the United States of America were lost by the start of the 19th century, the British Empire expanded rapidly elsewhere. A century later it would cover one thirds of the globe. The expansion of the British Empire and migrations following the Irish Famine and Highland Clearances resulted in the distribution of the islands' population and culture throughout the world and a rapid de-population of Ireland in the second half of the 19th century. 26 counties of Ireland seceded from the United Kingdom after the Irish War of Independence and the subsequent Anglo-Irish Treaty (1919–1922).


Bilingual sign in Llandudno

English is by far the dominant language of the British Isles. It is not however the only native language nor is it the majority language in all parts of the islands.

All the island's native languages are from Indo-European family. English is from the West-Germanic group, though with a vocabulary heavily added to by French, and its cousin is Scots, spoken in parts of Scotland and Ulster. The Insular Celtic languages give us from the Brythonic sub-group Welsh and the dead Cornish language. Breton, spoken in Brittany, is of the same origin. The Goidelic sub-group has given us the three Gaelic languages: Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic. The Norman languages of Guernésiais, Jèrriais and Sarkese once spoken in the Channel Islands are similar to French. The Norn language of Orkney and Shetland, a descendant of Old Norse, became extinct in the eighteenth or nineteenth century.

Irish Gaelic is spoken parts of the west and south of Ireland, a Gaeltacht largely clinging to the wild coasts. Scottish Gaelic is a majority language in several islands of the Hebrides, being particularly strong in the Outer Hebrides, and in parts of the Highlands. Welsh is the most widely spoken "Celtic" language, taught across Wales and spoken as a mother tongue in many country areas of Wales in particular in the west, and some villages of Shropshire.

Apart from the very young, it is reckoned that there are virtually no monoglot speakers of Irish, Scots Gaelic, or Welsh.

Other languages spoken in the British Isles are immigrant languages. Urdu, Gujerati, Bengali and Sylheti are particularly common in urban areas which have received immigrants from the Indian subcontinent, though these languages are restricted to the immigrant populations and their children.

See also


  1. "British Isles," Encyclopædia Britannica
  2. #refFoster2001|Foster, p. 1.
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 #refAllen2007|Allen, p. 172-174.
  4. #refHarley1987|Harley, p. 150.
  5. #refDavies2000|Davies, p. 47.
  6. #refSnyder2003|Snyder, p. 68.
  7. #refSnyder2003|Snyder, p. 12.
  8. Freeman, Philip (2001). Ireland and the classical world. Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press. p. 65. ISBN 0-292-72518-3. 
  9. John Dee, 1577. 1577 J. Arte Navigation, p. 65 "The syncere Intent, and faythfull Aduise, of Georgius Gemistus Pletho, was, I could..frame and shape very much of Gemistus those his two Greek Orations..for our Brytish Iles, and in better and more allowable manner." From the OED, s.v. "British Isles"
  10. Irish historical studies: Joint Journal of the Irish Historical Society and the Ulster Society for Irish Historical Studies. Hodges, Figgis & Co.. 1990. p. 98. "There is mug to be said for considering the archipelago as a whole, for a history of the British or Anglo-Celtic isles or 'these islands'." 
  11. John Oakland, 2003, British Civilization: A Student's Dictionary, Routledge: London
    British-Irish Isles, the (geography) see BRITISH ISLES
    British Isles, the (geography) A geographical (not political or constitutional) term for England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland (including the Republic of Ireland), together with all offshore islands. A more accurate (and politically acceptable) term today is the British-Irish Isles.
  12. "". Retrieved 2010-11-07. 
  13. "Guide to British Snakes". Wildlife Britain Retrieved 17 August 2010. 

Further reading

Outside links