Geotagged at home (51.427051,-0.333344)

Islands of the North Atlantic Part 1 - This is Not the United Kingdom You're Looking For

It was back in February of 2009 that I first wrote about the complex and confusing geographies of the British Isles, the United Kingdom and many other terms of reference for the archipelago of islands that sit off of the north-west coast of Europe and that I call home. Since then, with one notable exception, I have found myself having the same conversations on this topic at pretty much every place I've worked at.

So this is the first in a series of articles about the physical, political, administrative and other geographies of what's sometimes called the Islands of the North Atlantic, which should put this to rest ... until something else changes.

  1. This is not the United Kingdom You're Looking For
  2. The Dis-united Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland
  3. The Geographies of England - An Exercise in Complexity
  4. Northern Irish, Scottish and Welsh Geographies - Simplicity not Complexity
  5. Crown Dependencies, Overseas Territories and the Commonwealth of Nations

Where Geography, History and Politics Intersect

Before I dig into the depths of the geographies of the United Kingdom and go into detail about what the UK is, I've found it helpful to look at what the UK isn't which in turn is the start of clearing up some common misconceptions. Here's an updated version of my previous Great British Venn Diagram which is now the Great British Euler Diagram.

The Great British Euler Diagram

Firstly, there's the physical geography, shown in green, where the British Isles comprise the islands of Great Britain, Ireland as well as the Isle of Man in the Irish Sea between Ireland and Great Britain and the Channel Islands in the English Channel to the west of France's Cotentin Peninsula.

Which all seems straightforwards enough, but history and politics shape our maps as much as physical geography does.

Secondly, there's a bit of legal geography in the form of the inaccurately named British Islands and shown in orange. This is a term in UK law which collectively refers to the United Kingdom itself and the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands. All of which are islands except Northern Ireland which isn't.

Thirdly there's the countries, shown in red. This is where confusion starts to set it as here we're talking about the two countries of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. But wait. The United Kingdom, is then further comprised of, dependent on who's viewpoint you subscribe to, four countries or three countries and a province, which are England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. These are shown in purple. So for the purposes of this part of this article we'll define country as an entity that issues passports and for now postpone the ugly details.

Then lastly there's the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, shown in light blue. These are part of the British Isles and of the British Islands but are not part of the United Kingdom. Instead the Isle of Man, the Bailiwick of Guernsey and the Bailiwick of Jersey are Crown Dependencies. It's also worth noting that the previous paragraph's definition of a country as an entity that issues passports is completely undermined by the fact that the Crown Dependencies also issue their own specialised United Kingdom passports, along with the British Overseas Territories, which are not part of the Great British Euler Diagram, but more on those in a later article.

Nine paragraphs in and already these geographic relationships are complex, confusing and contradictory. Let's dig a bit deeper into the British Isles, the British Islands, Ireland and Great Britain with the help of some maps.

The British Isles

Ahh the British Isles; the two main islands of Great Britain and Ireland, the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands and around 120 or so other islands. But it's not that simple.

The British Isles

In Great Britain, on one side of the Irish Sea, the British Isles name is used without any negative connotations, often incorrectly to refer to the UK or to Great Britain. But not everyone agrees; a quick web search for the term British Isles yielded this from an article in the Guardian in 2006 ...

Although a purely geographical definition, it is frequently mixed up with the political entities Great Britain, or the United Kingdom. Even when used geographically, its exact scope is widely misunderstood.

Which sort of proves the point as Great Britain is, to my mind, a geographic and not a political term.

But on the other side of the Irish Sea, the term British Isles is more a political and less a geographic term. This is even more polarised in Northern Ireland where Unionists view the British Isles as a geographic term and Nationalists consider themselves part of the island of Ireland not the British Isles.

Other alternatives have been offered up to try and resolve this, but to date have not seen widespread use or adoption.

  • British Isles and Ireland has been used in a range of legal and academic publications
  • Islands of the North Atlantic has been proposed by a range of UK and Irish politicians and of course this is where the title of these articles originates. The term, or its acronym of IONA isn't without its own problems inasmuch as it excludes most of the other islands in the North Atlantic as well as those which have never been part of the British Isles
  • West European Isles and Northwest European Archipelago have thankfully seen little uptake as has ...
  • Atlantic Archipelago and Hibernian Archipelago
  • these islands ... distinct inasmuch as it tends only to be used within the British Isles themselves, such as in the Good Friday Agreement between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland in 1998 where the document uses the term "the totality of relationships among the peoples of these islands" rather than mentioning the UK and the Irish Republic.

The British Islands

I have to confess I am not a fan of the term British Islands. I understand the need for a legal term which encompasses the UK, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, but as Northern Ireland is part of the UK and not an island, this term feels like a fallacy of division. British Islands has appeared in UK law since the late 1800's, most recently as part of the 1978 Interpretation Act that says:

"British Islands" means the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.

The British Islands

A more stricly accurate term would be The United Kingdom, being the island of Great Britain, the bit of the island of Ireland which is Northern Ireland, plus the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands but not the British Overseas Territories. But that's nowhere near as succinct as British Islands.

Great Britain

Great Britain is the largest of the British Isles, the largest island in Europe and globally is the ninth largest island.

Great Britain

The earliest known name for this island is Albion or Insula Albionum, either deriving from albus, white in Latin or the island of the Albiones. Aristotle mentions the island in Volume III of his On The Universe, published at some time between the Third Century BCE and the Second Century CE.

There are two very large islands in it, called the British Isles, Albion and Ierne

Britain on the other hand, originates from the Latin Britannia, the land of the Britons, from the Old French Bretaigne and the Middle English Bretatyne. By the time of the Roman invasion in AD 43, Albion had fallen out of favour and Britain replaced it.

And the Great? Ptolemy referred to what we now call Great Britain and Ireland as megale Brettania and mikra Brettania, literally great and little Britain in his Almagest sometime between 147 and 148 AD. In his Geography, around 150 AD, he used Alwion, Iwernia and Mona to refer to Great Britain, Ireland and the Isle of Man respectively.

By the 12th Century, Geoffrey of Monmouth refers to the island of Great Britain as Britannia Major compared to Brittania Minor, the region across the English Channel which is now modern day Brittany in France.

And finally in the 15th Century in a royal wedding document between the families of Edward IV of England and James III of Scotland, Great Britain is officially named ...

this Nobill Isle, callit Gret Britanee

Well, sort of.

The United Kingdom at Last

Finally, we can now get to the geography of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, which is comprised of the not passport issuing countries of England, Scotland and Wales and the not passport issuing country or province of Northern Ireland. The UK doesn't include anything else, be that the Crown Dependencies of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands, nor the British Overseas Territories.

United Kingdom

Next Time ...

This article set out to explain what the United Kingdom is as well as hopefully reducing the confusion about what the United Kingdom isn't; namely the Isle of Man, the Channel Islands, the island of Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. In the next article I'll dive deeper into the history and geographic makeup of the United Kingdom in Part 2 - The Dis-united Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.


Updated on 27/09/2023 with a note of these islands to refer to the British Isles with credit to Alan Grant on Mastodon for pointing this out.

Gary Gale

I'm Gary ... a Husband, Father, CTO at Kamma, geotechnologist, map geek, coffee addict, Sci-fi fan, UNIX and Mac user