British Isles

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Map of the British Isles

The British Isles are a group of islands off the northwestern coast of continental Europe.[1] Geographically speaking, the British Isles are comprised of Great Britain, Ireland and a number of smaller islands including the Scottish islands in the north and some of the Channel Islands in the south. Politically, the island of Ireland has been divided into two states since 6 December 1922: Ireland and Northern Ireland, the latter of which remains part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Following the independence from the United Kingdom of most of Ireland consequent on the Irish War of Independence (1916-1922), the term's usage has declined greatly.[2] For historical and political reasons related to British rule over Ireland, it is expressly avoided in official communication between the sovereign states of Ireland and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and several alternative names have emerged in British-Irish relations such as IONA (Islands of the North Atlantic) and the Atlantic Archipelago. However, at present the term 'Britain and Ireland' appears to be more popular.[3]


Geographically, the islands stretch from the Isles of Scilly in the South, to Shetland in the North and from Tearaght Island in the West, to Lowestoft Ness in the East. There are over than 6,000 islands covering a total land area of 121,674 square miles. Also part of the group is the Isle of Man, a United Kingdom Crown dependency and notable tax haven. With the exception of the Isle of Man, both states are members of the EU. Of the six thousand islands in the group, the largest two are Great Britain and Ireland. Great Britain alone covers over half the total landmass of the British Isles, some 83,698 square miles. Ireland is located to the West of Great Britain and covers some 32,589 square mile. Other islands notable for their size are Orkney off the Scottish coast, Anglesey (Ynys Mon) off the Welsh coast and the Isle of Man between Great Britain and Ireland.

The islands are low lying with Southern Great Britain being at particularly low altitude. Ben Nevis in the Scottish Highlands is the highest mountain in the British Isles rising to 1,344 metres above sea level. Although other parts of the isles are mountainous (parts of Wales, Northern England and parts of Ireland), few mountains in these areas reach more than 1,000 metres above sea level.

Lakes on the islands are all freshwater, the largest being Lough Neagh in Ireland. The largest lake in Great Britain is Loch Lomond although Lake Windermere and Loch Ness are both notable. Rivers are a prominent feature on the landscape and were once an important form of transport. The river Severn and the Shannon are the longest but perhaps the best known waterway is the river Thames. During the Industrial Revolution, river transport was augmented by the building of many canals linking trade towns to ports. The best known examples are the Leeds to Liverpool canal linking these two important trading cities, and the Grand Union Canal linking London and the Thames with the canal system of the industrial English Midlands..

The islands share a temperate climate with winters being cool and wet and summers milder and dryer. Rain is a common weather feature and is responsible for the long history of arable farming. Southern areas tend to be warmer than the Northern parts of the Isles and are thus more suited for arable farming. Northern farms are predomenantly Hill Farms concentrating on livestock.

A note on terminology

The British Isles may be divided historically, geographically, or politically in any of several ways:

Ireland, the island on the West, is home to:

Great Britain, the larger island on the East, consists of:

Culture of the British Isles

The British Isles, being home to the English, Welsh, Scottish and Irish peoples has a very diverse culture. Perhaps the most unifying cultural aspect is the shared language, English although there are a wealth of other languages spoken within the Isles. These include Irish, Manx, Scottish Gaelic, Cornish and Welsh. It is worth noting that there are a great number of regional accents, dialects and variations of English spoken and that a Geordie (a native of Newcastle) will sound very different from a Cockney (a native Londoner).

The British Isles are predominantly Christian and are home to many beautiful Churches, Cathedrals and Abbeys.

A number of sports are popular throughout the British Isles, the most prominent of which is soccer. Rugby, darts, snooker, horse racing and cricket are also popular spectator and participatory sports.

The Public House (or pub) and the consumption of beer or Real ale is an important part of adult social life in all parts of the islands and pubs, along with churches, are the central point of many communities. The British Isles is home to a diverse range of foodstuffs and gastronomic traditions with the chip shop being found in all parts of the Isles and frequented by people from all walks of life. Fish and chips is the most well known dish traditional to the British Isles but has seen a decline in popularity in recent years due to the dwindling of North Sea fish stocks. Indeed, nearly all towns and villages will contain several pubs, several chip shops, one or more churches and a football ground.


  1. "Geographical terms also cause problems and we know that some will find certain of our terms offensive. Many Irish object to the term the 'British Isles';..." The Dynamics of Conflict in Northern Ireland: Power, Conflict and emancipation. Joseph Ruane and Jennifer Todd. Cambridge University Press. 1996 An Irishman's Diary Myers, Kevin; The Irish Times (subscription needed) 09/03/2000, Accessed July 2006 'millions of people from these islands — 'oh how angry we get when people call them the British Isles'; Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: Europe's House Divided 1490-1700. (London: Penguin/Allen Lane, 2003): “the collection of islands which embraces England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales has commonly been known as the British Isles. This title no longer pleases all the inhabitants of the islands, and a more neutral description is ‘the Atlantic Isles’” (p. xxvi); On 18 July 2004 The Sunday Business Post questioned the use of British Isles as a purely geographic expression, noting: [The] "Last Post has redoubled its efforts to re-educate those labouring under the misconception that Ireland is really just British. When British Retail Week magazine last week reported that a retailer was to make its British Isles debut in Dublin, we were puzzled. Is not Dublin the capital of the Republic of Ireland?. When Last Post suggested the magazine might see its way clear to correcting the error, an educative e-mail to the publication...:Retrieved 17 July 2006
  2. "...I have called the Atlantic archipelago – since the term ‘British Isles’ is one which Irishmen reject and Englishmen decline to take quite seriously." Pocock, J.G.A. [1974] (2005). "British History: A plea for a new subject". The Discovery of Islands. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 29. OCLC 60611042. "...what used to be called the "British Isles," although that is now a politically incorrect term." Finnegan, Richard B.; Edward T. McCarron (2000). Ireland: Historical Echoes, Contemporary Politics. Boulder: Westview Press, p. 358.; "In an attempt to coin a term that avoided the 'British Isles' - a term often offensive to Irish sensibilities - Pocock suggested a neutral geographical term for the collection of islands located in northwest Europe which included Britain and Ireland: the Atlantic archipelago..." Lambert, Peter; Phillipp Schofield (2004). Making History: An Introduction to the History and Practices of a Discipline. New York: Routledge, p. 217.
  3. "..the term is increasingly unacceptable to Irish historians in particular, for whom the Irish sea is or ought to be a separating rather than a linking element. Sensitive to such susceptibilities, proponents of the idea of a genuine British history, a theme which has come to the fore during the last couple of decades, are plumping for a more neutral term to label the scattered islands peripheral to the two major ones of Great Britain and Ireland." Roots, Ivan (1997). "Union or Devolution in Cromwell's Britain". History Review.; The British Isles, A History of Four Nations, Second edition, Cambridge University Press, July 2006, Preface, Hugh Kearney. "The title of this book is ‘The British Isles’, not ‘Britain’, in order to emphasise the multi-ethnic character of our intertwined histories. Almost inevitably many within the Irish Republic find it objectionable, much as Basques or Catalans resent the use of the term ‘Spain’. As Seamus Heaney put it when he objected to being included in an anthology of British Poetry: 'Don’t be surprised If I demur, for, be advised My passport’s green. No glass of ours was ever raised To toast the Queen. (Open Letter, Field day Pamphlet no.2 1983)"(Note: sections bolded for emphasis do not appear bold in original publications)

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