The term British Isles defines a purely geographic area - not, as is
sometimes thought, a political area.
However, every now and then the inhabitants of these islands still just about
manage to unite behind a single badge.
The rugby union touring team,
The British and Irish Lions,
draws its players from all over the British Isles.
This page is intended to provide some basic geo-political facts about the British Isles and a chronology of significant unions and separations amongst the political entities constructed upon them. A handy collection of longest, highest, etc. geographic facts can be found at the Ordnance Survey site but they mainly relate to the UK alone rather than the whole of the British Isles.
|British Isles||121,674||67.5m||The archipelago off the West coast of continental Europe|
|Great Britain||88,745||61.3m||The largest island of the archipelago|
|Ireland||32,589||6.0m||The second largest island of the archipelago|
|Isle of Man||221||84,497||Situated in the Irish Sea almost equidistant from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales|
|Channel Islands||75||163,483||That part of the archipelago nearest France [Geologically not part of the archipelago but generally - albeit erroneously - included in the British Isles]|
|United Kingdom||94,247||63.1m||Sovereign State (Parliamentary Monarchy)|
|Ireland||27,137||4.2m||Sovereign State (Parliamentary Republic)|
|Jersey||45||97,857||British Crown Dependency (Parliamentary Bailiwick)|
|Isle of Man||221||84,497||British Crown Dependency ("Oldest Parliament in the World")|
|Guernsey||24||62,915||British Crown Dependency (Parliamentary Bailiwick)|
|Alderney||3||2,111||British Crown Dependency (part of Bailiwick of Guernsey)|
|Sark||2||600||British Crown Dependency (part of Bailiwick of Guernsey)|
NB The term British Islands has been used by the UK government since the Interpretation Act 1978 to collectively denote those lands within the British Isles which are inhabited by British citizens, i.e. the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. It is not synonymous with the term British Isles.
The population of the United Kingdom at the 2011 census was 63.1m. This population is distributed amongst four* "home nations":
|50,362||53.0m||Kingdom||The Communities and Local Government department oversees both two-tier and, since April 1996, unitary Counties, Districts and Boroughs along with unitary Metropolitan Districts, the Greater London Authority & London Boroughs|
|30,414||5.3m||Kingdom||Scottish Parliament, Scottish Government and unitary council areas, most of which were either Regions, Islands or Districts prior to April 1996|
|8,019||3.1m||Principality||National Assembly for Wales, Welsh Assembly Government and unitary council areas, most of which were either Counties or Boroughs prior to April 1996|
|5,452||1.8m||Province||Northern Ireland Assembly, Northern Ireland Executive and unitary City, Borough and District council areas [Formerly Counties and Districts]|
* Historically the Cornish are distinct from the English. I
therefore include a fifth entry for Cornwall below even though its
official status is no different to that of any other county in England.
A persuasive case for according a special status to Cornwall is made at the
site and there is an e-petition requesting the UK government to recognise
the Cornish as a national minority
(closing date 9th August 2012).
Note that Cornwall is included in the statistics quoted above for England.
Each of England, Scotland and Wales includes various smaller islands as well as parts of mainland Great Britain but common usage has led to the term Great Britain being used to describe these three countries (and even the whole of the UK in the Olympics). The word Britain has also come to be an alias for the UK and the terms British, Briton and Brit have been derived to denote its citizens.
Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each have specific government departments whose function is to represent their particular interests and ensure that they do not get swamped by the English majority in government. The Secretaries of State for these departments are members of the cabinet. The relationships between the devolved administrations and central government take the form of a series of concordats through the Ministry of Justice.
There are three legal jurisdictions within the UK: England & Wales; Scotland; Northern Ireland. The Supreme Court ("the highest court in the land"), alone, is common to them all - but only for civil cases in Scotland.
Anglesey is a Welsh unitary council
Orkney is a unitary Scottish island council
The Isles of Scilly form a unitary council within England
Shetland is a unitary Scottish island council
The Western Isles (Comhairle nan Eilean Siar), also known as the Outer Hebrides, is a unitary Scottish island council
The Isle of Wight is an English unitary council
Arran is part of the Scottish council of North Ayrshire
Fair Isle is part of the Scottish island council of Shetland
The Inner Hebrides are split between the Scottish councils of Highland (Muck, Eigg, Rhum and northwards) and Argyll and Bute (Coll, Tiree, Mull and southwards)
Lindisfarne (or Holy Island) and the Farne Islands are part of the English county of Northumberland
Lundy is part of the English county of Devon
The Isle of Sheppey is part of the English county of Kent
Ireland is both a geographic and a political unit with different boundaries. Historically, the island of Ireland is comprised of thirty-two counties grouped into four provinces:
|6,838||0.5m||Galway, Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon, Sligo|
|7,645||2.3m||Carlow, Dublin, Kildare, Kilkenny, Laois, Longford, Louth, Meath, Offaly,
Westmeath, Wexford, Wicklow
|9,527||1.2m||Clare, Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary, Waterford|
|8,575||1.9m||Antrim, Armagh, Cavan, Derry, Donegal, Down, Fermanagh, Monaghan, Tyrone|
Six of the nine counties of Ulster (Antrim, Armagh, Derry, Down, Fermanagh and Tyrone) form Northern Ireland and are part of the United Kingdom. They account for approximately one-sixth of the area of the island and one-third of its population. The other three counties of Ulster (Cavan, Donegal and Monaghan) are part of the republic.
The republic of Ireland consists of twenty-six counties. The population of the republic at the 2006 census was 4.2m. Within the republic, the administrative units are Counties, County Boroughs, Metropolitan Boroughs and Urban Districts.
Applying the term British, or any of its variants, to citizens of the republic is both incorrect politically and politically incorrect. Evidence of the offence taken at this usage can sporadically be found in the soc.culture.irish newsgroup.
|The Channel Islands consist of four British Crown Dependencies - Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney and Sark. The Bailiwick of Guernsey includes Alderney and Sark along with the islands of Herm, Brechou, Jethou and Lihou. The legislatures are the States in Jersey, Guernsey and Alderney and the Court of Chief Pleas in Sark.|
|The Isle of Man is a British Crown Dependency. Its parliament, the Tynwald, has two branches - the Legislative Council and the House of Keys. The latter, with a history stretching back into the first millennium AD, has a continuity which surpasses any other parliamentary assembly in the world.|
|400mya||Avalonia (including England, Wales and southern Ireland) and Laurentia (including Scotland and northern Ireland) merge forming Pangaea and the archipelago we know today; Various ice ages ensue joining the archipelago with the continent from time to time|
|750tya||Earliest evidence of hominids (not homo sapiens) in the archipelago|
|30tya||Probable arrival of homo sapiens|
|8tya||Last land bridge between the archipelago and the continent submerged beneath the North Sea|
|3tya||Late Bronze Age - Celtic influences evident|
|C2nd||Romans unite "all" of England and Wales as one province - Britannia|
|410||Romans withdraw and Britannia fragments|
|844||Accession of Rhodri Mawr, first Prince of all Wales - divided again amongst his sons on his death|
|925||Accession of Athelstan, first King of all England|
|936||Cornish expelled to West side of River Tamar by English (Cornwall effectively becomes a separate but subjugated nation)|
|1002||Brian Boru recognised as King of Ireland by the O'Neills|
|1005||Accession of Malcolm II, first King of practically all mainland Scotland|
|1018||Accession of Prince Llewelyn ap Seisyll who re-unites Wales|
|1022||Death of Brian Boru, last effective High King of Ireland|
|1066||William, Duke of Normandy, seizes English Crown and becomes William I of England - Channel Islands thus brought under suzerainty of England|
|1171||Henry II proclaims himself Lord of Ireland|
|1266||Norwegian Kingdom of the Hebrides (which included the Isle of Man) ceded to Scotland|
|1282||England annexes Wales - last independent Prince of Wales recognised by English Crown is killed|
|1301||Tradition of heir to English throne being invested as Prince of Wales begins|
|1337||Cornwall becomes a Duchy - to be held by heir to English throne|
|1400||Owain Glyndwr proclaimed Prince of an independent Welsh state - Wales cleared of all English forces by 1406|
|1410||Glyndwr defeated - Wales re-annexed by England|
|1485||Henry VII of the Welsh House of Tudor becomes King of England|
|1536||First Act of Union officially annexes Wales to England|
|1541||Henry VIII takes the title King of Ireland|
|1542||Second Act of Union "between" England and Wales|
|1590||Orkney and Shetland formally pass to Scotland from Danish-Norwegian Union|
|1603||James VI of Scotland becomes James I of England (and Ireland and Wales); English law enforced throughout Ireland (Ireland effectively annexed)|
|1707||Union of English and Scottish parliaments as Parliament of Great Britain sitting at the Palace of Westminster in London|
|1801||Union of Great Britain and Ireland as United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland|
|1828||Isle of Man becomes a British Crown Dependency|
|1919||Irish parliament, the Dail Eireann, created in Dublin|
|1920||Government of Ireland Act creates Irish Free State and Northern Ireland; UK becomes the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland|
|1921||Anglo-Irish Treaty recognises the Dail parliament|
|1931||Northern Ireland parliament, Stormont, completed in Belfast; Statute of Westminster formalises relationship between UK and Dominions, including Irish Free State, as the Commonwealth of Nations|
|1938||Ireland adopts a new consitution and becomes a republic in all but name|
|1949||Ireland formally becomes a republic and leaves the Commonwealth|
|1972||Stormont parliament dissolved and direct rule by UK parliament follows|
|1973||Northern Ireland Assembly set up to govern Northern Ireland locally; United Kingdom and Ireland become members of the European Coal and Steel Community, the European Economic Community and the European Atomic Energy Community|
|1974||Northern Ireland Constitution Act re-introduces direct rule|
|1979||First elections to European Parliament by direct universal adult suffrage|
|1986||United Kingdom and Ireland become co-signatories to the Single European Act along with the Kingdom of the Belgians, the Kingdom of Denmark, the French Republic, the Federal Republic of Germany, the Hellenic Republic, the Italian Republic, the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, the Kingdom of the Netherlands, the Portuguese Republic and the Kingdom of Spain|
|1992||United Kingdom and Ireland become co-signatories to the Treaty on European Union|
|1993||European Union formally founded|
|1995||The Republic of Austria, the Republic of Finland and the Kingdom of Sweden join the European Union|
|1998||"Good Friday" Agreement provides for amendment to the Constitution of Ireland, repeal of the Government of Ireland Act, creation of a Northern Ireland Executive answerable to a Northern Ireland Assembly with executive and legislative powers, a North/South Ministerial Council, a British-Irish Council and a British-Irish Inter-governmental Conference|
|1999||Ireland adopts the Euro as official currency; Creation of a Scottish Executive answerable to a Scottish Parliament with executive, legislative and some fiscal powers; Creation of a National Assembly for Wales with executive powers|
|2004||The Republic of Cyprus, the Czech Republic, the Republic of Estonia, the Republic of Hungary, the Republic of Latvia, the Republic of Lithuania, the Republic of Malta, the Republic of Poland, the Slovak Republic and the Republic of Slovenia join the European Union; EU member states start to ratify a Constitution for Europe|
|2006||St Andrews Agreement identifies plan for restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland; Government of Wales Act enhances the legislative powers of the National Assembly for Wales and charges it with scrutinising and monitoring a Welsh Assembly Government with executive powers|
|2007||The Republic of Bulgaria and Romania join the European Union; Northern Ireland Assembly election leads to power sharing between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein|
|2009||Herman van Rompuy becomes the first President of the European Council; Catherine Ashton (Baroness Ashton of Upholland) becomes the first EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy|
|2011||Referendum results in full devolution of certain legislative powers to the National Assembly for Wales|
|Compiled by Nick Taylor with assistance from soc.culture.british newsgroup participants. Comments on errors of fact or omission are welcomed but please bear in mind that the minutiae have occasionally been sacrificed for the sake of brevity.|