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British Isles

British Isles is also an old name for the British and Irish Lions.

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 of more than 6,000 islands off the west coast of Europe – totalling 315,134 km2 (121,674 square miles) of land – consisting of:

and many other smaller islands surrounding the islands of Great Britain and Ireland (see list of the British Isles).

While one would expect a "British Isle" to be British, the inclusion of (the whole of) Ireland in the term has become a political anachronism: the archipelago is 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, it is therefore a potential source of confusion or offence (see 'Problems with Modern Usage' below).


Origin of the term 'British Isles'

The geographical archipelago has been referred to by a single term for over two thousand years, foreign sources using a term pronounced "Brit-" or "Prit-" with various endings and native sources using the terms oceani insulae meaning "islands of the ocean" or insularum meaning "islands". Only in modern times has the term "British Isles" entered the English language.

Classical geographers

The inhabitants of the British Isles in classical times were the celtic Bruthin or Priteni, who invaded Britain and Ireland some time before the 5th century BC. The classical writers of geographies named the group of islands after these inhabitants, 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.

Native Sources

The early surviving discussion of the geography is almost exclusively in classical languages. The "British Isles" terminology of the classical geographers is found in English only in documents written after the Reformation.

The earliest native source to use a collective term for the archipelago is the Life of Saint Columba , a hagiography purporting to record the missionary activities of the sixth century Irish monk Saint Columba among the peoples of Britain. Written in the late seventh century by Adomnán of Iona, an Irish monk living on a Scottish island with considerable Pictish and English interests, it must be considered an authority as regards the totality of relationships within the archipelago at that time. The collective term for the archipelago used within this work is oceani insulae meaning "islands of the ocean" (Book 2, 46 in the Sharpe edition = Book 2, 47 in Reeves edition) and it is used sparingly.

Another early native source to use a collective term is the Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum of Bede written in the early eighth century. The collective term for the archipelago used within this work is insularum meaning "islands" (Book 1, 8) and it too is used sparingly.

The term does not appear to have entered English usage until after the Reformation. The earliest quotation of "British Isles" given by the authoritative Oxford English Dictionary is in 1621.

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

Subsequent political history

Thus at the time the name Priteni was first applied to it, the archipelago was inhabited by the P-Celts. By the time the Romans left in the 7th century they were differentiated into the Brythonic Celts in England, Wales and southern Scotland and the Picts in northern Scotland, while Ireland was dominated by Goidelic Celts who, as Scotti (Scots) had by then established Dalriada in western Scotland. In the following centuries Anglo-Saxons formed the kingdom of Saxon England, pushing the Brythonic Celts back into Wales, Cumbria and south-west Scotland, Angles took over Northumbria and south-east Scotland. Viking invaders formed the Danelaw in eastern England and took over Caithness, the Hebrides, the Isle of Man and north-east Ireland, forming a settlement at Dublin. The Scots amalgamated with the Picts forming a Scottish Kingdom which by the early 11th century expanded to include the area of modern Scotland and Cumbria.

The Norman Conquest of 1066 brought England under Norman rule and their 1072 foray into Scotland left the first of a series of arguments as to whether the Scots accepted the suzerainty of the English kings. From then on Scottish kings were Anglo-Norman rather than Celtic. In 1171 King Henry II of England invaded Ireland, taking the Lordship of Ireland. The Anglo-Normans settled as a ruling elite controlling much of Ireland, but over time the native Irish regained some territory and, outside the area of English authority around Dublin called the Pale, the Norman lords adopted the Irish language and customs and became known as the "Old English".

In 1140 the Hebridean Islands, the Isle of Man and Antrim came under the Norse-Gael rule of the Lord of the Isles who kept a varying degree of independence until the Hebrides were forfeited to Scotland in 1493. From the early 13th century the Scots language of south east Scotland was spread throughout the Lowlands, but the Scottish Highlands remained Gaelic speaking and developed the semi-independent Scottish clan system. Wales came under English control with the Statute of Rhuddlan in 1284 and became part of the Kingdom of England by the Acts of Union 1536-1543. The English Kings became Kings of Ireland as well in 1541, ruling through an Irish Parliament.

Scotland was still independent despite a series of disputes and wars with England, then in 1603 King James VI of Scotland inherited the title James I of England, unifying the countries under a personal union of the crowns. While the governments of England and Scotland remained separate, King James proclaimed himself "King of Great Brittaine" on October 20th 1604, apparently with the political aim of creating a shared identity under his autocratic rule. Ireland was effectively being ruled as a colony of England and James expanded an existing policy of English settlers, adding Scots Presbyterians and creating the "Plantation of Ulster" at the expense of the existing Roman Catholics, both the native Irish and the "Old English". As the century progressed the Civil Wars of the Three Kingdoms brought Irish rebellion with massacres alienating Protestants from Catholics and making Irish Catholics embittered about the English, tensions further reinforced in the Jacobite war in Ireland.

Scottish economic weakness against English protectionism lead to merger of the governments in the 1707 Act of Union when the official name became The Kingdom of Great Britain, with pro-Hanoverian Scots enthusiastically adopting the term "North Britain" as an alternative to "Scotland" for example the "The Royal Regiment of Scots Dragoons" were renamed "The Royal North British Dragoons" (later examples included the North British Magazine and the North British Railway). The Scottish Highlanders were still Gaelic speaking and were derisively called "Erse" (Irish) by the Lowlanders, but to end Jacobitism the Scottish clan system was crushed and they became fully British. Irish nationalist rebellion in 1798 was defeated and Ireland was brought firmly under British government control by the 1800 Act of Union in what became the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

During the 19th century famine and emigration affected the Irish and the Scottish Highlanders. Britain (often called England) became the heart of the British Empire. Irish nationalist attempts to seize power culminated in the early 20th century with the Anglo-Irish war of independence and the 1922 separation of the Irish Free State, later becoming the Republic of Ireland. The mostly Protestant Northern Ireland continued to be part of what was now the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, with a Northern Ireland Assembly which is at present suspended and continuing conflict between Irish Nationalists and Unionists. Inspired by the Irish movement, nationalist parties developed in Scotland and Wales. More recently Scotland has gained Home Rule with a Scottish Parliament and Wales a degree of home administration with the Welsh Assembly, but both remain part of the unitary United Kingdom.

Problems with modern usage

The terms Britain had thus changed from a geographical title to a politicised national definition. The term "British Isles" is used by many people to describe the whole archipelago. Many Irish people, as well as some Scottish and Welsh nationalists find the term "British Isles" proprietorial and unacceptable as being inconsistent with any modern meaning of the word "British". Unionists in Northern Ireland continue to have a British identity. An annoyance for many Scots is any tendency to use the word "England" when referring to Britain or the British Isles.

Hostility to the term British Isles is substantially due to actual and potential 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 "Ireland and Britain", or alternately "Britain and Ireland" depending on the context, is the preferred term. The term "Great Britain", which is the name of the large island between Ireland and France, is distinct from "Lesser Britain" (i.e. Brittany).


However, the issue of a replacement term remains unsettled as of 2004. 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. A more geographically accurate and slightly less ambiguous phrase, "North-Western Europe", is starting to find favour, especially in Ireland.

Sometimes, an ambiguous phrase such as These Isles or The Isles is used, thus utilising the same logic used when referring to the Persian Gulf as "The Gulf". In cases where what is being referred to is the two largest islands, the term "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

  • Roman-Britain.Org
  • Roman Britain at LacusCurtius
    (includes 3 complete books)
  • The Geography of Claudius Ptolemy: Book II, Chapter 1
  • Pliny, Book 4 section 102ff.*.html#102
  • Pliny excerpts
  • Angliae, Scotiae et Hiberniae, sive Britannicar. insularum descriptio. - Ortelius, 1570 .
  • Britannicarum Insularum Typus - Ortelius 1624
  • Early maps of the British Isles – Munster 1550 et al.
  • Excerpt from Reeves edition of Life of Saint Columba.
  • Excerpt from Bede in Latin
  • Excerpt from Bede in English translation

Last updated: 02-05-2005 11:01:00
Last updated: 02-24-2005 14:56:13