3
Aug
2011
20

The difference between UK, Britain and the British Isles

One of the most common mistakes people make when talking about geography in this country is to confuse the UK with Great Britain or the British Isles – a cardinal sin in the eyes of any true geographer!

So let’s clear this up once and for all…

The United Kingdom

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (to give its full name) refers to the political union between England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. The UK is a sovereign state, but the nations that make it up are also countries in their own right.

From 1801 to 1922 the UK also included all of Ireland.

The Channel Islands and Isle of Man are not part of the UK, but are Crown Dependencies.

Great Britain

Great Britain is the official collective name of of England, Scotland and Wales and their associated islands. It does not include Northern Ireland and therefore should never be used interchangeably with ‘UK’ – something you see all too often.

Here at Ordnance Survey, we’re responsible for mapping Great Britain, which is why we don’t make maps of Northern Ireland.

Technically, if you lose the ‘Great,’ Britain only refers to England and Wales.

British Isles

This is purely a geographical term – it refers to the islands of Great Britain and Ireland – including the Republic of Ireland – and the 5000 or so smaller islands scattered around our coasts. Remember this only refers to geography, not nationality, and while the Republic of Ireland is part of the British Isles, its people are not British – a very important distinction.

I hope that’s explained the very different meanings between UK, Great Britain and British Isles and why it’s important to use the right name at the right time. Geography really does matter!

We could go on to talk about nationalities but maybe we’ll save that for another day…

59 Responses

  1. Mike Dillamore

    While the article text identifies that “The Channel Islands and Isle of Man are not part of the UK”, the corresponding map seems to show the IoM as being within the UK.

  2. When working in the USA I too struggled to explain these concepts, and produced an explanatory map – see http://www.pghardy.net/maps/uk/countries/. Also, being pedantic, Ordnance Survey does produce maps outside Great Britain – in particular, it maps the Isle of Man at 1:50K – see Landranger sheet 95 – http://www.shop.ordnancesurveyleisure.co.uk/products/paper-maps/paper-maps-ordnance-survey-great-britain/paper-maps-ordnance-survey-great-britain-os-landranger-map/isle-of-man/pid-9780319231708

  3. Alan

    I wasn’t aware that “Britain” on its own refers only to England and Wales. I thought it was an official short form for the whole UK?

  4. Nicholas

    “Britain” does not mean “England and Wales”.

    When the Kingdoms of Scotland and of England were united by the Act and Treaty of Union, the resulting new country was called “Great Britain”. It was called “Great” to distinguish it from Brittany.

    The Channel Isles are part of the British Isles, but not part of the United Kingdom. They are Crown Dependencies as a result of them forming part of the Dutchy of Normandy

  5. Hi Nicholas,

    Our research points to the name Britain coming from the Roman name “Britannia” (or “Britannia Major”, to distinguished from “Britannia Minor”, ie Brittany in France).

    Since the Roman’s only ever conquered the areas of modern day England and Wales, it is arguable that the name Britain originally referred only to those countries.

  6. So what is the official name of the island forming the ‘mainland’ of the British Isles? I always thought that was known as ‘Great Britain’…apparently not!

  7. That’s exactly right Neil – as I said in the post “Great Britain is the official collective name of the island land mass of England, Scotland and Wales.”

    1. Ah right, you make a good point! Perhaps a more accurate description of GB would be the collective name for England, Scotland and Wales, and as such the Western Isles etc are all included. I’ll update the post – thanks.

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  10. Hi,

    I was interested to ask on what basis was the British Isles “purely” a geographical term?

    How is the Channel Islands similar (its geographically not, hence why everyone struggles to get on the map and settles for a little box in the corner) in terms geology to the other islands and more similar to them than they are to mainland France?

    How can the term be considered “purely” geographical considering its use, historically and at present, by the UK Government to refer to the Islands that are somehow “British” i.e. pre 1948 the Government defines it as including Ireland and post as not including Ireland, it being used as a synonym for the British Islands?

    If it is just islands off North-West Europe how come the Faroe Islands is not included or Iceland? The Faroe Islands makes more sense geographically than the Channel Islands.

    Surly because of the overlap between its legal/political use it can’t ever be considered purely geographical?

    Because of its ambiguous nature (including Ireland/not including Ireland including the Channel Islands/not including the Channel Islands)

    Please not that Irish people find its use offensive because of its ambiguous nature and overlap as use as political and legal term. Please stop using this term and confine to the dustbin of history where it belongs.

    I am interested to understand your geological logic for these islands being similar.

    Look forward to hearing from you.

    1. Gemma

      Thanks for the comment and a very good point – we posted this blog because, as the national mapping for Great Britain, we are often asked geography-related questions and this question crops up regularly. There is also a common perception that Ordnance Survey produce mapping for Northern Ireland, the Channel Islands and so on, whereas our remit is Great Britain, and there is a lot of confusion as to what this entails and covers. The post is put together to answer the geographical definitions of what constitutes the UK, Great Britain and the British Isles and not intended to stray into either geological or political comments that would be inappropriate for us as the national mapping agency to comment on.

      1. @Gemma thanks for your reply.

        The point is it is not a “purely a geographical term” as stated in your blog and if you use it you got to willing to debate it. You already have strayed into geological or political comments that would be inappropriate for you as the national mapping agency to comment on by including the term in your blog. Especially without clarification that its use can cause offence and that their is more than one definition commonly in use.

        I support the Ordnance Survey’s idea of trying to get people to use the correct terms, but this term is not an appropriate geographical term for these islands and this promotes its use as such. If you don’t wish to have the debate on it or amend your blog then I suggest you remove the term. As it is, you are supporting its use.

        1. Andy

          Concise, and informative article. Thank you.
          I’m wondering if A. Lindsay bothered to read the article properly or was just having an off day?

          1. Boru

            Andy, I’m not sure if you understand the point A. Lindsay is making.

            The term “British Isles” can be viewed, certainly by persons in Ireland, as a political term. Just saying that it is only a geographical term does not make it so, especially when the term has political history.

            There are two major islands: Great Britain and Ireland. We could therefore just as easily call the islands the Irish Isles. Indeed, that would probably have been the accepted geographical term if Ireland had been the more powerful empire. So you see, geographical terms are highly influenced by political history, and there is no point in denying that. Naming of places is heavily influenced by politics and has been throughout human history. For example, “North America” is a geographical term, but is named after an Italian explorer. It is inherently political.

          2. British Isles was accurate from the 12th century to the early 20th century, when the British controlled Ireland; however, now it seems that Ireland has renounced all Britishness since leaving the British Commonwealth in 1949. I notice that cruise lines and other sources use “British & Irish Isles,” which seems more 21st century.

            British Isles has become a political term, same as Persian Gulf (bordering Arab states use Arabian Gulf) and Sea of Japan (South Korea advocates East Sea). Persian Gulf and Sea of Japan place names suggest ownership, and British Isles implies a uniform culture, which does not exist. Thoughtless inertia and British nationalism appear to be great allies in the continued use of a British Isles descriptor that includes Ireland.

  11. Peter

    In your version of Great Britian you have included all the Scottish isles and the Isle of Wight. Great Britain is strictly the mainland and none of the surrounding islands, so for example Great Britain does not include Angelsy, The Isles of Scilly, or even places like Peil island or Chapel Island off the coast of the Furness peninusla in Cumbria (Or more correctly “Lancashire beyond the sands”, for friends of real Lancashire)

  12. The terms ‘British Isles’ is deprecated becuase it is ambiguous and historically provocative. The similar term ‘British Islands’ however, is precisely defined in statute (the Interpretation Act 1948) and has a different meaning.

    It means ‘the United Kingdom of Great Britain and N. Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man’.

    It does not include the 26 counties that were part of the the UK between 1801 and 1922 and, following a period as a self-governing Dominion of the Crown (as the Irish Free State, and from 1937 ‘Ireland’), became a fully sovereign state in 1949.

    Incidentally, American news readers still incorrectly refer to the UK as ‘Britain’ or ‘Great Britain’. That country ceased to exist in 1801, so whenever you hear that term, you should realise that the person using it is 210 years, and two major constitutional changes (a union and, 121 years later, a breakup) behind the times.

  13. Sean

    I am from Ireland and British Isles is only “provocative” for the most half-witted of Irish Republicans who suffer from a severe inferiority complex and out-dated irrational hatred of “the Brits”.

    Many people from Ireland (only confident types) also DO consider themselves British in a British Isles sense but not British in a United Kingdom sense. (similarly to the way people in Northern Ireland can consider themselves Irish in a geographical sense)

    1. Seán

      Sean
      I too live in Ireland. As a half-wit corporate City lawyer, I also lived in England for many years and have a great affection for England and the English – they’re a friendly, hospitable and quick-witted people and I return there regularly for holidays and to visit the many good friends I made there. We’re very lucky to have them as neighbours, frankly. I have no ‘hatred’ of anyone, despite your ill-mannered and patronising preconceptions about anyone in Ireland who disagrees with you on this point.
      Most people in Ireland (including confident types) do not consider themselves British in a British Isles sense; including the Irish government. If only we all could be as confident as you Sean, eh?
      Another Seán

  14. Satan

    “The islands to the north by north west of Europe” works good if you have less spare time in your day. 😛

  15. Alex

    In reference to what constitutes ‘Britain’ (without the Great), the Romans occupied (for two periods) plenty of modern day Scotland and built the Antonine (or Severan) wall between the Forth and Clyde. North of that they called Caledonia. If Britain is different from Great Britain and is based on what the Romans called Britannia, surely it should end at either the Antonine wall (incorporating the borders and lowlands of Scotland) or at Hadrian’s wall (excluding northernmost England).

    In Edinburgh you have the North British Hotel (at the end of the North British Railway) and other organisations such as the North British Rowing Club. It seems that if a distinction is to be made, then the boundary should be the Antonine wall.

    1. alex mclaren

      18 dudley court
      24 Lethington avenue

      The term “North British” was used to prefix many places, hotels, companies etc as a calculated attempt to remove the distinctions between Scotland and other parts of the UK, particularly England. It was an early form of ‘British nationalism’ which sought to blur and even remove those national distinctions which prevailed in the constituent parts of the UK.

  16. Andy

    Peter (19/12/2012) – the 3rd largest island in the British Isles (by way of population) is Portsea Island, which forms about 70% of the City of Portsmouth. As a resident of Portsea Island, I would not welcome the notion that I do not live in, or on, Great Britain!!!

  17. Paul

    “Britain”is short hand for the “United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland ” in the Political sense, then of course Great Britain is a geographical term, now I’m from Northern Ireland and I’m often insulted when told “Im not British” because i dont come from “Great Britain” but the term “British” refers to all people from the United Kingdom (Northern Ireland included) as well as British people from the Crown dependencies of the Isle of Man and Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey as well as the Overseas territories like Gibratar for example …also I live on the Island of Ireland so I’m Irish as well as being British and Northern Irish also…

  18. Patrick A. Crawley

    Yikes.
    Britain is One Island.
    Ireland is another.
    Anglesey is another as is Skye.

    Britain is One Island…so simple.

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  20. Peter Stone

    Would an acceptable new nomenclature be the “Anglo-Celtic isles”? Would that be acceptable to all political groups British and Irish?

  21. John Richards

    It does seem a shame that the nomclemature of Geography, a physical science, should be involved in matters related to Politics, a social science, but, and for very understandable historical reasons that is what has occurred. Should Geography alter it’s vocabulary to accommodate this? I do not personally think so, though neither do I think that my opinion should be uncritically accepted by anyone else…

    IMHO, and only that, the term ‘Great Britain’ refers to the largest of the islands of the British Archipeligo, the ‘Great’ simply denoting ‘big’ and not any other concept of superiority. Sorry if you live on Portsea, but you do not live on or in Great Britain; you are, of course, absolutely British!

    The Irish aspect of this is the one most confused by Politics and history, and I can fully understand and sympathise with the reluctance of some Irish people to be associated with anything British, but, in Geographical terms, Ireland is the second largest land mass in the British Isles.

    I would like to see the use of the term ‘Great Britain’ superseded by the use of ‘Mainland’, within a context of the British Isles. This would satisfy the Geographical requirements, clear the confusion over offshore islands such as Orkney or Anglesey which are part of the ‘United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’ but not of
    Great Britain in a Geographical sense, and would hopefully put an end to the ridiculous and jingoistic use ‘Great British’ this or that which I find highly irritating!

  22. David

    Hi,

    There seems to be quite a bit of confusion here, both geographically, historically and politically. So much so that it’s hard to start from one single point. I’ll try my best to approach the points raised from an historical timeline perspective.

    Note: Please be aware that most place names will be used in their most popular current Anglicised form as this conversation is in English.

    Way back in the midst of time when political turmoil was about which neighbouring village was the latest “enemy of the month” the inhabitants of these islands and isles along with traders from the continent referred to this area of Europe as the Prettania.

    In fact even as far away as Greece and long before that Jesus dude was walking across the earth they knew of their existence. They even knew that they were made up of lots of islands that included two very large islands (the largest known islands to most Europeans at the time) called Albion and Iwernia.

    All of these names were what the local inhabitants referred to these islands as to the Greek traders and explorers as long ago as 300 B.C.

    Greece (which included much of Sicily, that big island at the foot of Italy) began to wane and the Rome started along the long road to becoming an Empire. After much fighting they had gained control of much of the Mediterranean area and Western Europe. This included the conquest of Gaul (I’ll reference this area later) which gave the Romans access to Pretannia. They weren’t very successful at first, then that Julius chap came along and started winning against these Bretons. This is when Pretannia changed to Bretannia. This is also where Great Britain enters history.

    Great Britain refers to only the main island of the British Isles. It does not include any of the surrounding isles. These were conquered along the way and were anything but great. The inhabitants of the largest island knew just how vast it was the Romans only knew from the reports of their sources. They did know that it was the largest by far and referred to it as Great.

    The conquered area of the main island and all the lesser ones was referred to politically as Bretania by the Romans. Their conquest of Bretania eventually extended to the Scottish Lowlands. North of that were the lands of the Picts (painted people) to the west was the second largest Bretania island, Hibernia. The Scotti tribe resided on this island around the area that is modern day Belfast. Hadrian’s Wall was built to protect these Bretons from the Picts. Antonine’s Wall was built to protect the Bretania lands from raids from the Picts and Scotti who were working together.

    Faroe Islands – These islands are not part of the British Isles because they were so remote that neither the Greeks, Romans or Germanic tribes knew of their existence at the time.

    Brittany (modern day France) – This region was a part of Gaul (Asterix and Obelix?) and known as Amorica to the Romans. It is known as Brittany only after the Roman Empire started to collapse.

    As the Romans started to withdraw they were defeated, at first, by the Scotti and the Picts and then joined by some of the formerly defeated Breton tribes. They crossed the Channel and set up colonies in Brittany (Little Britain) and Galicia (mostly Northern Spain but spread sporadically along the coast to Southern France). All these Bretons and Galicians spoke a mixture of British Celtic languages (all of which were similar to Gaelic).

    Channel Islands – these are in fact not part of the British Isles. They also are part of the British Isles.

    The confusion surrounding them stems from the Roman withdrawal from Bretania. They were effectively taken over by the advancing Breton tribes (remember this included a lot of tribes from modern day Ireland) and subsequently became part of Bretania along with Brittany.

    Eventually, after many other invaders assumed control of Eastern and Southern Bretania, the Germanic tribes of the Angles and Saxons arrived. England arose from this and until Joan D’Arc arrived this consisted of the whole of Northern France from Brittany to Flanders and the West of France around Bordeaux. Ultimately this led to the loss of continental England of which only the Channel Islands remain. Upon the Acts of Union (there are two Acts as they had to be passed in both parliaments) between England and Scotland these islands remained outside the political union of Great Britain.

    So although they are not technically a part of the British Isles, as a dependency of the English Crown (and now the British Crown) they often (wrongly) get classed as such. This is because “the Crown” is not in fact the physical crown itself but is in fact Her Majesty the Queen of (this bit goes on forever, trust me.) or whomever happens to be the reigning monarch. Crown Dependencies belong exclusively to the reigning monarch and are separate from the sovereign state of the United Kingdom of Great Britain.

    Great Britain (political context) – This entity includes all the lands of Scotland and England. I don’t want to upset the Welsh but Wales has actually been a region of England since Edward I defeated ALL the Welsh principalities. This includes the island of Great Britain and all other Scottish and English (including Welsh) islands. This is the area depicted in the first map and which Ordnance Survey maps on behalf of Her Majesty through Her Majesty’s Government in accordance with the Acts of Union between Scotland and England.

    I know a lot of Irish people (some, as stated, are glad to be British)may be upset at being referred to as British and classified as part of the British Isles but the reality is that you ancestors were the ones who classed their territory as being in the British Isles. The fact is that for over 2000 years, long before these islands were ruled by one monarch, Bretannia and Hibernia were the two largest islands in the British Isles. Their inhabitants were numerous tribes who classified these islands as Pretannia.

    I’m one of the 62% of Scots who are “Scottish, not British” by the way.

    Summary

    Map One is correct in a political sense but incorrect in a geographical sense as only the main island is Great Britain.

    Map Two is correct only in a political sense as it includes the countries of Scotland, England and Northern Ireland. Yes, Norther Ireland is a country and is represented in the Union Flag by the St. Patrick’s Cross. Scotland is represented as a member of this union by the St. Andrew’s Cross. England is, the only country not represented by a saltire, is represented by St George’s Cross.

    Map Three is only correct in a political sense (as the Crown Dependencies belong to the English Crown) but for the purist it is incorrect in a geographical sense as the Channel Islands are actually a part of the continent of Europe.

    Oh… the pedantic part of my nature has to point out that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland isn’t in fact the union’s full title. Lawyers are pedantic at the best of time, lawyers working for the Crown take their pedanticism to levels that would destroy your will to live. Just be thankful that you don’t have to repeat the union’s full royal title even once.

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  24. Squirrel

    Great Britain is Scotland, Wales and England. The uk is all of those plus Northern Ireland. The British isles is all of the uk, the rest of Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.

  25. Richard of Oz

    Bloody hell! Can we please have another war just to settle this once and for all? Thank goodness that here in Oz we have no such confusion.

  26. Anthony

    In Ireland we use the term ( The British and Irish Isles) as Ireland is an island in its own right, regardless of politics.
    The political and out dated colonial term The British Isles is not used in anyway by the Government or people of Ireland. Even the Ordnance Survey of Ireland use the term the British and Irish Isles, is it not about time the British OS done the same and respect the people of Ireland who refuse to be british!!

  27. Mike

    I always thought (a) that Great Britain consisted of England, Scotland and Wales INCLUDING their respective islands but excluding The Isle of Man and the Channel Islands as they are politically distinct; that (b) that the United Kingdom consisted of Great Britain plus Northern Ireland and its islands, plus the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands; and (c) The British Isles is a defunct political term, now used as a geographical term to describe the United Kingdom plus the Republic of Ireland and its islands, collectively. As someone else has said, this last term is a remnant of the erstwhile colonial relationship between Great Britain and Ireland, and perhaps it would be a good idea to replace it with the term ‘The British and Irish Islands’. But to me it’s not a big deal. After all, we don’t have a clamour to rename the ‘Irish Sea’ as the ‘Irish & British Sea’ …… :-)

  28. Mal

    The term ‘British Isles’ is NOT deprecated. It is, however, historical.

    To wit: the people of the British Isles are, in fact, British. Oppenheimer et al have proven that the people of the British Isles are basically the same peoples, with very little genetic difference between them.

    That is because most of the people there are of the same groups that settled thousands of years ago. The differences come from the smaller numbers of invaders over the thousands of years – the Gaels, Normans, Romans, Angles, Jutes, Saxons, Vikings etc.

    The idea that the British Isles are not British is a modern one, brought about after the rise of the Nation State, when populist separatism became en vogue.

    There is a difference between ‘British’ as a nationality, and the British peoples – the peoples of the Isles of the Pretani (British).

    Further, let’s not have hypocrites: stop pretending that the Republic of Ireland is ‘Ireland’.

    It isn’t, no matter what that specific country decided to (politically astutely) call it. I find it to be an insult to those of us Irish who elect not to become part of a separatist Irish statelet.

    If you’re going to call it the ridiculous-sounding ‘British and Irish Isles’, you should really consider something more catchy instead: ‘British and Irish and Scottish and Welsh and Cornish… Isles’.

    In fact, we could drop the despised ‘British’ epithet altogether!

    Get over the label-hating people, and enjoy actual history, instead of attempting to rewrite it!

  29. The rugby union team comprising the best of the four home nations (there’s another term for you) – formerly known as the British Lions – has called itself the British and Irish Lions for some time now to the satisfaction of all. I suggest the ‘Isles’ should follow suit.

  30. russ

    So, if …
    Britain =England & Wales
    Great Britain =England & Wales & Scotland,
    UK = England & Wales & Scotland & Northern Ireland,
    British Isles =England & Wales & Scotland & Ireland & Northern Ireland,

    Then why does the term ‘British’ refer to the inhabitants of the UK rather than Britain.

  31. David Dance

    The Act of Union, 1707. Article 1:

    “THAT the two Kingdoms of Scotland and England shall upon the first day of May next ensuing the date hereof, and for ever after, be united into One Kingdom by the Name of GREAT BRITAIN”

    Britain is the name of the island and The united kingdom is the political system we have.

  32. Bunty

    Inhabitants of the Isle of Wight call the bit above them the North Island (they are the South Island) – just to throw that into the mix lol!

  33. John B

    Mal
    History! lol you mean stories that you select that match your simplistic bias.
    Like the way you accept without question the supposed pretani islands LOL
    what the island of Ireland as described that if you had ACTUALLY studied the original documents and not some little Britain supposed translation!
    Had this supposed other Island placed between what is now Britain and Spain!
    Ptolemys map examined.

    Of course british isles is political.
    British is not a ancient word or some natural organic form, it is a invented word and one of the 17th century at earliest and then in basic form and not in the form you and people like you want to, and clearly need to imagine.
    Get over the label-hating people, and enjoy actual history, instead of attempting to rewrite it!
    Ireland is a island off the coast of Europe.
    We live in the 21st century.
    Not that one would ever know it was the 21st century what with this ordnance survey website quoting colonial cliché.
    The ordnance survey of another small island off the coast of Europe that claims to be United even if the need for a prefix LOL and around half of Scots ! suggests otherwise.
    British is a colonial term, having no credible ore remotely distinct ancient term of reference.

    Ireland suffices the world over for this Island.

  34. jerry O'Neil

    I am from Northern Ireland and I consider my self as neither british or Irish, I am Northern Irish. Just thought i would like to confuse the issue a bit more ;p So proud of our little country and its people Liam Neeson, Kenneth Branagh,C. S. Lewis,Van Morrison,Sam neill,James nesbitt,Joey Dunlop,Rory McIlroy,Darren Clarke,Christine Bleakley and the list goes on……..

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