What is the Difference Between the UK and Britain?

by JoHarrington

Accept that, in the British Isles, you will upset someone whatever you call us. Let me guide you through this linguistic minefield.

"Oh! You're from the UK!" The unwary American gushed at me, all smiles and friendliness.

She was met with a look. "No." I replied, slightly more frostily than I'd intended. "I'm British."

It was similar to the reaction that I sparked in a friend from Dublin once, when I inadvisedly included Ireland in the geographical area of the British Isles.

The confusing thing to the rest of the world is that both of us are wrong. Ireland is in the British Isles and I technically am in the United Kingdom. But our emotional responses to any poor soul pointing this out illustrates perfectly what a minefield this can be.

Good luck, as I try to explain why all the names and all the offense!

The British Isles

Also known as the Atlantic Archipelago.

The geographical area to your right is correctly named the British Isles. No-one in the Republic of Ireland will thank you for calling it that.

It's such a small part of the world, perched right on the Western tip of Europe, but it contains six countries and three British Crown Dependencies.

In academic terms, this is the Atlantic Archipelago. However, that doesn't include Guernsey nor Jersey, which are stranded in the middle of the English Channel.

Those in the Republic of Ireland prefer to call it the British Isles and Ireland.  This is the name used in all of the Taoiseach's official documentation.

Map of the British Isles

The problem for the Irish is that word 'British'. Historically, it's come laden with war, oppression, economic hardship and at least one attempted genocide. There was a long and bloody struggle to extricate Ireland from under the yoke of the parliament in England.

With that in mind, it's perhaps understandable that the Irish want nothing to do with Britain nor the British.

Though, of course, it's a different story once you move north of the border into Northern Ireland. The Orange part of the population are quite happy with being in the British Isles.  The Green part are still involved in the aforementioned long and bloody struggle to get away, so would probably also prefer the British Isles and Ireland.

In order to side-step any frostiness in Ireland, it's probably better to avoid referring to islands as a whole; or to go with Atlantic Archipelago instead.  Though no-one has heard of the latter outside a dusty professorial text-book, so will probably ask where on Earth that is.

Books about the British Isles (and Ireland)

Buy these maps and photographs to discover more about the Atlantic Archipelago.

Ierne and Albion

It might help to consider how this landmass looked before all of the changes.

In about 391 BCE, Aristotle wrote De Mundo, which mentioned the British Isles. It covered the same geographical area that it does today, but was split into two major areas:  Ierne and Albion.

Connacht, Ulster, Munster and Leinster were on the island of Ierne.  This survives now as Ierne-land, or Ireland. You are fine with the latter, though half of the population of Ulster will insist on a 'Northern' being added before it.

No-one will have a clue what you mean if you refer to Ierne.  However, variants in the form of Éire or even Éirinn will be welcomed with open arms.

Everywhere else was in Albion. It's a name that is sometimes still used poetically, but rarely in any other context.  You won't be shouted down for applying it, but neither will you be taken seriously. Everyone in Albion calls it the British Isles.

Image: A Map of Britain Without Unification.
Image: A Map of Britain Without Unification.

Let's face it, even this map is quite arbitrary.  It reflects a time after the Anglo-Saxon and Viking invasions have pushed the Celtic nations to the fringes of Europe. Previous maps would have shown many more territories, which were overwhelmed in the struggles.

But this one serves a purpose well in pointing out the flashpoints now. Not least, it shows how independent regions were forced together into larger countries. Alba and Cymru weren't as united as this map suggests either. For example, Cymru (now called Wales) had thirteen separate kingdoms within it.

I'm going to over-simplify this to the point of personally cringing, but it will highlight all of the basics.

The first thing that happened was the merger between Northumbria, Mercia, East Anglia, Kent, Essex, Sussex and Wessex. Though this country did swallow up Celtic areas, it emerged as fundamentally and culturally Germanic.That involved a great deal of compromise or bloodshed, as it merged the Jutes (Kent), Angles (East Anglia and Mercia), Saxons (Wessex, Sussex and Essex) and Scandinavians (Northumbria).

It became Angle-land, or England. Even today, there is some low-level disdain between the Southern Saxons and the Northern Angles and Norse. It's called the North-South divide, but no visitor to the country is going to run into trouble here.  The Union of England stuck fast.

Every other nation is Celtic. Note that you are dealing with as many ethnic and cultural differences as anything else.  There were also communication barriers. Wales, Cornwall (Kernow), Scotland, Ireland and Man all have distinct languages, separate even from each other. Though these have survived in varying degrees of strength.

The problems in naming the landmass have come from England's repeated attempts to merge the entire of the British Isles into one country. That idea has routinely met with fierce resistance, resulting in a modern day map which looks like this:

Image: Map of the British Isles (and Ireland) today.
Image: Map of the British Isles (and Ireland) today.
Paul Pollard

In short, you're dealing with countries made up of smaller countries forcibly stitched together. Then freezing at the point when England could no longer make any more hybrids stick.

Ierne and Albion have largely fallen out of the lexicon in the process. However, I will occasionally use those names in this article, as it is a useful way of differentiating the two island groups.

Albion by Babyshambles

One example of its poetic use today.

Buy Down in Albion mp3

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Down In Albion

The Countries in the British Isles (and Ireland)

You can't go far wrong sticking with this! Find out where someone lives, look up which country it's in and refer to them accordingly.
Country Demonym (English)
Cornwall Cornish Kernowyon
England English English
Isle of Man Manx Manninee
Northern Ireland Northern Irish Airisch
Republic of Ireland Irish na hÉireannaigh
Scotland Scottish Albannaich
Wales Welsh Cymry


I've written those names in English, then in the native language. I'm sure that no-one here would sniff at visitors not knowing the Celtic straight away.  That can wait until week two.

I've included the Isle of Man, though it's not technically a country. It's a Dependency of the British Crown.  In other words, they completely self-govern, except on matters of defense, diplomatic representation and citizenship. However, Man is in the British Isles.

You will also hear some people argue that Cornwall isn't a nation either. They're just wrong, so feel free to ignore them.

No-one in the British Isles will mind you calling them by the relevant name in this table. However mixing them up will cause frostiness through to a punch in the mouth, depending on who you confused them with.

The biggest faux pas that you can commit is assuming that anyone on that list is English, except, of course, the English.

Books about the People in the British Isles

I've read 'Watching the English' and I thoroughly recommend it! I also have 'Ancient Celts', which contains a lot of illustrations, as well as interesting text.

Where is Britain?

The answer being - it depends on the century. If it's 2012, then Cornwall, England, Scotland and Wales.

While people get very distracted by Ierne and Albion, there are actually 136 smaller islands off our respective coastlines with populations upon them.  There are over 1000 more with no permanent residents at all.

Circa 77 CE, Pliny the Elder wrote about the British Isles. He didn't bother naming all of those smaller islands, but collectively labelled them the Britanniae. They are places inside the British Isles, which weren't Ierne nor Albion.

This is the first moment at which any place was actually called Britain. 

As for the people themselves, nobody was calling themselves anything collective. Both Ierne and Albion were full of small territories ruled by tribal kings. They might have all lived in the British Isles, but that's as far as the commonality went.

Naturally this all changed as soon as there was a common enemy.  From now on, consider the name Britain in a political context against the backdrop of a bitter fight for the land.

It starts with the Celts of Albion. They are the original occupants of the British Isles, so they are British compared to waves of invaders coming in from Rome, Scandinavia and Germanic countries. The name Britain began to be associated solely with the people being pushed to the West or fleeing to the South.

Take notes here - the Welsh and Cornish will welcome being called British. If you listen very carefully, with the right kind of ears, you will also hear the unspoken 'true' before the word British. 

In fact, if you take care to separate British and English, then these Celtic countries will practically make you an honorary citizen. Many people are still thinking in terms of Britain and Occupied Britain.

Of course, many centuries have passed between then and now. The word Britain is now interchangeable with Great Britain.  No-one will sniff at you doing the same.

Buy a Map of Shakespeare's Britain

Which is, obviously, everyone else's Britain too!

Great Britain and Lesser Britain

In other words, Albion and Britanny (yes, the one on the Northern tip of France).

Despite the name, Geoffrey of Monmouth was probably French rather than Welsh.  Around 1136, he became the first person to refer to Great Britain. It was political.

Until now, Britain meant modern day Wales, with an option on Cornwall too.  Living on the Welsh borderland, the Norman elite were busily trying to bring Wales under their control by whatever means necessary.

By taking the name Britain and applying it to the whole of Albion, it blurred the borders between the British Welsh and the Norman English. It also placed very firm intentions upon bringing Scotland under England's rule.

In short, Geoffrey had done exactly what the Welsh tried to do over seven centuries before, but in reverse. The Welsh thinking had been, 'This is all our land. Foreigners go home!' The Norman thinking had been, 'This should all be one land, and we will control you.'

This was all very academic and not taken seriously at the time. Which was a shame, because it transpired to be precisely what was going to happen.

In Geoffrey's vision, Great Britain would include all of the countries of old Albion - Cornwall, England, Scotland and Wales.  A millennium later, it does.

It was called 'great' to differentiate it from 'little' or 'lesser' Britain. That's Brittany, in France, now. It's populated by those Celts who fled south across the channel, as refugees from the invading Anglo-Saxons.

The Celtic countries will welcome the Bretons (from Brittany) as one of us. The English barely think of them at all and, if they do, it's under the assumption that they're French.

Nevertheless, Great Britain survives as an alternative, and now official, name for Albion.

You will never get in trouble for saying Great Britain with either side. Consider it safe ground, as long as you also note one more thing.  The Irish have not been part of this story. They are not, and never have been, part of Great Britain.

You will not make any friends with that mistake. You've as good as told them that they should be governed from Westminster; and a lot of blood was spilled creating that republic. In fact, I'd go as far as to say confusing Eire and Great Britain is one of the biggest errors that you could make.

The History of the Kings of Britain (Penguin Classics)

Completed in 1136, "The History of the Kings of Britain" traces the story of the realm from its supposed foundation by Brutus to the coming of the Saxons some two thousand years...

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History of the Kings of Britain [Illustrated]

"The History of the Kings of Britain" is a mythical historical account of British history, written around 1136 by Geoffrey of Monmouth. It chronicles the lives of the kings of t...

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The Kingdom of Great Britain (Monarchy)

This covers the period from 1604 until 1707. Watch your step in Scotland when mentioning this.

As I hope I've demonstrated, the name Britain (or Great Britain) has been laced with politics ever since the Celts lost the area now covered by England. 

The Welsh and Norman-English could waffle on about Great Britain all that they liked, but with Scotland remaining an independent country there would be no effective landmass called it.

Of course, there were attempts, notably at the marriage between Prince James of Scotland and Princess Cecily of England in 1474. Magically, the English documentation referred to their joint countries as Great Britain.

It was a good try, but didn't take off until England basically ran out of monarchs with the death of Elizabeth I.  Her nearest relative and heir happened to be James VI of Scotland (pictured above). When the two countries joined, it wasn't under English rule, but Scottish.

This was finally the Kingdom of Great Britain and it had a Celtic monarch. History hung in the balance and it should finally have been the end of the English. But, for reasons too complex to go into here, James was an Anglophile.  He moved to England and effectively gave up on his heritage.

However, the Kingdom of Great Britain still only referred to its monarchy. Scotland and England remained separate countries.  Britain, at this point, was still only Cornwall, England and Wales. As far as many Scots are concerned, it still is.

You probably won't get lynched in Scotland for calling them British, nor referring to Great Britain, but you may well find them very sniffy. A history lesson might soon be forthcoming.

Books about James I of England | Books about James VI of Scotland

Learn about the moment when the Kingdom of Great Britain occurred as a monarchy, before you upset any Scots.

The United Kingdom of Great Britain and (Northern) Ireland

Every Celt is going to hate you for mentioning the United Kingdom. You are only safe here with the English and loyalists in Northern Ireland.

On May 1st 1707, a city-wide riot broke out in Edinburgh.  Panicked and furious crowds stormed the parliament buildings, then rampaged through the city. They were looking for one thing, the meeting in which the Act of Union was to be signed.

No Scot was in favor of it.  Many ordinary English people were utterly against it too.

Daniel Defoe, arriving in Edinburgh on that date, observed that, "There is an entire harmony in this country, consisting in universal discords."

Hidden away, in a locked and cramped cellar beneath an ordinary home, the Chancellor of Scotland signed away his country's independence. The resulting discontent led directly to the Jacobite Uprising and the Highland Clearances.

Thus the United Kingdom of Great Britain came into effect. The Welsh and Cornish weren't even consulted. They were lumped in with England and basically treated like it was nothing to do with them.

It is an understatement to say that the relationship between Ireland and England has been bloody. Millions have died under the intense struggle to keep the Irish free from Westminster's control. In 1798, they lost the battle. 

On January 1st 1801, that military success translated into the Acts of Union 1800. This resulted in a country called the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

But the Irish refused to surrender.  After another 122 years of bloodshed, most of Ireland managed to become free as the Republic of Ireland. Never, ever confuse Eire and the UK. That would be a very bad mistake.

This was only possible if the country split, leaving most of the old province of Ulster in the Union.  Since the 17th century, many people had emigrated to that region from England and lowland Scotland. The plantation strategy had involved slaughtering many of the original Irish occupants, but it left a foothold full of people loyal to the crown of England.

This is Northern Ireland and the root of the Troubles there.  The Orangemen population will embrace every mention of the United Kingdom, fighting with all they have to remain within it.  The native Ulster Irish hate it with a burning passion.

In short, England and Orange Northern Ireland are the only people who don't grit their teeth at the very sight and mention of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.  Wales and Cornwall are ignored in it. Scotland and Northern Ireland are there because they lost a war. They've both been subject to a near genocide since, in order to keep the United Kingdom intact.

Books about Resistance to the United Kingdom

Buy these histories to learn just some events on the bloody list of horrific consequences of the two Acts of Union.

And the Difference Between the UK and Britain?

I finally get around to answering the question!

On paper, this one is easy enough.  Britain is Cornwall, England, Scotland and Wales.  The United Kingdom is all of the above, including Northern Ireland too.

In reality, it's a minefield of nationalities and political allegiances, underpinned by centuries of bad feeling. 

Right now, Scotland is preparing for a referendum, which will take it out of the UK. If that succeeds, then it blows the concept wide open.  Northern Ireland will no doubt fight to remain within the Union, which will bestow the only nominally Gaelic presence there.

Wales is edging out via the Welsh Assembly, but Kernow (Cornwall) is losing its fight for self-identity.  Petitions to the European Union have so far not amounted to much.

Only England resolutely wants the whole collection of countries to stay tied together.

These are the tensions that contribute to the plethora of names associated with that archipelago of islands in the west of Europe. This is the reason behind the whole confusion and random frostiness of various Britons and Irish people. 

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The story behind 'Land of my Fathers' ('Mae Hen Wlad fy Nhadau') is one of poetry, bardic awen and the refusal to lay down and play dead.

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Updated: 02/20/2013, JoHarrington
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Miko on 03/23/2017

"The biggest faux pas that you can commit is assuming that anyone on that list is English, except, of course, the English." exactly like the putative Spanish language, which really is called Castillian by all the people from autonomous regions and former colonies countries of Spain, except for those from Castilla province... :)))

frankbeswick on 03/04/2017

In ancient times Prydain was the term for the whole archipelago,including Ireland, but the Romans appropriated it for the island of Albion. So we became Britain and we in our modesty called ourselves Great Britain.

Tarlach on 03/04/2017

A most valiant attempt to explicate a Gordian Knot of geoculture. However, your native demonyms are mostly incorrect.

JoHarrington on 07/11/2014

I think it's one of the most fascinating What Ifs in history - or at least British history - what would have happened if Harold had won at Hastings? The notion of a Scandinavian Britain is the most likely outcome. Would that have made us all like Yorkshire, or Highland Scotland, or something very different?

frankbeswick on 07/11/2014

The issue of Normanisation is complex. The first Normans to become established in Scotland were those who took service with David in 1138, after the Scottish defeat at Northallerton. They were Normans serving empress Maud, who was in alliance with David. He saw their fighting potential and hired them. Certain leading Scottish familes were from this lot: e.g.Stuart, Bruce, Gordon.

But to some extent Normanisation was the result of geopolitical pressures. Frankish culture began to expand in the late first millenium, fuelled by population increase, which provided the fighting manpower, and the Normans were the most effective fighing force carrying this cultural pressure. They were bound to try expanding into Britain and Ireland, though England could have gone Scandinavian had Hardrada won. Thus when England fell to them, the smaller nations of Wales and Ireland were bound to fall as this Norman culture swelled its domains.

JoHarrington on 07/11/2014

Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes and a hundred times yes. It's this level of divide and conquer which comes through time and time again. In many ways, the worse thing that happened to the Scots was winning Bannockburn, simply because it put the Norman Robert Bruce in charge. He instantly turned Scotland Norman. (Not that Edward II winning would have altered that situation one iota!)

frankbeswick on 07/11/2014

His book emphasises John Seymour's point that the struggle is not between nations but between people and those who would control them. The guilty parties in the clearances were Scottish landowners in league with English mill owners. The victims were the Scottish people.

JoHarrington on 07/11/2014

John Prebble's 'The Highland Clearances' is an amazing book. In fact anything by him is that. He certainly highlighted the divide and conquer in all its murky reality.

frankbeswick on 07/10/2014

Divide and conquer in some cases! The troops who slaughtered the Irish at Vinegar Hill in 1798 were from the Northern Highlands, so when there was unrest in the Northern Highlands about the clearances, the government used Irish troops, the officers reminded them of Vinegar Hill, then let them loose on the Scots. I got this from John Prebble's Book, the Highland Clearances.

JoHarrington on 07/10/2014

It's been years since I last read Oppenheimer. I have his 'Origins of the British' though, so it may be worth a re-read. I did love Francis Pryor's book though, and the documentary that accompanied it.

One of the biggest mistakes anyone could ever make looking back is that the British tribes were one, big, harmonious whole. The entire annals of the British concerns tribes warring against each other. That didn't stop, even when the Anglo-Saxons/Jutes had consolidated most of Britain. There were Irish and Welsh fighting against the Scots at Bannockburn. Most of the army fighting Ui Neill in the Nine Years War was Welsh. Much of the subjugation of the Highland Scots came from the Lowland Scots.

The big shining point about Arthur (or Aurelius, or - to a much, much lesser extent - Maelgwn) was that they managed to unite enough of these tribes to hold back the tide of Saxon invasion. That's why Baddon stands out so much.

Though I admit I'd missed the fact of the Parisii being so friendly with the Angles. I knew the Brigantes were friendlier with the Continent. Cartismandua famously sold out Caradog to the Romans, thus knocking a dent into the Silurian resistance.

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