When I finished university, I went on a celebratory travelling trip around Asia with a few of my roommates. We met so many interesting people from all over the world, but there was one thing that many seemed to have in common.
People would ask us where we’re from. I’d say “North Wales”, two of my roommates would say “London, England” and the other “Belfast, Northern Ireland”.
And that seemed to bring on an immediate confusion and many questions – ranging from “so which one is in Britain?” to “which countries are in the UK?” to “wait, but you went to University together – were some of you were international students?”.
The difference between the British Isles, Great Britain, and the UK
Even people that live here seem to get the UK confused with Britain – the terms are often used interchangeably. So let’s clear it up once and for all:
The United Kingdom
The ‘United Kingdom’ refers to a political union between, England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. Although the UK is a fully independent sovereign state, the 4 nations that make it up are also countries in their own right and have a certain extent of autonomy.
Although all 4 countries are bound to the Crown and united, each country has its own identity and are often considered separate in the minds of locals. There are even regional languages like Welsh and Gaelic, though English is spoken throughout.
From 1801 to 1922, the United Kingdom included the whole of Ireland, but now only includes Northern Ireland. The Republic of Ireland operates as a sovereign state of its own, although it’s physically close to the UK. The Isle of Man and the Channel Island (Jersey and Guernsey) are what we call ‘Crown Dependencies’ but are not part of the UK.
‘Great Britain’ is the collective name for the island which makes up England, Scotland, Wales and their islands. It comes from the political union of the three kingdoms which was made in 1707. Northern Ireland isn’t part of Great Britain.
Wondering where the name comes from? We’re not just bigheaded! It’s said that ‘Great’ was stuck on the front of ‘Britain’ (the Roman word Britannia) to distinguish Britain from its similar sounding neighbour, Brittany, in Northern France.
The British Isles
This is purely a geographical term that refers to the entire island of Great Britain and Ireland. This one includes the Republic of Ireland too, along with the 5,000 small islands which are scattered around our coastlines.
Although the Republic of Ireland is technically part of the British Isles, the people who live there are not British– in fact, they’d probably be a little peeved if you called them so!
The countries of the UK
I’d say that one of the United Kingdom’s greatest strengths is its diversity – we’re bursting with regional pride. You could come on holiday here for just 2 or 3 weeks and manage to soak up 4 different cultures, hear 3 different languages and heaps of striking regional accents without travelling far at all.
England is the largest and southernmost country of the UK, home to around 84% of the UK’s population. Here you’ll find some of the UK’s most bustling cities. London, Birmingham, Manchester, Liverpool and Leeds are all within a few hours drive of each other, each bursting with their own unique culture and history.
There’s heaps of beautiful countryside, including the famous Lake District and Peak District, as well as ancient historic sites at every turn, the most notable of which, Stonehenge, which should be on your bucket list.
We’d call Wales the unsung gem of the UK - it may be small, but it’s got lots on offer. Wales is most famed for its amazing landscapes and mountainous areas such as Snowdonia National Park and the scenic, rugged coast and 870-mile path, covering every inch of its coastline.
And of course, let’s not forget that Wales has its own language - Welsh - which is still widely spoken today. The regional food is incredible too, don’t forget to try some cheesy Welsh Rarebit and comforting Cawl. It’s hard to sum up Wales in a short paragraph, so check out our blog for more info.
Scotland has everything - diverse landscapes, remote islandsand thriving cosmopolitan cities. It covers around a third of the total UK landmass, roughly divided into three areas - the Lowlands with its thick woodlands, the Highlands and its towering mountains and lochs, and the islands and their peace, quiet, and far-reaching sea views.
The highest point in Scotland, and the whole of the British Isles for that matter, is Ben Nevis, which reaches 4,418ft at its peak - a great challenge for hikers. If you visit, don’t miss out on a chance to visit Edinburgh, Scotland’s capital which is rich in stunning architecture and culture.
Lonely Planet declared Belfast and the Causeway Coast as the number one region in the world to visit in 2018 - and that’s saying something. The Giant Causeway is Northern Ireland’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site, an area of around 40,000 basalt columns left by volcanic eruptions 60 million years ago and is well worth the trip alone.
Drive the incredible Causeway Coastal Route around the Atlantic Ocean and stop at one of many quaint villages for the night to sip on a Guinness. And if it’s a city you’re after, Northern Ireland has that too. Belfast’s Victorian buildings and industrial heritage hark at its interesting past, but the buzz of Irish nightlife and impressive restaurant scene is what draws visitors in today.
Wherever you choose to visit in the UK, you’re bound to have an amazing time. Feeling a little stuck about where to visit first? Check out our range of day tours from London for some inspiration.