The British Isles and all that ...

The Hunger Site

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. Further geographic informaton can be found at the UK Ordnance Survey and the Ordance Survey Ireland sites.

The Geographic Entities

(2016 est.)
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 6.6m 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]

The Political Entities

(2016 est.)
United Kingdom 94,247 63.1m Sovereign State (Parliamentary Monarchy)
Ireland 27,137 4.8m 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 United Kingdom

The population of the United Kingdom at the 2011 census was 63.1m. This population is distributed amongst four* "home nations":

Nation Area
(2011 cen.)
Status Administration

50,362 53.0m Kingdom The Department for Communities and Local Government 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 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. The Case for Cornwall resulted in the first ever Devolution Deal for a rural local authority in the UK and a persuasive case for according a special status to Cornwall was compiled by the late Jim Pengelly on the Tyr-Gwyr-Gweryn (formerly website. The Cornish people also have official minority status within the European Union. Note that Cornwall is included in the statistics quoted above for England.

1,369 532,300 Duchy Unitary County

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 plus the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man 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.

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:

Province Area
(2016 cen.)

6,838 0.6m Galway, Leitrim, Mayo, Roscommon, Sligo

7,645 2.6m Carlow, Dublin, Kildare, Kilkenny, Laois, Longford, Louth, Meath, Offaly,
Westmeath, Wexford, Wicklow

9,527 1.3m Clare, Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Tipperary, Waterford

8,575 2.1m 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 2016 census was 4.8m. 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 newsgroup.

Administration in the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man

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.

Significant dates regarding annexations, devolvements, mergers, separations and unions

400mya Avalonia (including England, Wales and southern Ireland) and Laurentia (including Scotland and northern Ireland) merge forming Pangaea and the archipelago we know today
750tya Earliest evidence of hominids (not homo sapiens) in the archipelago
225tya Weald-Artois anticline linking England and France severed by megaflood creating English Channel (French: la Manche; Dutch: Het Kanaal; Cornish: Mor Bretannek; Breton: Mor Breizh)
30tya Probable arrival of homo sapiens
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 Aethelstan, 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
1320 Declaration of Arbroath confirming Scotland's status as an independent sovereign state submitted to Pope John XXII;
Notably stated that the independence of Scotland was the prerogative of the Scottish people
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
1472 Orkney and Shetland annexed by James III of Scotland from Danish-Norwegian Union
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
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;
Referendum amending the Constitution of Ireland to permit membership of the European Community - Yes:83.1% No:16.9% Turnout:70.9%
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 (later to become the European Union)
1974 Northern Ireland Constitution Act re-introduces direct rule
1975 Referendum on the UK remaining a part of the European Community (the Common Market) - Yes:67.2% No:32.8% Turnout:64.5%
1979 First elections to European Parliament by direct universal adult suffrage
1993 European Union formally founded
1997 Referendums in Scotland and Wales approve devolution of power to locally elected bodies -
Scotland: Yes:74.3% No:25.7% Turnout:60.4%; Question: "I agree that there should be a Scottish Parliament" versus "I do not agree that there should be a Scottish Parliament"
Wales: Yes:50.3% No:49.7% Turnout:50.2%; Question: "Do you agree that there should be a Welsh Assembly as proposed by the Government?"
Scotland also approved a Scottish Parliament having tax-varying powers -
Yes:63.5% No:36.5% Turnout:60.4%; Question: "I agree that a Scottish Parliament should have tax-varying powers" versus "I do not agree that a Scottish Parliament should have tax-varying powers"
1998 The "Good Friday" or Belfast 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 Intergovernmental Conference
Simultaneous referendums in Ireland and Northern Ireland approve the "Good Friday Agreement" -
Ireland - Yes:94.4% No:5.5% Turnout:56.6%; Question: "Do you approve of the proposal to amend the Constitution contained in the undermentioned Bill? Nineteenth Amendment of the Constitution Bill, 1998"
Northern Ireland - Yes:71.1% No:28.9% Turnout:81.1%; Question: "Do you support the Agreement reached at the multi-party talks on Northern Ireland and set out in Command Paper 3883?"
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
2006 The St Andrews Agreement identifies a plan for restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland, mandating that the largest party in the largest community designation in the Assembly shall make a nomination for the post of First Minister and the largest party in the second largest community designation in the Assembly shall similarly nominate for the post of deputy First Minister, with the First Minister and deputy First Minister being joint heads of the Northern Ireland Executive and the deputy First Minister not being subordinate to the First Minister;
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 Northern Ireland Assembly election leads to power sharing between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein;
Scottish Executive officially referred to as the Scottish Government
2010 Welsh Assembly Government officially referred to as the Welsh Government
2011 Referendum results in full devolution of certain legislative powers to the National Assembly for Wales -
Yes:63.5% No:36.5% Turnout:35.6%; Question: "Do you want the Assembly now to be able to make laws on all matters in the 20 subject areas it has powers for?"
2012 Scotland Act devolves further powers to the Scottish Parliament including tax raising powers
2014 Cornish granted minority status under European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights;
Referendum on Scotland becoming an independent country - Yes:44.7% No:55.3% Turnout:84.6%
2015 Devolution Deal devolves powers to Cornwall Council and accords it Limited Intermediate Body status to deliver European Structural Investment Funds
2016 Referendum on UK remaining in the EU or leaving the EU - Leave:51.9% Remain:48.1% Turnout:72.2%
2017 January: Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness resigns as deputy First Minister in protest at DUP's handling of Renewable Heat Incentive scandal;
January: Northern Ireland Assembly election called after Sinn Fein refuse to nominate a deputy First Minister to succeed Martin McGuinness;
March: DUP and Sinn Fein remain largest parties (led by Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill respectively) after election and are required to form a power sharing executive;
Northern Ireland Assembly suspended following failure to agree a power sharing executive;
June: DUP enter into a "confidence and supply" arrangement with the UK government after the Conservatives lose their majority in the General Election
2020 Northern Ireland Assembly resumes;
United Kingdom formally leaves the European Union with a Withdrawal Agreement that aims to retain an open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland
2022 February: First Minister, Paul Givan (DUP), of Northern Ireland resigns triggering a Northern Ireland Assembly election in which Sinn Fein emerge as the largest party followed by the Democratic Unionist Party;
May: DUP refuse to assent to the election of a Speaker as part of a protest against the Northern Ireland Protocol so Assembly is suspended again and a new Executive cannot be appointed;
October: UK Government extends deadline for restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland so next
Northern Ireland Assembly election will be in 2023;
November: UK Supreme Court rules that the Scottish Government cannot hold an independence referendum without the UK Government's consent
2023 UK Government blocks Royal Assent for a Bill passed by the Scottish Parliament for the first time - Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill (2022)

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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.

This page is hosted courtesy of the School of Mathematical and Computer Sciences, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh