The Structure of the British Isles

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I. Introduction

Are you among those who call every Brit an Englishman, an inhabitant of the United States an American, or who called a citizen of the Soviet Union a Russian? Then you belong to an abusing majority.

It was never fun for the Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Estonians, Ukrainians, Moldavians, etc. to be called Russians. The Soviet Union consisted of many nationalities, many states, the Russians were just one nationality, and Russia just one state. The dominating one, yes, but still just one of many.

Americans is a very improper name of the inhabitants of the United States, a consequence of that their country is lacking a genuine name of its own. "United States of America" is no suitable name, it is a description, and a bad one at that. Why? Because America is everything from northern Canada, to southern Argentina and Chile. Strictly, an "American" can as well be, for instance, a Chilean, Peruvian, Mexican, or Canadian. Speaking about a Californian, a Pennsylvanian, etc. would be altogether correct; California or Pennsylvania is a state - but "America" is not.

Similarly, "The European Union" is a bad name. It indicates that the union would contain all of Europe, but it doesn't - and we may hope it never will. Yet I don't think the inhabitants will seriously define themselves as "Europeans", thereby excluding others from that denomination. No German, Italian, or French would deny a Norwegian or a Swiss to share that epithet. (Norway and Switzerland are not members of the EU.)

Britain is a special problem, because its construction makes it confusing. But don't make the mistake of calling a Scot an Englishman. Nine times out of ten that would be taken as an insult.

We may have to take a closer look at the structure of the British Isles.

II. The Parts of Britain - The British Isles

Since 1927, the United Kingdom is officially named "The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland". It consists of two parts. Great Britain is one, Northern Ireland is the other.

What Northern Ireland is requires no further explanation. If you don't know, look at a map.

It began as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1801; but since 1921 only Northern Ireland has remained British.

Great Britain is more complicated. Let us start with some history.

In 1284, with the Statute of Rhuddlan, the Principality of Wales (another country) was joined with England. In 1536 this was further formalised in an Act of Union.

The Scots have had their own kings since Kenneth MacAlpine, some time around the year 1000. He was recognised not only by the Scots, but also by the Picts (another people of Scotland in those times). When Malcolm II (dead 1034) had defeated the Northumbrians in 1018, the realm was expanded to the river Tweed. By that, the real Scotland was created.

Much later, the king of Scots, James VI, also became the king of England, which he inherited through the maternal line. Since then Scotland and England have had the same monarch. That was formalised in 1707 when the union was officially created under the name of Great Britain.

So Great Britain consists of three distinctly different countries on the British main island: Scotland (in the North), England (in the South) and Wales (in the West).

The Channel Islands are neither a part of Great Britain nor of the United Kingdom, but are defined as "Crown Dependencies".They are the remains of the Archduchy of Normandy. The Norman Archduke of that time, William (the Conqueror), did, by the battle of Hastings (1066) as a decisive victory, conquer the throne of England. Mainland Normandy was later lost, but the islands of the channel remained. The British monarch is also the Archduke (now Archduchess) of Normandy, and by that the head of the Channel Islands, of which each one is a separate state in many ways.

The Channel Islands are divided into two groups or bailiwicks:

The Bailiwick of Jersey: Jersey, Ecrehou Rocks, and Les Minquiers

The Bailiwick of Guernsey: Guernsey, Alderney, Brecqhou, Herm, Jethou, Lihou, and Sark.

Each island is a separate unit, and each of the five big ones (Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Sark, Herm) has its own parliament and its own laws.

Another Crown Dependency is the Isle of Man, located between the British main island and Ireland. It was a dependency of Norway between about 800 and 1266. From 1341, it has been under English control, but was ruled by local feudal lords until 1765. Still today, the isle is governed much in the same way as before; with a local parliament, the House of Keys, claimed to be the world's oldest (or one of the oldest) still functioning legislative assemblies. Administratively, this is more close to a continuing Viking state than anything else one can find in the world today.

Just like the Channel Islands, the Isle of Man is not a part of Great Britain or the United Kingdom. All these areas, however, can be correctly called "the British Isles".

III. Why is Britain "Great"?

Britain is a Celtic name - etymologically it is the same as Bretagne, which is now a part of France. If you have ever wondered why Great Britain is "great" and where the little counterpart is, this provides the answer. Lesser Brittany is Bretagne, a peninsula inhabited by a Celtic population whose ancestors fled England when the Germanic Anglo-Saxons arrived.

Copyright © 2010, 2021 Meleonymica. All Rights Reserved.

All my articles about history can be found here, and those about geography here.

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