About Britain and the UK

Geography and Politics

Although we may use different terms interchangeably on this website, the problem of names can be confusing for visitors. Here’s a basic guide:

The United Kingdom is the correct political name for the country, which as well as the main land mass of England, Scotland and Wales, includes numerous offshore islands, and Northern Ireland. The country is divided into counties which each have a County Council with limited autonomy.

The British Isles is a name for the two large islands of Great Britain and Ireland – a geographical rather than a political grouping.

Great Britain (or Britain) is the name for the island made up of England, Scotland and Wales. After ancient battles, conquests and treaties, these countries have been united for a long time, and governed from London. They have always had distinct existences (and football teams), and recently Wales and Scotland, where resentment of ‘English rule’ still exists after hundreds of years, have been given greater amounts of autonomy, with their own regional parliaments. Northern Ireland, in its current form, is a more awkward addition to the UK, and the ‘Irish Question’ is still a major political issue, and the cause of occasional terrorist attacks. The region has its own Assembly.

Britain was also once made up of many other additional kingdoms, of which few political traces remain. However the distinct language of Cornwall (now a county) only died out a century ago, while names such as Wessex (a former West Country kingdom most famously ruled by Alfred the Great) are still sometimes used to define geographical or cultural areas.

The UK is part of Europe, despite the habit of its residents of referring to ‘Europe’ (meaning continental Europe) as a totally separate place. Britain’s independent island status has been intact for centuries, and modern society developed along its own lines. Cultural detachment and an unspoken proud confidence are engrained into the traditional British outlook.

The Republic of Ireland (Eire) is an independent country and its residents will not thank you for confusing it with the United Kingdom. Like the UK, it is part of the European Union.

London, in south-east England, is the capital city of the United Kingdom. Scotland and Wales have regional parliaments located in their capital cities: Edinburgh (Scotland) and Cardiff (Wales). The Queen is the United Kingdom’s Head of State.


English is the principal language of the United Kingdom. It is used or known everywhere, and tourists will find it hard to manage without it. In areas of Wales, Welsh is still widely spoken, in addition to English. The language has official status, and visitors to Wales will see bilingual notices and signposts.Scottish Gaelic is a language spoken by less than 2% of Scots, who also speak English, while Irish Gaelic is still spoken by 6% of the Northern Ireland population.