British Isles

The "British Isles" is also an old name for the British and Irish Lions.
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The British Isles consist of Great Britain, Ireland and a number of much smaller surrounding islands.

The British Isles are a group of islands off the northwest coast of Europe consisting of Great Britain (that is England, Scotland, and Wales), Ireland and the many smaller adjacent islands. These islands form an archipelago of more than 6,000 islands, totalling 315,134 km² (121,674 square miles) of land.

The archipelago has been referred to by a single name for over two thousand years, and the term British Isles derives from terms used by classical geographers to describe the island group. Pliny the Elder, in his Natural History (iv.xvi.102) records of Great Britain, "It was itself named Albion while all the islands about which we shall soon briefly speak were called the Britanniae.

Nonetheless today, because the 'British Isles' include the whole of Ireland, as well as three crown dependencies which are not a part of the United Kingdom, the term is considered an anachronism by some, or a source of potential confusion or offence.


List of the British Isles

Satellite Image of the British Isles (excluding ) and part of northern
Satellite Image of the British Isles (excluding Shetland) and part of northern Continental Europe
Main article: Complete list of the British Isles

Many other small islands are not listed.

Origin of the term British Isles

In classical times, foreign sources used "Brit-" or "Prit-" with various endings and native sources used oceani insulae meaning "islands of the ocean" or insularum meaning "islands". Only in modern times has British Isles entered the English language.

Classical geographers

The inhabitants of the British Isles in classical times were the Celtic Bruthin or Priteni, who invaded Britain and Ireland some time before the 5th century BC. The classical writers of geographies named the group of islands after these inhabitants, using a transliteration into their own language such as Latin (e.g. Bretannae) or Greek (e.g. Βρηττανων).

Throughout Book 4 of his Geography, Strabo is consistent in spelling the island Britain (transliterated) as Prettanikee; he uses the terms Prettans or Brettans for the islands as a group. For example, in Geography 2.1.18, "...οι νοτιωτατοι των Βρηττανων βορηιοτηροι τουτον ηισιν". (...the most southern of the Brettans are further north than this)2. He was writing around AD 10, although the earliest surviving copy of his work dates from the 6th century.

Pliny the Elder writing around AD 70 uses a Latin version of the same terminology in section 4.102 of his Naturalis Historia. He writes of Great Britain: Albion ipsi nomen fuit, cum Britanniae vocarentur omnes de quibus mox paulo dicemus. (Albion was its own name, when all [the islands] were called the Britannias; I will speak of them in a moment). In the following section, 4.103, Pliny enumerates the islands he considers to make up the Britannias, listing Great Britain, Ireland, and many smaller islands.

Ptolemy is quite clear that Ireland – he calls it Hibernia – belongs to the group he calls Britannia. He entitles Book II, Chapter 1 of his Geography as Hibernia, Island of Britannia.

Native sources

The early surviving discussion of the geography is almost exclusively in classical languages. The "British Isles" terminology of the classical geographers is found in English only in documents written after the Reformation.

The earliest native source to use a collective term for the archipelago is the Life of Saint Columba, a hagiography purporting to record the missionary activities of the sixth century Irish monk Saint Columba among the peoples of Britain. Written in the late seventh century by Adomnn of Iona, an Irish monk living on a Scottish island with considerable Pictish and English interests, it must be considered an authority as regards the totality of relationships within the archipelago at that time. The collective term for the archipelago used within this work is oceani insulae meaning "islands of the ocean" (Book 2, 46 in the Sharpe edition = Book 2, 47 in Reeves edition) and it is used sparingly.

Another early native source to use a collective term is the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum of Bede written in the early eighth century. The collective term for the archipelago used within this work is insularum meaning "islands" (Book 1, 8) and it too is used sparingly.

The term does not appear to have entered English usage until after the Reformation. The earliest quotation of "British Isles" given by the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary is in 1621.

Renaissance mapmakers

Continental mapmakers Gerardus Mercator (1512), Balthasar Moretus (1624), Giovanni Magini (1596), Abraham Ortelius (1570) and Sebastian Munster (1550) produced maps bearing the term "British Isles". Ortelius makes clear his understanding that England, Scotland and Ireland were politically nominally at least separate in 1570 by the full title of his map: "Angliae, Scotiae et Hiberniae, sive Britannicar. insularum descriptio" which translates as "a description of England, Scotland and Ireland, or the British Isles", additionally many maps from this period show Cornwall as a separate nation, most notably Mercator.

Modern historians

There were four groups of Celtic invaders of Ireland, viz., beginning with the earliest:
(1) The Cruthin (Priteni), after whom these islands were known to the Greeks as the Pretanic Islands. In early historical times they preserved their individuality best in the North of Britain, where they were known to Latin writers as "Picti". O'Rahilly, T. F. (1984). Early Irish history and mythology. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. pp. 40–2
The first group of invaders of which we know anything were the "Bruthin" or "Priteni", a group of P-Celts, who invaded both Britain and Ireland, presumably from Europe, some time before the fifth century B.C. They maintained their individuality best in North Britain, where they were known as Picts to the Latin writers. It was their presence which made Greeks like Ptolemy and Pytheas refer to the British Isles as "the Pretanic Isles". Needham, C. (1963). The life of St. Patrick. Camden, NJ: The St. Patrick Fathers.
"The Brettans" appears to be an older term than Brettanike, and suggests that the earliest sources viewed Britain together with adjacent islands under this name; ... Strabo spells this with a P (Prettans)... Pliny seems to use the same terminology... "cum Brittaniae vocarentur omnes") It is quite possible that this goes back to Pytheas... Certainly it would not be unreasonable for mariners using the Western Seaway between Ireland and Britain to group all the outlying islands together with the large ones under a single term... (Roseman, C H (1984) Pytheas of Massalia: On the Ocean Text, Translation and Commentary Chicago, Illinois: Ares Publishers, Inc. p. 45)

The term "British" had been used to describe the Brythonic Celts who inhabited Brittany ("Little Britain") and most of the largest island of the archipelago, Great Britain. Ireland was inhabited by Goidelic Celts.

use of the initial P is considered to reflect the Brythonic branch of Keltic, and ... the change in spelling from Pre- to Brit- [may be] based on a misconception of Caesar's arising from his familiarity with Britanni occupying the Gaulish coast around Boulogne. (Roseman, op.cit., footnote 34, chapter IV)3

Subsequent political history

Thus at the time the name Priteni was first applied to it, the archipelago was inhabited by the P-Celts. By the time the Romans left in the 7th century they were differentiated into the Brythonic Celts in the lands that would become England, Cornwall, Wales and southern Scotland and the Picts in northern Scotland, while Ireland was dominated by Goidelic Celts who, as Scotti (Scots) had by then established Dalriada in western Scotland. In the following centuries Anglo-Saxons formed the kingdom of Wessex, pushing the Brythonic Celts back into Wales, Cumbria, south-west Scotland and Dumnonia later to become Kernow (or Cornwall). Angles took over Northumbria and south-east Scotland. Viking invaders formed the Danelaw in eastern England and took over Caithness, the Hebrides, the Isle of Man and north-east Ireland, forming a settlement at Dublin. The Scots amalgamated with the Picts forming a Scottish Kingdom which by the early 11th century expanded to include the area of modern Scotland and Cumbria.

The Norman Conquest of 1066 brought England under Norman rule and their 1072 foray into Scotland left the first of a series of arguments as to whether the Scots accepted the suzerainty of the English kings. From then on Scottish kings were Anglo-Norman rather than Celtic. In 1171 King Henry II of England invaded Ireland, asuming the title Lord of Ireland. The Anglo-Normans settled as a ruling elite controlling much of Ireland, but over time the native Irish regained some territory and, outside the area of English authority around Dublin called the Pale, the Norman lords adopted the Irish language and customs and became known as the "Old English".

In 1140 the Hebridean Islands, the Isle of Man and Antrim came under the Norse-Gael rule of the Lord of the Isles who kept a varying degree of independence until the Hebrides were forfeited to Scotland in 1493. From the early 13th century the Scots language of south east Scotland was spread throughout the Lowlands, but the Scottish Highlands remained Gaelic speaking and developed the semi-independent Scottish clan system. Wales came under English control with the Statute of Rhuddlan in 1284 and became part of the Kingdom of England by the Acts of Union 1536-1543. The English Kings became Kings of Ireland as well in 1541, ruling through an Irish Parliament.

Scotland was still independent despite a series of disputes and wars with England, then in 1603 King James VI of Scotland inherited the title James I of England, unifying the countries under a personal union of the crowns. While the governments of England and Scotland remained separate, King James proclaimed himself "King of Great Brittaine" on October 20th 1604, apparently with the political aim of creating a shared identity under his autocratic rule. Ireland was effectively being ruled as a colony of England and James expanded an existing policy of English settlers, adding Scots Presbyterians and creating the "Plantation of Ulster" at the expense of the existing Roman Catholics, both the native Irish and the "Old English". As the century progressed the Civil Wars of the Three Kingdoms brought Irish rebellion with massacres alienating Protestants from Catholics and making Irish Catholics embittered about the English, tensions further reinforced in the Jacobite war in Ireland.

Scottish economic weakness against English protectionism lead to merger of the governments in the 1707 Act of Union when the official name became The Kingdom of Great Britain, with pro-Hanoverian Scots enthusiastically adopting the term "North Britain" as an alternative to "Scotland" for example "The Royal Regiment of Scots Dragoons" were renamed "The Royal North British Dragoons" (later examples included the North British Magazine and the North British Railway). The Scottish Highlanders were still Gaelic speaking and were derisively called "Erse" (Irish) by the Lowlanders, but to end Jacobitism the Scottish clan system was crushed and they became fully British. A French-aided rebellion in Ireland in 1798 was defeated and Ireland was brought firmly under British government control by the 1800 Act of Union in what became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

During the 19th century famine and emigration affected the Irish and the Scottish Highlanders. Irish nationalist attempts to win independence peaked in the early 20th century with the Anglo-Irish war of independence and the 1922 separation of the Irish Free State, later becoming the Republic of Ireland. The mostly Protestant northeast continued to be part of what was now the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, with a Northern Ireland Assembly which is at present suspended. Inspired by the Irish movement, nationalist parties developed in Scotland, Wales and Cornwall. More recently Scotland has gained Home Rule with a Scottish Parliament and Wales a degree of home administration with the Welsh Assembly, but both remain part of the unitary United Kingdom. Cornwall has not been granted any devolved power but a petition calling for a Cornish assembly has collected more than 50,000 signatures.

Problems with modern usage

Today the term British is usually used to describe people of things belonging to either Great Britain or the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. However the whole island of Ireland, the Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey are still commonly included in the 'British Isles', despite the fact that the greater part of Ireland has, since 1922, been independent of the UK as the Republic of Ireland, and that the Isle of Man, Guernsey and Jersey are not a part of UK but crown dependencies.

Many Irish people, as well as some Scottish, Welsh and Cornish nationalists, find the term British Isles proprietorial and unacceptable as being inconsistent with the modern meaning of the word British. However, Unionists in Northern Ireland attach great importance to their 'British' identity.

Hostility to the term British Isles has often been caused by its misinterpretation; this was exemplified by an embarrassing and controversial faux pas by the then American First Lady Nancy Reagan during an Irish visit. The confusion caused by the term was also highlighted during a stop-over visit to the Republic of Ireland by then Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev, when he indicated that he presumed Ireland's head of state was Queen Elizabeth II, given that she was the British Queen and his officials said that Ireland was a part of the British Isles.

The term British Isles is no longer used in Irish state documents, has been abandoned in schoolbooks in the Republic of Ireland and is being phased out of textbooks4. Its usage is also decreasing in official British state documents, out of sensitivity to the concerns of some Irish, Scottish and Welsh people and the evolving geo-political relationships.

Alternative terms

Many have suggested replacements for the term British Isles but none has yet won universal acceptance. Sometimes, an ambiguous phrase such as "these Isles" or "the Isles" is used, thus utilising the same logic used when referring to the Persian Gulf as the "Gulf". In cases where what is being referred to is the two largest islands, the term "Great Britain and Ireland" can be used.

In the context of the Northern Ireland peace process the term Islands of the North Atlantic (IONA), a term initially created by former Conservative Party MP Sir John Biggs-Davison, has been used as a neutral term to describe the 'British Isles', but in a wider context the term might be misunderstood as including Iceland, Greenland, the Azores and other islands.

A more geographically accurate and slightly less ambiguous phrase, "North-Western Europe", is starting to find favour, especially in Ireland. The phrase "North European Archipelago" is somewhat whimsical, but even more accurate. The phrase "Great Britain, Ireland, and surrounding islands", is also occasionally used, but lacks brevity.

The phrase "the Anglo-Celtic Isles" has also been suggested and is in some use, being both ethnically and geographically accurate and elegantly concise.

The term British Islands is not a potential alternative; this is an official term used for the United Kingdom and the Crown Dependencies, i.e. all of the isles except the Republic of Ireland.


  1. The Channel Islands are included here by convention. Some people do not consider them part of the archipelago, as they are closer to France than to Great Britain.
  2. Translation by Roseman, op.cit.
  3. The author also refers to related discussion in Chadwick, H.M. 1949, repr. 1974, Early Scotland Octagon Books; (November 1974), ASIN 0374913579
  4. The problems caused by how one refers to the isles was highlighted when the historian Norman Davies produced a book examining the history of the archipelago. The title chosen was the neutral The Isles: A History though the cover carries a picture of the Kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland from Abraham Ortelius's 1570 map. Indeed the term British Isles does not even feature in the index of the book. The index simply refers to The Isles. Norman Davies, The Isles: A History (Palgrave/Macmillan, 1999) ISBN 033376370X

Further reading

See also

External links

de:Britische Inseln fr:les britanniques nl:Britse Eilanden ja:ブリテン諸島 no:De britiske yene pl:Wyspy Brytyjskie pt:Ilhas Britnicas ru:Британские острова fi:Britteinsaaret sv:Brittiska arna


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