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British Isles
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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 (see list of the British Isles).

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. While the term British Isles is still widely used within the United Kingdom and internationally, it is less often used in the Republic of Ireland owing to sensitivities that may be traced back to British rule of what is now the Republic of Ireland.

Table of contents
1 Origin of the term 'British Isles'
2 Subsequent political history
3 Problems with modern usage
4 Alternatives
5 Footnotes
6 Further reading
7 External links

Origin of the term 'British Isles'

The geographical archipelago has been referred to by a single term for over two thousand years.

The archipelago has for most of that time been denoted as a group by a term pronounced "Brit-" or "Prit-" with various endings. Great Britain, the largest of the islands has had various names, such as Albion, and the terminology used for the group may have arisen separately from that used for the largest island. Early inhabitants left no known written records mentioning their homeland by name; the earliest surviving written records derive from the classical Mediterranean civilisation.

Classical geographers

The classical writers of geographies named the group of islands using a transliteration into their own language such as Latin (e.g. Bretannae) or Greek (e.g. Βρηττανων).

Thoughout Book 4 of his Geography, Strabo is consistent in spelling the island Britain (transliterated) as Prettanikee; he uses the terms Prettans or Brettans for the islands as a group. For example, in Geography 2.1.18, "...οι νοτιωτατοι των Βρηττανων βορηιοτηροι τουτον ηισιν". (...the most southern of the Brettans are further north than this)2. He was writing around AD 10, although the earliest surviving copy of his work dates from the 6th century.

Pliny the Elder writing around AD 70 uses a Latin version of the same terminology in section 4.102 of his Naturalis Historia. He writes of Great Britain: Albion ipsi nomen fuit, cum Britanniae vocarentur omnes de quibus mox paulo dicemus. (Albion was its own name, when all [the islands] were called the Britannias; I will speak of them in a moment). In the following section, 4.103, Pliny enumerates the islands he considers to make up the Britannias, listing Great Britain, Ireland, and many smaller islands.

Ptolemy is quite clear that Ireland – he calls it Hibernia – belongs to the group he calls Britannia. He entitles Book II, Chapter 1 of his Geography as Hibernia, Island of Britannia.

Renaissance mapmakers

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".

Modern historians

''There were four groups of Celtic invaders of Ireland, viz., beginning with the earliest:
(1) The Cruthin (Priteni), after whom these islands were known to the Greeks as the Pretanic Islands. In early historical times they preserved their individuality best in the North of Britain, where they were known to Latin writers as "Picti". O'Rahilly, T. F. (1984). Early Irish history and mythology. Dublin: Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies. pp. 40–2

The first group of invaders of which we know anything were the "Bruthin" or "Priteni", a group of P-Celts, who invaded both Britain and Ireland, presumably from Europe, some time before the fifth century B.C. They maintained their individuality best in North Britain, where they were known as Picts to the Latin writers. It was their presence which made Greeks like Ptolemy and Pytheas refer to the British Isles as "the Pretanic Isles". Needham, C. (1963). The life of St. Patrick. Camden, NJ: The St. Patrick Fathers.

"The Brettans" appears to be an older term than Brettanike, and suggests that the earliest sources viewed Britain together with adjacent islands under this name; ... Strabo spells this with a P (Prettans)... Pliny seems to use the same terminology... "cum Brittaniae vocarentur omnes") It is quite possible that this goes back to Pytheas... Certainly it would not be unreasonable for mariners using the Western Seaway between Ireland and Britain to group all the outlying islands together with the large ones under a single term... (Roseman, C H (1984) Pytheas of Massalia: On the Ocean Text, Translation and Commentary Chicago, Illinois: Ares Publishers, Inc. p. 45)

The term "British" had been 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.
use of the initial P is considered to reflect the Brythonic branch of Keltic, and ... the change in spelling from Pre- to Brit- [may be] based on a misconception of Caesar's arising from his familiarity with Britanni occupying the Gaulish coast around Boulogne. (Roseman, op.cit., footnote 34, chapter IV)3

"Britain" became a geographical name for the largest island, and the island group was referred to with a similar name.

Subsequent political history

Over the centuries, 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 Kings 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 kings ruled in Scotland. The Hebridean Islands were however at this time ruled by Norway. Wales was not formally ruled by an English king until 1536, though de facto control had existed earlier. England and Scotland entered a personal union under King James I & VI; in 1603, though English monarchs had made repeated earlier attempts to gain control. As a result by the 17th century 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 James I & VI as early as October 1604, though it only became the official name of the island and its merged English and Scottish kingdoms with the Act of Union between England and Scotland 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.

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. To many Irish people, as well as some Scottish and Welsh nationalists, the term "British Isles" is unacceptable. It is perceived as an agenda-laden term that seems to imply that their countries, notably the completely independent Republic of Ireland, are part of the "islands of Britain", in some way subordinate to the British government (as was formerly true of all Ireland and is still the case to varying extents of the governments of Scotland and Wales).

The term British Isles can lead to misinterpretation; this was exemplified by an embarrassing and controversial misunderstanding by the then American First Lady Nancy Reagan during an Irish visit. As a result, the term is no longer used in Irish state documents, has been abandoned in Irish schoolbooks and is being phased out of textbooks.4 Its usage is also decreasing in official British state documents, out of sensitivity to the concerns of some Irish, Scottish and Welsh people and the evolving geo-political relationships.

In Ireland, the phrase "Britain and Ireland" is the preferred term. The term "Great Britain" is apparently distinct from "Lesser Britain" (i.e. Brittany), but "Britain" is unambiguously the name of the large island between Ireland and France.


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. (But in a wider context the term might be misunderstood as including Iceland, Greenland, the Azores and other islands.)

Sometimes, an ambiguous phrase such as These Isles or The Isles is used4. 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.

The term British Islands is not an alternative; it is an official term used for the United Kingdom and the Crown Dependencies, i.e. all of the isles except the Republic of Ireland.


1 The Channel Islands are included here by convention. Some people do not consider them part of the archipelago, as they are closer to France than to Great Britain.

2 Translation by Roseman, op.cit.

3 The author also refers to related discussion in Chadwick, H.M. 1949, repr. 1974, Early Scotland Octagon Books; (November 1974) ASIN 0374913579

4 The confusion caused by the term, and the embarrassment caused to the Irish, was highlighted during a stop-over visit to the Republic by then Soviet Union leader Mikhail Gorbachev, when he indicated that he presumed Ireland's head of state was Queen Elizabeth II, given that she was the British Queen and his officials said Ireland was part of the British Isles.

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

Further reading

External links