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British Isles

The British Isles is a traditional term used to identify the group of islands off the northwest coast of Europe consisting of Great Britain, Ireland and the many smaller adjacent islands. These islands form an archipelago off the west coast of Europe, 315,134 km2 (121,674 square miles), consisting of:

and many other smaller islands surrounding the islands of Great Britain and Ireland.

Politically, the archipelago is now divided between two sovereign states, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and three British crown dependencies: the Isle of Man, the Bailiwick of Guernsey and the Bailiwick of Jersey. The last four are not part of the United Kingdom.

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Origin of the term 'British Isles'

The term "British Isles" owes its origin to the geographical proximity between the islands, separate from continental Europe, and also their political relationships, which saw the gradual but continuously extending control of England over the islands of the archipelago.

Originally the term "British" was 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. "Britain" became a geographical name for the largest island, but the meanings of "Britain" and "British" were extended with political usage.

From the 12th century Kings of England, by virtue of military invasion reigned theoretically on the island of Ireland as Lord of Ireland or from 1541 as King of Ireland (though their degree of control was initially limited to an area called the Pale on the east coast) and until the 13th century, Irish kings1 ruled in Scotland. The Hebridean Islands were however at this time ruled by Norway. English rule extended to Scotland in 1603, though english monarchs made repeated earlier attempts to gain control. Wales was not formally ruled by an English king until 1536, though de-facto control had existed earlier. As a result by the Middle Ages England controlled both major islands either in theory or practice, with the word Great Britain used to describe the largest island on the archipelago by King James I as early as October 1604 (though it only became the official name of the island and its merged English and Scottish kingdoms with the Scottish Act of Union in 1707). Thus the usage of the name of the largest island in the archipelago, Britain as the name for the archipelago as a whole reflected not just the geography but the political relationships of the period, specifically the political, cultural and economic dominance of main island over the rest of the set.

Continental mapmakers 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".1

Problems with Modern Usage

In recent times, however, and unlike the case in many archipelagos, the political relationship between the main islands has changed. Since 1922, the Irish Free State (now the Republic of Ireland) has existed as a separate state, having fought a war of independence against Britain in the early twentieth century, while Scotland has achieved Home Rule and Wales has a lesser form of home administration. Thus to many Irish people as well as Scottish and Welsh nationalists, the term "British Isles" is unacceptable, being seen as an agenda-laden term by apparently implying that their regions, but most notably the completely independent twenty-six county Ireland, is part of the 'islands of Britain', and somehow subordinate to Great Britain, the former situation that it no longer the reality, as the term British Isles can be misinterpreted. It was controversially and embarrassingly so misinterpreted by then United States First Lady Nancy Reagan during an Irish visit. As a result the term is no longer used in Irish state documents, has been abandoned from Irish schoolbooks and is being phased out of textbooks.2 Its usage is also decreasing in official British state documentation, out of sensitivity to the concerns of Irish, Scottish and Welsh people and the envolving new geo-political relationships.


However the issue of a replacement term remains unsettled as of 2003, though 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 these islands.

In cases where what is being referred to is the two largest islands, the term "Great Britain and Ireland" can be used. Of course, in those cases, the term "British Isles" would not be appropriate to begin with. There is no other brief term in common use to refer to the island group as a whole; "Great Britain, Ireland, and surrounding islands" gets at the basic meaning, but at the cost of conciseness.


1 Whereas in England and Scotland, national kings existed, on the island of Ireland no national monarchy or sense of island identity existed. Instead many regional and local kingdoms existed, over which reigned a symbolic but in most cases relatively powerless High King of Ireland, and whose importance was via the High Kingship not the words of Ireland in his title. It was one of these Irish kings, not in any sense a 'king of Ireland', who exercised control in Scotland.

2 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

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