The oldest rocks are 2.7 billion years old and are found in Ireland, Wales and the northwest of Scotland.
North Atlantic drift brings significant moisture and raises temperatures 11 °C (20 °F) above the global average for the latitude. This led to a landscape that was long dominated by temperate rainforest, although human activity has since cleared the vast majority of forest cover. The region was re-inhabited after the last glacial period of Quaternary glaciation, by 12,000 BC, when Great Britain was still part of a peninsula of the European continent. Ireland was only connected to Great Britain by way of an ice bridge ending by 14,000 BC, and was not inhabited until after 8000 BC.[clarification needed] Great Britain became an island by 7000 BC with the flooding of Doggerland.
(1919–1922), with six counties remaining in the UK as Northern Ireland.
In Ireland, the term "British Isles" is
controversial, and there are objections to its usage. The Government of Ireland does not officially recognise the term, and its embassy in London discourages its use. "Britain and Ireland" is used as an alternative description, and "Atlantic Archipelago" has also seen limited use in academia. In official documents created jointly by Ireland and the United Kingdom, such as the Good Friday Agreement, the term "these islands" is used.
The earliest known references to the islands as a group appeared in the writings of seafarers from the ancient Greek colony of
Priteni or Pretani). The shift from the "P" of Pretannia to the "B" of Britannia by the Romans occurred during the time of Julius Caesar.
Claudius Ptolemy referred to the larger island as great Britain (μεγάλη Βρεττανία megale Brettania) and to Ireland as little Britain (μικρὰ Βρεττανία mikra Brettania) in his work Almagest (147–148 AD). In his later work, Geography (c. 150 AD), he gave these islands the names Alwion, Iwernia, and Mona (the Isle of Man), suggesting these may have been names of the individual islands not known to him at the time of writing Almagest. The name Albion appears to have fallen out of use sometime after the Roman conquest of Great Britain, after which Britain became the more commonplace name for the island called Great Britain in the English language. However, the cognate 'alba' has given its name to Scotland in most Celtic languages : Alba in Scottish Gaelic, Albey in Manx, Albain in Irish and Alban in Cornish and Welsh.
The earliest known use of the phrase Brytish Iles in the English language is dated 1577 in a work by John Dee. Today, this name is seen by some as carrying imperialist overtones although it is still commonly used. Other names used to describe the islands include the Anglo-Celtic Isles, Atlantic archipelago (a term coined by the historian J. G. A. Pocock in 1975), British-Irish Isles,Britain and Ireland, UK and Ireland, and British Isles and Ireland. Owing to political and national associations with the word British, the Government of Ireland does not use the term British Isles and in documents drawn up jointly between the British and Irish governments, the archipelago is referred to simply as "these islands". British Isles is still the most widely accepted term for the archipelago.
The British Isles lie at the juncture of several regions with past episodes of tectonic mountain building. These
early Silurian periods, when the cratonBaltica collided with the terraneAvalonia to form the mountains and hills in northern Britain and Ireland. Baltica formed roughly the northwestern half of Ireland and Scotland. Further collisions caused the Variscan orogeny in the Devonian and Carboniferous periods, forming the hills of Munster, southwest England, and southern Wales. Over the last 500 million years the land that 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
was deglaciated and the English Channel flooded, with sea levels rising to current levels some 8,000 years ago, leaving the British Isles in their current form.
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 83,700 sq mi (217,000 km2). Ireland is to the west and covers 32,590 sq mi (84,400 km2). 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. The most densely populated island is Portsea Island, which has an area of 9.5 sq mi (25 km2) but has the third highest population behind Great Britain and Ireland.
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 North Slob in County Wexford, Ireland, with an elevation of −3.0 metres (−9.8 ft). The Scottish Highlands in the northern part of Great Britain are mountainous, with Ben Nevis being the highest point on the islands at 1,345 m (4,413 ft). Other mountainous areas include Wales and parts of Ireland, although 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 150 square miles (390 km2). The largest freshwater body in Great Britain (by area) is Loch Lomond at 27.5 square miles (71 km2), and Loch Ness (by volume) whilst Loch Morar is the deepest freshwater body in the British Isles, with a maximum depth of 310 m (1,017 ft). There are a number of major rivers within the British Isles. The longest is the Shannon in Ireland at 224 mi (360 km). The river Severn at 220 mi (354 km) is the longest in Great Britain.
The climate of the British Isles is mild, moist and changeable with abundant rainfall and a lack of temperature extremes. It is defined as a temperate oceanic climate, or Cfb on the Köppen climate classification system, a classification it shares with most of northwest Europe. 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. Most Atlantic depressions pass to the north of the islands; combined with the general westerly circulation and interactions with the landmass, this imposes a general east–west variation in climate. There are four distinct climate patterns: south-east, with cold winters, warm and dry summers; south-west, having mild and very wet winters, warm and wet summers; north-west, generally wet with mild winters and cool summers; and north-east with cold winters, cool summers.
The islands enjoy a mild climate and varied soils, giving rise to a diverse pattern of vegetation. Animal and plant life is similar to that of the northwestern
European mainland. There are however, fewer numbers of species, with Ireland having even less. All native flora and fauna in Ireland is made up of species that migrated primarily from Great Britain. The only window when this could have occurred was prior to the melting of the ice bridge
between the two islands 14,000 years ago approaching the end of the last ice age.
As with most of Europe, prehistoric Britain and Ireland were covered with forest and swamp. Clearing began around 6000 BC and accelerated in medieval times. Despite this, Britain retained its primeval forests longer than most of Europe due to a small population and later development of trade and industry, and wood shortages were not a problem until the 17th century. By the 18th century, most of Britain's forests were consumed for shipbuilding or manufacturing charcoal and the nation was forced to import lumber from Scandinavia, North America, and the Baltic. Most forest land in Ireland is maintained by state forestation programmes. Almost all land outside 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,
Population density per km2 of the British Isles' regions
England has a generally high population density, with almost 80% of the total population of the islands. Elsewhere in Great Britain and Ireland, high density of population is limited to areas around a few large cities. The largest urban area by far is the
The population of England rose rapidly during the 19th and 20th centuries, whereas the populations of Scotland and Wales showed little increase during the 20th century; the population of Scotland has remained unchanged since 1951. Ireland for most of its history had much the same population density as Great Britain (about one-third of the total population). However, since the Great Irish Famine, the population of Ireland has fallen to less than one-tenth of the population of the British Isles. The famine 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 numbers fifteen times the current population of the island.
The linguistic heritage of the British Isles is rich,
2.5 million years ago the British Isles were repeatedly submerged beneath an ice sheet which extended into the middle of the North Sea, with a larger ice sheet that covered a significant proportion of Scandinavia on the opposite side. Around 1.9 million years ago these two ice sheets frequently merged, essentially creating a land bridge between Scandinavia and northern Great Britain. Further south, there was a direct land bridge, now known as Doggerland, which was gradually submerged as sea levels rose. However, the Irish Sea was formed before Doggerland was completely covered in water, with Ireland becoming an island roughly 6,000 years before Great Britain did.
At the time of the Roman Empire, about two thousand years ago, various tribes, which spoke Celtic dialects of the Insular Celtic group, were inhabiting the islands. The Romans expanded their civilisation to control southern Great Britain but were impeded in advancing any further, building Hadrian's Wall to mark the northern frontier of their empire in 122 AD. At that time, Ireland was populated by a people known as Hiberni, the northern third or so of Great Britain by a people known as Picts and the southern two thirds by Britons.
Viking invasions began in the 9th century, followed by more permanent settlements, particularly along the east coast of Ireland, the west coast of modern-day Scotland and the Isle of Man. Though the Vikings were eventually neutralised in Ireland, their influence remained in the cities of
King of England
and Lord of Ireland became entwined in one person.
James VI of Scotland (James I of England)
King of France. In 1534, King Henry VIII, at first having been a strong defender of Roman Catholicism in the face of the Reformation, separated from the Roman Church after failing to secure a divorce from the Pope. His response was to place the King of England as "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. Ireland, which had been held by the King of England as Lord of Ireland, but which strictly speaking had been a feudal possession of the Pope since the Norman invasion was declared a separate kingdom
in personal union with England.
Scotland meanwhile had remained an independent Kingdom. In 1603, that changed when the King of Scotland
War of the Three Kingdoms led to a revolutionary republic in England. Ireland, largely Catholic, was mainly loyal to the king, but by military conquest was subsumed into the new republic. Following defeat to the parliament's army, large scale land distributions from loyalist Irish nobility to English commoners in the service of the parliamentary army created a new Ascendancy class which obliterated the remnants of Old English (Hiberno-Norman) and Gaelic Irish nobility in Ireland. The new ruling class was Protestant and English, whilst the populace was largely Catholic and Irish. This theme would influence Irish politics for centuries to come. When the monarchy was restored in England, the king found it politically impossible to restore the lands of former landowners in Ireland. The "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 repeated similar themes: a Catholic king pushing for religious tolerance in opposition to a Protestant parliament in England. The king's army was defeated at the Battle of the Boyne and at the militarily crucial Battle of Aughrim in Ireland. Resistance held out, eventually forcing the guarantee of religious tolerance in the Treaty of Limerick
. However, the terms were never honoured and a new monarchy was installed.
The Kingdoms of England and Scotland were
revolution in Ireland in 1798, the Kingdoms of Ireland and Great Britain were unified in 1801, creating the United Kingdom. The Isle of Man and the Channel Islands remaining outside of the United Kingdom, but with their ultimate good governance being the responsibility of the British Crown (effectively the British government). Although the colonies of North America 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-third of the globe. Poverty in the United Kingdom remained desperate, however, and industrialisation in England led to terrible conditions for the working classes. Mass 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. Most of Ireland seceded from the United Kingdom after the Irish War of Independence and the subsequent Anglo-Irish Treaty
(1919–1922), with the six counties that formed Northern Ireland remaining as an autonomous region of the UK.
of the subdivisions of the British Isles. Geographical subdivisions are in green, political subdivisions in blue.
There are two sovereign states in the British Isles:
United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Ireland, sometimes called the Republic of Ireland, governs five-sixths of the island of Ireland, with the remainder of the island forming Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is a part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, usually shortened to simply "the United Kingdom", which governs the remainder of the archipelago with the exception of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. The Isle of Man and the two Bailiwicks of the Channel Islands, Jersey and Guernsey, are known as the Crown Dependencies. They exercise constitutional rights of self-government and judicial independence; responsibility for international representation rests largely with the UK (in consultation with the respective governments); and responsibility for defence is reserved by the UK. The United Kingdom is made up of four constituent parts: England, Scotland and Wales, forming Great Britain, and Northern Ireland in the northeast of the island of Ireland. Of these, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have devolved governments, meaning that each has its own parliament or assembly and is self-governing with respect to certain matters set down by law. For judicial purposes, Scotland, Northern Ireland and England and Wales
(the latter being one entity) form separate legal jurisdictions, with there being no single law for the UK as a whole.
Ireland, the United Kingdom and the three Crown dependencies are all
British monarch is the head of state of the United Kingdom, while in the Republic of Ireland the head of state is the President of Ireland
Ireland is the only part of the isles that is a member state of the
Amsterdam Treaty of the European Union, and (together with the Crown dependencies) is now known as the Common Travel Area. As such, Ireland is not part of the Schengen Area, which allows passport-free travel between most EU member states, and is the only member state with an opt-out from the obligation to join the Schengen Zone.
Reciprocal arrangements allow British and Irish citizens specific voting rights in the two states. In Ireland, British citizens can vote in General and local elections, but not in European Parliament elections, constitutional referendums or presidential elections (for which there is no comparable franchise in the United Kingdom). In the United Kingdom, Irish and Commonwealth citizens can vote in every election for which British citizens are eligible. In the Crown dependencies, any resident can vote in general elections, but in Jersey and the Isle of Man only British citizens can run for office. These pre-date European Union law, and in both jurisdictions go further than what was required by European Union law (EU citizens may only vote in local elections in both states and European elections in Ireland). In 2008, a UK Ministry of Justice report investigating how to strengthen the British sense of citizenship 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".
In addition, some civil 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 Royal National Lifeboat Institution (RNLI), a charity that operates a lifeboat service, is also organised throughout the islands as a whole, covering the waters of the United Kingdom, Ireland, the Isle of Man, and the Channel Islands.
The Northern Ireland peace process has led to a number of unusual arrangements between the Republic of Ireland, Northern Ireland and the United Kingdom. For example, citizens of Northern Ireland are entitled to the choice of Irish or British citizenship or both, and the Governments of Ireland and the United Kingdom consult on matters not devolved to the Northern Ireland Executive. The Northern Ireland Executive and the Government of Ireland also meet as the North/South Ministerial Council to develop policies common across the island of Ireland. These arrangements were made following the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
Another body established under the Good Friday Agreement, the British–Irish Council, is made up of all of the states and territories of the British Isles. The
High Court of Tynwald
(Isle of Man).
The Council does not have executive powers but meets biannually to discuss issues of mutual importance. Similarly, the Parliamentary Assembly has no legislative powers but investigates and collects witness evidence from the public on matters of mutual concern to its members. Reports on its findings are presented to the Governments of Ireland and the United Kingdom. During the February 2008 meeting of the British–Irish Council, it was agreed to set up a standing secretariat that would serve as a permanent 'civil service' for the Council. Leading on from developments in the British–Irish Council, the chair of the British–Irish Inter-Parliamentary Assembly, Niall Blaney, has suggested that the body should shadow the British–Irish Council's work.
The United Kingdom and Ireland have separate media, although British television, newspapers and magazines are widely available in Ireland,
Mercury Music Prize
is handed out every year to the best album from a British or Irish musician or group.
Many globally popular sports had their modern rules codified in the British Isles, including golf,
British and Irish Lions is a team chosen from each national team and undertakes tours of the Southern Hemisphere rugby-playing nations every four years. Ireland plays as a united team, represented by players from both Northern Ireland and the Republic. These national rugby teams play each other each year for the Triple Crown as part of the Six Nations Championship. Also, since 2001, the professional club teams of Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Italy and South Africa compete against each other in the United Rugby Championship
The Ryder Cup in golf was originally played between a United States team and a team representing Great Britain and Ireland. From 1979 onwards, this was expanded to include the whole of Europe.
London Heathrow Airport is Europe's busiest airport in terms of passenger traffic, and the Dublin-London route is the busiest air route in Europe collectively, the busiest route out of Heathrow and the second-busiest international air route in the world. The English Channel and the southern North Sea are the busiest seaways in the world. The Channel Tunnel
, opened in 1994, links Great Britain to France and is the second-longest rail tunnel in the world.
The idea of building a
The Institute of Engineers of Ireland in 2004. A rail tunnel was proposed in 1997 on a different route, between Dublin and Holyhead, by British engineering firm Symonds. Either tunnel, at 50 mi (80 km), would be by far the longest in the world, and would cost an estimated £15 billion or €20 billion. A proposal in 2007, estimated the cost of building a bridge from County Antrim in Northern Ireland to Galloway
^ abCountry/Territory Index, Island Directory, United Nations Environment Programme. Retrieved 9 August 2015. Island FactsArchived 4 March 2016 at the Wayback Machine, Isle of Man Government. Retrieved 9 August 2015. According to the UNEP, the Channel Islands have a land area of 194 km2, the Republic of Ireland has a land area of 70,282 km2, and the United Kingdom has a land area of 244,111 km2. According to the Isle of Man Government, the Isle of Man has a land area of 572 km2. Therefore, the overall land area of the British Isles is 315,159 km2.
. The British Isles comprise more than 6,000 islands off the northwest coast of continental Europe, including the countries of the United Kingdom of Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales) and Northern Ireland, and the Republic of Ireland. The group also includes the United Kingdom crown dependencies of the Isle of Man, and by tradition, the Channel Islands (the Bailiwicks of Guernsey and Jersey), even though these islands are strictly speaking an archipelago immediately off the coast of Normandy (France) rather than part of the British Isles.
, Some of the Irish dislike the 'British' in 'British Isles', while a minority of the Welsh and Scottish are not keen on 'Great Britain'. ... In response to these difficulties, 'Britain and Ireland' is becoming preferred official usage if not in the vernacular, although there is a growing trend amongst some critics to refer to Britain and Ireland as 'the archipelago'.
^ ab"Written Answers – Official Terms"Archived 6 October 2012 at the Wayback Machine, Dáil Éireann, Volume 606, 28 September 2005. In his response, the Irish Minister for Foreign Affairs stated that "The British Isles is not an officially recognised term in any legal or inter-governmental sense. It is without any official status. The Government, including the Department of Foreign Affairs, does not use this term. Our officials in the Embassy of Ireland, London, continue to monitor the media in Britain for any abuse of the official terms as set out in the Constitution of Ireland and in legislation. These include the name of the State, the President, Taoiseach and others."
^Sharrock, David (3 October 2006), "New atlas lets Ireland slip shackles of Britain", The Times, UK, archived from the original on 16 February 2007, retrieved 24 April 2020, A spokesman for the Irish Embassy in London said: 'The British Isles has a dated ring to it as if we are still part of the Empire. We are independent, we are not part of Britain, not even in geographical terms. We would discourage its useage [sic].'
. At the outset, it should be stated that while the expression 'The British Isles' is evidently still commonly employed, its intermittent use throughout this work is only in the geographic sense, in so far as that is acceptable. Since the early twentieth century, that nomenclature has been regarded by some as increasingly less usable. It has been perceived as cloaking the idea of a 'greater England', or an extended south-eastern English imperium, under a common Crown since 1603 onwards. ... Nowadays, however, 'Britain and Ireland' is the more favoured expression, though there are problems with that too. ... There is no consensus on the matter, inevitably. It is unlikely that the ultimate in non-partisanship that has recently appeared the (East) 'Atlantic Archipelago' will have any appeal beyond captious scholars.
^Guardian Style Guide, London: The Guardian, 19 December 2008, archived from the original on 24 May 2023, A geographical term taken to mean Great Britain, Ireland and some or all of the adjacent islands such as Orkney, Shetland and the Isle of Man. The phrase is best avoided, given its (understandable) unpopularity in the Irish Republic. The plate in the National Geographic Atlas of the World once titled British Isles now reads Britain and Ireland.
, The term we favour here—Atlantic Archipelago—may prove to be of no greater use in the long run, but at this stage, it does at least have the merit of questioning the ideology underpinning more established nomenclature.
, In some ways 'Atlantic Archipelago' is intended to do the work of including without excluding, and while it seems to have taken root in terms of academic conferences and publishing, I don't see it catching on in popular discourse or official political circles, at least not in a hurry.
, Some scholars, seeking to avoid the political and ethnic connotations of 'the British Isles', have proposed the 'Atlantic Archipelago' or even 'the East Atlantic Archipelago' (see, e.g. Pocock 1975a: 606; 1995: 292n; Tompson, 1986) Not surprisingly this does not seem to have caught on with the general public, though it has found increasing favour with scholars promoting the new 'British History'.
, British and Irish historians increasingly use 'Atlantic archipelago' as a less metro-centric term for what is popularly known as the British Isles.
^ abcWorld and its Peoples: Ireland and United Kingdom, London: Marshall Cavendish, 2010, p. 8, The nomenclature of Great Britain and Ireland and the status of the different parts of the archipelago are often confused by people in other parts of the world. The name British Isles is commonly used by geographers for the archipelago; in the Republic of Ireland, however, this name is considered to be exclusionary. In the Republic of Ireland, the name British-Irish Isles is occasionally used. However, the term British-Irish Isles is not recognized by international geographers. In all documents jointly drawn up by the British and Irish governments, the archipelago is simply referred to as "these islands". The name British Isles remains the only generally accepted term for the archipelago off the northwestern coast of mainland Europe.
^MacBain, Alexander (1896). An etymological dictionary of the Gaelic language. Stirling: Eneas Mackay. p. 393.
^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"
, The geographical term British Isles is not generally acceptable in Ireland, the term these islands being widely used instead. I prefer the Anglo-Celtic Isles, or the North-West European Archipelago.
^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'.
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.
^Ray, Michael. "River Shannon". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. Retrieved 11 February 2020. about 161 miles (259 km) in a southerly direction to enter the Atlantic Ocean via a 70-mile (113-kilometre) estuary below Limerick city
^Wallenfeldt, Jeff. "River Severn". Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. Retrieved 11 February 2020. about 180 miles (290 km) long, with the Severn estuary adding some 40 miles (64 km) to its total length
, Not only are the English Channel and the Southern North Sea, in particular, the busiest shipping clearways in the world, but the seas are also sources of the European community's industrial wealth (fisheries, petroleum, aggregates, and power) and sinks for the disposal of refuse from its intensely urbanized and industrialized coats.