What is the Difference Between The United Kingdom and Great Britain?

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The United Kingdom and Great Britain are geographic regions that are often erroneously used interchangeably.  The two terms don’t actually cover the same geographic and political area.  This article outlines the differences between the United Kingdom (also known as the UK), Great Britain, and the British Isles.

Great Britain

There are two definitions of Great Britain: geographic and political.  Geographically, Great Britain is the name of the island that compromises England, Scotland, and Wales.  Great Britain has an area of 209,331 km2 (80,823 sq mi), making it the largest island in Europe and the ninth largest island in the world.  Great Britain is separated from the mainland of Europe by the North Sea and by the English Channel, and from the adjacent island of Ireland by the North Channel, Irish Sea, St George’s Channel and Celtic Sea.

Politically, the term Great Britain also encompasses the smaller islands that are part of the jurisdictions England and Scotland which includes: Isle of Wight, Anglesey, the Isles of Scilly, the Hebrides and the island groups of Orkney and Shetland.  The self-governing dependent territories of  the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands are not included.

Map showing the parts that make up Great Britain.  Map: Caitlin Dempsey using Natural Earth Data, public domain.
Map showing the parts (labeled) that make up Great Britain. Map: Caitlin Dempsey using Natural Earth Data, public domain.

United Kingdom

The United Kingdom (UK) is fully known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and is a sovereign state.  A political union, the UK includes England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland but not the Channel Islands (Guernsey and Jersey Islands) and the Isle of Man.  The latter two are self-governing dependent territories.

The Interpretation Act 1978 of the United Kingdom legally introduced the term “British Islands” (not to be confused with British Isles) as a term to collectively cover the United Kingdom, the Isle of Man, and the Bailiwicks of Jersey and of Guernsey in the Channel Islands.

Map showing the parts that make up the United Kingdom.  Map: Caitlin Dempsey using Natural Earth Data, public domain.
Map showing the parts (labeled) that make up the United Kingdom. Map: Caitlin Dempsey using Natural Earth Data, public domain.

British Isles

The British Isles is a geographic region that includes the island of Great Britain, the island of Ireland and all of the thousands of islands surrounding these two islands.  The term is not without its controversy and many Irish authoritative figures have objected to the term.  An Irish embassy spokesperson in London explained, “The British Isles has a dated ring to it, as if we are still part of the Empire. We are independent, we are not part of Britain, not even in geographical terms. We would discourage its usage.”  In 2006, School atlases in Ireland started removing the term.

Map showing the parts (labeled)  that make up the British Isles.  Map: Caitlin Dempsey using Natural Earth Data, public domain.
Map showing the parts (labeled) that make up the British Isles. Map: Caitlin Dempsey using Natural Earth Data, public domain.

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