British Isles facts for kids

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British Isles
A map of the British Isles and their location in Europe.
Satellite image of the British Isles, excluding Shetland and the Channel Islands (out of frame)
Geography
Location North-western Europe
Total islands 6,000+
Area 315,159 km2 (121,684 sq mi)
Elevation 1,344 m (4,409 ft)
Highest point Ben Nevis
Sovereign states and dependent territories
Demographics
Population 68,017,607 (as of 2011)
Density 216/km2 (560/sq mi)
Additional information
Drives on the left

The British Isles are a group of islands off the north-western coast of continental Europe that consist of the islands of Great Britain, Ireland and over six thousand smaller isles. Situated in the North Atlantic, the islands have a total area of approximately 315,159 km2, and a combined population of just under 70 million. Two sovereign states are located on the islands: Ireland (which covers roughly five-sixths of the island with the same name) and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The British Isles also include three Crown Dependencies: the Isle of Man and, by tradition, the Bailiwick of Jersey and the Bailiwick of Guernsey in the Channel Islands, although the latter are not physically a part of the archipelago.

The oldest rocks in the group are in the north west of Scotland, Ireland and North Wales and are 2,700 million years old. During the Silurian period the north-western regions collided with the south-east, which had been part of a separate continental landmass. The topography of the islands is modest in scale by global standards. Ben Nevis rises to an elevation of only 1,344 metres (4,409 ft), and Lough Neagh, which is notably larger than other lakes on the isles, covers 390 square kilometres (151 sq mi). The climate is temperate marine, with mild winters and warm summers. The North Atlantic Drift brings significant moisture and raises temperatures 11 °C (20 °F) above the global average for the latitude. This led to a landscape which was long dominated by temperate rainforest, although human activity has since cleared the vast majority of forest cover. The region was re-inhabited after the last glacial period of Quaternary glaciation, by 12,000 BC when Great Britain was still a peninsula of the European continent. Ireland, which became an island by 12,000 BC, was not inhabited until after 8000 BC. Great Britain became an island by 5600 BC.

Hiberni (Ireland), Pictish (northern Britain) and Britons (southern Britain) tribes, all speaking Insular Celtic, inhabited the islands at the beginning of the 1st millennium AD. Much of Brittonic-controlled Britain was conquered by the Roman Empire from AD 43. The first Anglo-Saxons arrived as Roman power waned in the 5th century and eventually dominated the bulk of what is now England. Viking invasions began in the 9th century, followed by more permanent settlements and political change—particularly in England. The subsequent Norman conquest of England in 1066 and the later Angevin partial conquest of Ireland from 1169 led to the imposition of a new Norman ruling elite across much of Britain and parts of Ireland. By the Late Middle Ages, Great Britain was separated into the Kingdoms of England and Scotland, while control in Ireland fluxed between Gaelic kingdoms, Hiberno-Norman lords and the English-dominated Lordship of Ireland, soon restricted only to The Pale. The 1603 Union of the Crowns, Acts of Union 1707 and Acts of Union 1800 attempted to consolidate Britain and Ireland into a single political unit, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, with the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands remaining as Crown Dependencies. The expansion of the British Empire and migrations following the Irish Famine and Highland Clearances resulted in the distribution of the islands' population and culture throughout the world and a rapid de-population of Ireland in the second half of the 19th century. Most of Ireland seceded from the United Kingdom after the Irish War of Independence and the subsequent Anglo-Irish Treaty (1919–1922), with six counties remaining in the UK as Northern Ireland.

The term British Isles is controversial in Ireland, where there are objections to its usage due to the association of the word British with Ireland. The Government of Ireland does not recognise or use the term and its embassy in London discourages its use. As a result, Britain and Ireland is used as an alternative description, and Atlantic Archipelago has had limited use among a minority in academia, while British Isles is still commonly employed. Within them, they are also sometimes referred to as these islands.

Etymology

The earliest known references to the islands as a group appeared in the writings of sea-farers from the ancient Greek colony of Massalia. The original records have been lost; however, later writings, e.g. Avienus's Ora maritima, that quoted from the Massaliote Periplus (6th century BC) and from Pytheas's On the Ocean (circa 325–320 BC) have survived. In the 1st century BC, Diodorus Siculus has Prettanikē nēsos, "the British Island", and Prettanoi, "the Britons". Strabo used Βρεττανική (Brettanike), and Marcian of Heraclea, in his Periplus maris exteri, used αἱ Πρεττανικαί νῆσοι (the Prettanic Isles) to refer to the islands. Historians today, though not in absolute agreement, largely agree that these Greek and Latin names were probably drawn from native Celtic-language names for the archipelago. Along these lines, the inhabitants of the islands were called the Πρεττανοί (Priteni or Pretani). The shift from the "P" of Pretannia to the "B" of Britannia by the Romans occurred during the time of Julius Caesar.

The Greco-Egyptian scientist Claudius Ptolemy referred to the larger island as great Britain (μεγάλης Βρεττανίας - megális Brettanias) and to Ireland as little Britain (μικρής Βρεττανίας - mikris Brettanias) in his work Almagest (147–148 AD). In his later work, Geography (c. 150 AD), he gave these islands the names Alwion, Iwernia, and Mona (the Isle of Man), suggesting these may have been names of the individual islands not known to him at the time of writing Almagest. The name Albion appears to have fallen out of use sometime after the Roman conquest of Great Britain, after which Britain became the more commonplace name for the island called Great Britain.

The earliest known use of the phrase Brytish Iles in the English language is dated 1577 in a work by John Dee. Today, this name is seen by some as carrying imperialist overtones although it is still commonly used. Other names used to describe the islands include the Anglo-Celtic Isles, Atlantic archipelago, British-Irish Isles, Britain and Ireland, UK and Ireland, and British Isles and Ireland. Owing to political and national associations with the word British, the Government of Ireland does not use the term British Isles and in documents drawn up jointly between the British and Irish governments, the archipelago is referred to simply as "these islands". Nonetheless, British Isles is still the most widely accepted term for the archipelago.

Geography

See also: Geography of England, Geography of Wales, Geography of Scotland, Geography of Ireland, Geography of the United Kingdom, Geography of the Isle of Man, and Geography of the Channel Islands
British-Isles-NW-European-shelf
The British Isles in relation to the north-west European continental shelf.

The British Isles lie at the juncture of several regions with past episodes of tectonic mountain building. These orogenic belts form a complex geology that records a huge and varied span of Earth's history. Of particular note was the Caledonian Orogeny during the Ordovician Period, c. 488–444 Ma and early Silurian period, when the craton Baltica collided with the terrane Avalonia to form the mountains and hills in northern Britain and Ireland. Baltica formed roughly the northwestern half of Ireland and Scotland. Further collisions caused the Variscan orogeny in the Devonian and Carboniferous periods, forming the hills of Munster, southwest England, and southern Wales. Over the last 500 million years the land that forms the islands has drifted northwest from around 30°S, crossing the equator around 370 million years ago to reach its present northern latitude.

The islands have been shaped by numerous glaciations during the Quaternary Period, the most recent being the Devensian. As this ended, the central Irish Sea was deglaciated and the English Channel flooded, with sea levels rising to current levels some 4,000 to 5,000 years ago, leaving the British Isles in their current form. Whether or not there was a land bridge between Great Britain and Ireland at this time is somewhat disputed, though there was certainly a single ice sheet covering the entire sea.

The west coasts of Ireland and Scotland that directly face the Atlantic Ocean are generally characterised by long peninsulas, and headlands and bays; the internal and eastern coasts are "smoother".

There are about 136 permanently inhabited islands in the group, the largest two being Great Britain and Ireland. Great Britain is to the east and covers 83,700 sq mi (217,000 km2). Ireland is to the west and covers 32,590 sq mi (84,400 km2). The largest of the other islands are to be found in the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland to the north, Anglesey and the Isle of Man between Great Britain and Ireland, and the Channel Islands near the coast of France.

The islands are at relatively low altitudes, with central Ireland and southern Great Britain particularly low lying: the lowest point in the islands is Holme, Cambridgeshire at −2.75 m (−9.02 ft). The Scottish Highlands in the northern part of Great Britain are mountainous, with Ben Nevis being the highest point on the islands at 1,343 m (4,406 ft). Other mountainous areas include Wales and parts of Ireland, however only seven peaks in these areas reach above 1,000 m (3,281 ft). Lakes on the islands are generally not large, although Lough Neagh in Northern Ireland is an exception, covering 150 square miles (390 km2). is the longest in Great Britain. The isles have a temperate marine climate. The North Atlantic Drift ("Gulf Stream") which flows from the Gulf of Mexico brings with it significant moisture and raises temperatures 11 °C (20 °F) above the global average for the islands' latitudes. Winters are cool and wet, with summers mild and also wet. Most Atlantic depressions pass to the north of the islands, combined with the general westerly circulation and interactions with the landmass, this imposes an east-west variation in climate.

Flora and fauna

See also: Fauna of Great Britain, Fauna of Ireland, and Trees of Britain and Ireland
Irl-female red deer Killarney
Some female red deer in Killarney National Park, Ireland.

The islands enjoy a mild climate and varied soils, giving rise to a diverse pattern of vegetation. Animal and plant life is similar to that of the northwestern European continent. There are however, fewer numbers of species, with Ireland having even less. All native flora and fauna in Ireland is made up of species that migrated from elsewhere in Europe, and Great Britain in particular. The only window when this could have occurred was between the end of the last Ice Age (about 12,000 years ago) and when the land bridge connecting the two islands was flooded by sea (about 8,000 years ago).

As with most of Europe, prehistoric Britain and Ireland were covered with forest and swamp. Clearing began around 6000 BC and accelerated in medieval times. Despite this, Britain retained its primeval forests longer than most of Europe due to a small population and later development of trade and industry, and wood shortages were not a problem until the 17th century. By the 18th century, most of Britain's forests were consumed for shipbuilding or manufacturing charcoal and the nation was forced to import lumber from Scandinavia, North America, and the Baltic. Most forest land in Ireland is maintained by state forestation programmes. Almost all land outside urban areas is farmland. However, relatively large areas of forest remain in east and north Scotland and in southeast England. Oak, elm, ash and beech are amongst the most common trees in England. In Scotland, pine and birch are most common. Natural forests in Ireland are mainly oak, ash, wych elm, birch and pine. Beech and lime, though not native to Ireland, are also common there. Farmland hosts a variety of semi-natural vegetation of grasses and flowering plants. Woods, hedgerows, mountain slopes and marshes host heather, wild grasses, gorse and bracken.

Many larger animals, such as wolf, bear and the European elk are today extinct. However, some species such as red deer are protected. Other small mammals, such as rabbits, foxes, badgers, hares, hedgehogs, and stoats, are very common and the European beaver has been reintroduced in parts of Scotland. Wild boar have also been reintroduced to parts of southern England, following escapes from boar farms and illegal releases. Many rivers contain otters and seals are common on coasts. Over 200 species of bird reside permanently and another 200 migrate. Common types are the common chaffinch, common blackbird, house sparrow and common starling; all small birds. Large birds are declining in number, except for those kept for game such as pheasant, partridge, and red grouse. Fish are abundant in the rivers and lakes, in particular salmon, trout, perch and pike. Sea fish include dogfish, cod, sole, pollock and bass, as well as mussels, crab and oysters along the coast. There are more than 21,000 species of insects.

Few species of reptiles or amphibians are found in Great Britain or Ireland. Only three snakes are native to Great Britain: the common European adder, the grass snake and the smooth snake; none are native to Ireland. In general, Great Britain has slightly more variation and native wild life, with weasels, polecats, wildcats, most shrews, moles, water voles, roe deer and common toads also being absent from Ireland. This pattern is also true for birds and insects. Notable exceptions include the Kerry slug and certain species of wood lice native to Ireland but not Great Britain.

Domestic animals include the Connemara pony, Shetland pony, English Mastiff, Irish wolfhound and many varieties of cattle and sheep.

Demographics

See also: Demographics of the Republic of Ireland and Demography of the United Kingdom
British Isles population density 2011 NUTS3
Population density per km² of the British Isles' regions.

The demographics of the British Isles today are characterised by a generally high density of population in England, which accounts for almost 80% of the total population of the islands. In elsewhere on Great Britain and on Ireland, high density of population is limited to areas around, or close to, a few large cities. The largest urban area by far is the Greater London Urban Area with 9 million inhabitants. Other major populations centres include Greater Manchester Urban Area (2.4 million), West Midlands conurbation (2.4 million), West Yorkshire Urban Area (1.6 million) in England, Greater Glasgow (1.2 million) in Scotland and Greater Dublin Area (1.1 million) in Ireland.

The population of England rose rapidly during the 19th and 20th centuries whereas the populations of Scotland and Wales have shown little increase during the 20th century, with the population of Scotland remaining unchanged since 1951. Ireland for most of its history comprised a population proportionate to its land area (about one third of the total population). However, since the Great Irish Famine, the population of Ireland has fallen to less than one tenth of the population of the British Isles. The famine, which caused a century-long population decline, drastically reduced the Irish population and permanently altered the demographic make-up of the British Isles. On a global scale, this disaster led to the creation of an Irish diaspora that numbers fifteen times the current population of the island.

The linguistic heritage of the British Isles is rich, with twelve languages from six groups across four branches of the Indo-European family. The Insular Celtic languages of the Goidelic sub-group (Irish, Manx and Scottish Gaelic) and the Brittonic sub-group (Cornish, Welsh and Breton, spoken in north-western France) are the only remaining Celtic languages—the last of their continental relations becoming extinct before the 7th century. The Norman languages of Guernésiais, Jèrriais and Sarkese spoken in the Channel Islands are similar to French. A cant, called Shelta, is spoken by Irish Travellers, often as a means to conceal meaning from those outside the group. However, English, sometimes in the form of Scots, is the dominant language, with few monoglots remaining in the other languages of the region. The Norn language of Orkney and Shetland became extinct around 1880.

History

At the end of the last ice age, what are now the British Isles were joined to the European mainland as a mass of land extending north west from the modern-day northern coastline of France, Belgium and the Netherlands. Ice covered almost all of what is now Scotland, most of Ireland and Wales, and the hills of northern England. From 14,000 to 10,000 years ago, as the ice melted, sea levels rose separating Ireland from Great Britain and also creating the Isle of Man. About two to four millennia later, Great Britain became separated from the mainland. Britain probably became repopulated with people before the ice age ended and certainly before it became separated from the mainland. It is likely that Ireland became settled by sea after it had already become an island.

At the time of the Roman Empire, about two thousand years ago, various tribes, which spoke Celtic dialects of the Insular Celtic group, were inhabiting the islands. The Romans expanded their civilisation to control southern Great Britain but were impeded in advancing any further, building Hadrian's Wall to mark the northern frontier of their empire in 122 AD. At that time, Ireland was populated by a people known as Hiberni, the northern third or so of Great Britain by a people known as Picts and the southern two thirds by Britons.

Alfred Jewel
The Alfred Jewel (9th century)

Anglo-Saxons arrived as Roman power waned in the 5th century AD. Initially, their arrival seems to have been at the invitation of the Britons as mercenaries to repulse incursions by the Hiberni and Picts. In time, Anglo-Saxon demands on the British became so great that they came to culturally dominate the bulk of southern Great Britain, though recent genetic evidence suggests Britons still formed the bulk of the population. This dominance creating what is now England and leaving culturally British enclaves only in the north of what is now England, in Cornwall and what is now known as Wales. Ireland had been unaffected by the Romans except, significantly, having been Christianised, traditionally by the Romano-Briton, Saint Patrick. As Europe, including Britain, descended into turmoil following the collapse of Roman civilisation, an era known as the Dark Ages, Ireland entered a golden age and responded with missions (first to Great Britain and then to the continent), the founding of monasteries and universities. These were later joined by Anglo-Saxon missions of a similar nature.

Viking invasions began in the 9th century, followed by more permanent settlements, particularly along the east coast of Ireland, the west coast of modern-day Scotland and the Isle of Man. Though the Vikings were eventually neutralised in Ireland, their influence remained in the cities of Dublin, Cork, Limerick, Waterford and Wexford. England however was slowly conquered around the turn of the first millennium AD, and eventually became a feudal possession of Denmark. The relations between the descendants of Vikings in England and counterparts in Normandy, in northern France, lay at the heart of a series of events that led to the Norman conquest of England in 1066. The remnants of the Duchy of Normandy, which conquered England, remain associated to the English Crown as the Channel Islands to this day. A century later the marriage of the future Henry II of England to Eleanor of Aquitaine created the Angevin Empire, partially under the French Crown. At the invitation of a provincial king and under the authority of Pope Adrian IV (the only Englishman to be elected pope), the Angevins invaded Ireland in 1169. Though initially intended to be kept as an independent kingdom, the failure of the Irish High King to ensure the terms of the Treaty of Windsor led Henry II, as King of England, to rule as effective monarch under the title of Lord of Ireland. This title was granted to his younger son but when Henry's heir unexpectedly died the title of King of England and Lord of Ireland became entwined in one person.

James I of England by Daniel Mytens
James VI of Scotland (James I of England)

By the Late Middle Ages, Great Britain was separated into the Kingdoms of England and Scotland. Power in Ireland fluxed between Gaelic kingdoms, Hiberno-Norman lords and the English-dominated Lordship of Ireland. A similar situation existed in the Principality of Wales, which was slowly being annexed into the Kingdom of England by a series of laws. During the course of the 15th century, the Crown of England would assert a claim to the Crown of France, thereby also releasing the King of England as from being vassal of the King of France. In 1534, King Henry VIII, at first having been a strong defender of Roman Catholicism in the face of the Reformation, separated from the Roman Church after failing to secure a divorce from the Pope. His response was to place the King of England as "the only Supreme Head in Earth of the Church of England", thereby removing the authority of the Pope from the affairs of the English Church. Ireland, which had been held by the King of England as Lord of Ireland, but which strictly speaking had been a feudal possession of the Pope since the Norman invasion was declared a separate kingdom in personal union with England.

Scotland, meanwhile had remained an independent Kingdom. In 1603, that changed when the King of Scotland inherited the Crown of England, and consequently the Crown of Ireland also. The subsequent 17th century was one of political upheaval, religious division and war. English colonialism in Ireland of the 16th century was extended by large-scale Scottish and English colonies in Ulster. Religious division heightened and the king in England came into conflict with parliament over his tolerance towards Catholicism. The resulting English Civil War or War of the Three Kingdoms led to a revolutionary republic in England. Ireland, largely Catholic was mainly loyal to the king. Following defeat to the parliaments army, large scale land distributions from loyalist Irish nobility to English commoners in the service of the parliamentary army created a new Ascendancy class which obliterated the remnants of Old English (Hiberno-Norman) and Gaelic Irish nobility in Ireland. The new ruling class was Protestant and English, whilst the populace was largely Catholic and Irish. This theme would influence Irish politics for centuries to come. When the monarchy was restored in England, the king found it politically impossible to restore the lands of former land-owners in Ireland. The "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 repeated similar themes: a Catholic king pushing for religious tolerance in opposition to a Protestant parliament in England. The king's army was defeated at the Battle of the Boyne and at the militarily crucial Battle of Aughrim in Ireland. Resistance held out, eventually forcing the guarantee of religious tolerance in the Treaty of Limerick. However, the terms were never honoured and a new monarchy was installed.

The Kingdoms of England and Scotland were unified in 1707 creating the Kingdom of Great Britain. Following an attempted republican revolution in Ireland in 1798, the Kingdoms of Ireland and Great Britain were unified in 1801, creating the United Kingdom. The Isle of Man and the Channel Islands remaining outside of the United Kingdom but with their ultimate good governance being the responsibility of the British Crown (effectively the British government). Although, the colonies of North America that would become the United States of America were lost by the start of the 19th century, the British Empire expanded rapidly elsewhere. A century later it would cover one third of the globe. Poverty in the United Kingdom remained desperate however and industrialisation in England led to terrible condition for the working class. Mass migrations following the Irish Famine and Highland Clearances resulted in the distribution of the islands' population and culture throughout the world and a rapid de-population of Ireland in the second half of the 19th century. Most of Ireland seceded from the United Kingdom after the Irish War of Independence and the subsequent Anglo-Irish Treaty (1919–1922), with the six counties that formed Northern Ireland remaining as an autonomous region of the UK.

Culture

See also: Culture of Ireland, Culture of the United Kingdom, Sport in Ireland, and Sport in the United Kingdom
Lords match in progress
One Day Cricket International at Lord's; England v Australia 10 July 2005
Pádraig Harrington 2007
Pádraig Harrington teeing off at the Open Championship (golf) in 2007.

The United Kingdom and Ireland have separate media, although British television, newspapers and magazines are widely available in Ireland, giving people in Ireland a high level of familiarity with cultural matters in the United Kingdom. Irish newspapers are also available in the UK, and Irish state and private television is widely available in Northern Ireland. Certain reality TV shows have embraced the whole of the islands, for example The X Factor, seasons 3, 4 and 7 of which featured auditions in Dublin and were open to Irish voters, whilst the show previously known as Britain's Next Top Model became Britain and Ireland's Next Top Model in 2011. A few cultural events are organised for the island group as a whole. For example, the Costa Book Awards are awarded to authors resident in the UK or Ireland. The Mercury Music Prize is handed out every year to the best album from a British or Irish musician or group.

Many globally popular sports had modern rules codified in the British Isles, including golf, association football, cricket, rugby, snooker and darts, as well as many minor sports such as croquet, bowls, pitch and putt, water polo and handball. A number of sports are popular throughout the British Isles, the most prominent of which is association football. While this is organised separately in different national associations, leagues and national teams, even within the UK, it is a common passion in all parts of the islands. Rugby union is also widely enjoyed across the islands with four national teams from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The British and Irish Lions is a team chosen from each national team and undertakes tours of the southern hemisphere rugby playing nations every four years. Ireland play as a united team, represented by players from both Northern Ireland and the Republic. These national rugby teams play each other each year for the Triple Crown as part of the Six Nations Championship. Also since 2001 the professional club teams of Ireland, Scotland, Wales and Italy compete against each other in the Guinness Pro12.

The Ryder Cup in golf was originally played between a United States team and a team representing Great Britain and Ireland. From 1979 onwards this was expanded to include the whole of Europe.

Transport

See also: Transport in Ireland and Transport in the United Kingdom
MS Stena Explorer Dun Laoghaire
HSC Stena Explorer, a large fast ferry the formerly operated HolyheadDún Laoghaire route between Great Britain and Ireland.

London Heathrow Airport is Europe's busiest airport in terms of passenger traffic and the Dublin-London route was once the busiest air route in Europe, and it remains the busiest route out of Heathrow. The English Channel and the southern North Sea are the busiest seaways in the world. The Channel Tunnel, opened in 1994, links Great Britain to France and is the second-longest rail tunnel in the world.

The idea of building a tunnel under the Irish Sea has been raised since 1895, when it was first investigated. Several potential Irish Sea tunnel projects have been proposed, most recently the Tusker Tunnel between the ports of Rosslare and Fishguard proposed by The Institute of Engineers of Ireland in 2004. A rail tunnel was proposed in 1997 on a different route, between Dublin and Holyhead, by British engineering firm Symonds. Either tunnel, at 50 mi (80 km), would be by far the longest in the world, and would cost an estimated £15 billion or €20 billion. A proposal in 2007, estimated the cost of building a bridge from County Antrim in Northern Ireland to Galloway in Scotland at £3.5bn (€5bn).

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