6.1: The British Isles

British Isles
British Isles

Europe has been traditionally divided into regions based on location according to the four points of the compass: Eastern Europe, southern Europe, Western Europe, and northern Europe. The British Isles are often considered a separate region but can be included as a part of Western Europe.

Regions of Europe
The British Isles and the regions of Europe

The British Isles are an archipelago (group of islands) separated from the European mainland by the English Channel.

There are about 136 permanently inhabited islands in the group, the largest two being Great Britain and Ireland. Great Britain is to the east. Ireland is to the west. 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.

Shetland Islands
Shetland Islands

Orkney Islands
Orkney Islands
Isle of Man
The Shetland pony is a Scottish breed of pony originating in the Shetland Isles. People who lived on the islands probably later crossed the native stock with ponies imported by Norse settlers. The harsh climate and scarce food developed the ponies into extremely hardy animals.

The British Isles are often included in the region of Western Europe when discussing political geography; however, the fact that they are separated from the mainland of Europe by water provides them with a separate identity.

The British Isles consists of two separate, independent countries: the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain.

The United Kingdom (UK) of Great Britain consists of the regions of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. All four regions are now under the UK government.

The Republic of Ireland is independent of the United Kingdom and does not include Northern Ireland. The UK capital is London, which is a financial center for Europe. The capital city of the Republic of Ireland is Dublin.

Begrepen be: Studying English: the British Isles
British Isles terminology

Influenced by the Gulf Stream, the climate of the British Isles is moderate, in spite of its northern latitude location. The UK and Ireland are located above the fiftieth degree of latitude, which is farther north than the US-Canadian border. The northern latitude would normally place this region into the type D climates, with harsher winters and more extreme seasonal temperatures. However, the surrounding water moderates temperature, creating the moderate type C climate that covers most of the British Isles. The Gulf Stream pulls warm water from the tropics and circulates it north, off the coast of Europe, to moderate the temperature of Western Europe.

Köppen–Geiger climate classification map for United Kingdom
Köppen–Geiger climate classification map for United Kingdom

These two quick videos will give you an explanation of British weather:

The Battle Of The Weather Fronts – The Great British Weather – Episode 1 – BBC One
The Truth About British Rain – The Great British Weather – Episode 2 – BBC One

The Western Highlands and the Northern Lowlands dominate the islands. Scotland, Wales, and parts of England have highland regions with short mountains and rugged terrain. The lowlands of southern England, Ireland, and central Scotland offer agricultural opportunities. The Pennines mountain chain runs through northern England and was the source of the coal, ores, and waterpower that fueled the Industrial Revolution.

Geog GCA: Physical Geography UK

To the east of Britain is the North Sea, which provided an abundance of petroleum resources (oil) for energy and wealth.

Historically, indigenous British people were thought to be descended from the various ethnic groups that settled there before the 12th century: the Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Norse and the Normans. Welsh people could be the oldest ethnic group in the UK.

Evidence of Roman settlement in England can still be seen today!

Bath is the largest city in the county of Somerset, England, known for and named after its Roman-built baths.
Hadrian’s Wall was built by the Romans and was a defensive fortification. It’s the largest Roman archaeological feature in Britain, and it runs a total of 73 miles (117.5 km) in northern England.

There are also lots of castles and other structures in the U.K. that illustrate its past.

Bodiam Castle was built in the 14th century in East Sussex, England by a knight to defend the area against the French invasion during the Hundred Year’s War.
History of Britain and Ireland: The Definitive Visual Guide
History of Britain and Ireland: The Definitive Visual Guide

The British Isles has an amazing history that is fun to study. It’s a story about Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, kings, queens, castles, wars, and more. During the time of Queen Victoria (1837-1901) it was said that “The sun never sets on the British Empire.” It’s beyond the scope of this geography course to cover the history of this area, but if you are interested in learning about British history, I recommend this terrific book: DK’s History of Britain and Ireland: The Definitive Visual Guide.

The World Explained: The Sun Still Never Sits on the British Empire

The UK’s official language is English. Three indigenous Celtic languages are spoken in the UK: Welsh, Irish and Scottish Gaelic. Cornish, which became extinct as a first language in the late 18th century, is subject to revival efforts and has a small group of second-language speakers.

Cornish for Beginners 2018

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 mainland. There are however, fewer numbers of species, with Ireland having even less. 

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.

British stoat
British stoat
European wild boar
European wild boar

Let’s take a look at the individual parts of the British Isles! We’ll head over to England next!

Key Takeaways:

✎ The British Isles consists of two separate, independent countries: the Republic of Ireland and Great Britain. The United Kingdom (UK) of Great Britain consists of the regions of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
✎ The climate of the British Isles is moderate and is influenced by the Gulf Stream.
✎ The Pennines mountain chain runs through northern England.
✎ Historically, indigenous British people were thought to be descended from the various ethnic groups that settled there before the 12th century.
✎ Animal and plant life is similar to that of the northwestern European mainland.

Next: England

We want to know what you thought of what you just read and watched! Leave us a comment! Please also let us know if a link or video isn’t working. 🙂

Image and additional information credits:

British Isles map
By Stefan Ertmann, amendments by Peterfitzgerald – Own work based on the map of UK, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=22744335
Europe areas
Map of the British Isles terminology
By Matt Lewis at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4929963
Venn diagram
By Wdcf – Wdcf – Derived from Nuvola icons ( etc.), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16954089
Great Britain climate
By Beck, H.E., Zimmermann, N. E., McVicar, T. R., Vergopolan, N., Berg, A., & Wood, E. F. – “Present and future Köppen-Geiger climate classification maps at 1-km resolution”. Nature Scientific Data. DOI:10.1038/sdata.2018.214., CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=74673618
By Hellerick – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26693883
Pennines passes map
By Equestenebrarum – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Topographic_Map_of_the_UK_-_Blank.png, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=15090875
Peak District in the Pennines
By Vincent – Self-photographed, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2248672
British Isles
Hebride Islands
By Scotland location map.svg NordNordWestderivative work ויקיג’אנקי – This file was derived from:  Scotland location map.svg:, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46337498
Orkney Islands
By Contains Ordnance Survey data © Crown copyright and database right, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=17529705
Shetland Islands
By TUBS – Own workThis W3C-unspecified vector image was created with Adobe Illustrator.This file was uploaded with Commonist.This vector image includes elements that have been taken or adapted from this file:  Scotland location map.svg (by NordNordWest)., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16386981
Isle of Man
By Isle_of_Man_outline.svg: Αντιγόνη.The original uploader was Αντιγόνη at Greek Wikipedia.derivative work: The New Mikemoral ♪♫ – Isle_of_Man_outline.svg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9084092
United Kingdom
Anglo-Saxons map
By mbartelsm – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=86531831
Roman baths
By Steve Cadman – originally posted to Flickr as The Great Bath, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4865727
Hadrian’s Wall
By Velella – Personal photograph taken by Velella., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=379364
Hadrian’s Wall information
Bodiam Castle
By BadgerHero – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7428454
By Gibe, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29948
British stoat
By Keven Law from Los Angeles, USA – Hello World…, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=5691783
wild European boar
By Valentin Panzirsch – File:Wildschein, Nähe Pulverstampftor.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0 at, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=46902117
Shetland ponies
By Peter Facey, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=13859234

2 thoughts on “6.1: The British Isles

  1. The link for England in: “We’ll head over to England next!” isn’t working for me. It’s telling me that the page can’t be found. The England link after the key takeaways is working.

    1. Thank you SO much for letting us know about the link! It’s fixed now! 🙂 We so appreciate you taking the time to post and for helping us keep the textbook up-to-date and working!

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