The British Isles are situated on the continental shelf off the north-west coast of Europe and comprise a group of islands lying between latitudes 50° and 61° North and longitudes 1°45' East and 8°10' West, the prime meridian of 0° passing through the old observatory of Greenwich (London). The total area of the British Isles is 322,246 square km.
Britain, formally known as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, constitutes the greater part of the islands. It comprises the mainland of England, Wales and Scotland (Great Britain) and the northern part of Ireland (Northern Ireland). The southern part of Ireland, the second largest island of the group, is the Irish Republic or Eire. All in all there are over 5,000 islands in the system of the British Isles.
The United Kingdom's area is some 244,100 square km, of which about 99 per cent is land and the remainder inland water. This is nearly the same size as the Federal Republic of Germany, New Zealand and half the size of France. From south to north it stretches for over 900 km, and is just under 500 km across in the widest part and 60 km in the narrowest. Due to the numerous bays and inlets no place in Britain is as much as 120 km from the sea coast line. The combined population of the British Isles — 59.5 million people (including that of the Republic of Ireland) makes the islands one of the most densely populated parts of the earth's surface and the United Kingdom, at least, one of the most densely populated countries.
With over 57 million people, Great Britain ranks about fourteenth in the world in terms of population. The high density of population (about 233 per square kilometre) sets a problem of land use and of livelihood. Within the British Isles it implies a pressure on land, a pressure reflected both in competition for space and in intensive agriculture. The problems of supporting such a large population on such a small land area are obvious. In fact, this became possible with the emergence of Britain as the world's first industrial nation during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It was during this period that Britain acquired vast overseas colonial territories, ruthlessly robbed and exploited them. This enabled her to become the wealthiest nation on earth.
Off the north-western coast of Great Britain there is a group of islands known as the Hebrides. They are divided into the Inner and Outer Hebrides, the groups of islands, separated from each other by the Sea of the Hebrides and the Little Minch. These groups of islands represent the higher unsubmerged portions of a dissected block broadly similar to the main highland mass.
Life in the Hebrides very much resembles that of the West coast of the mainland. Many of the people are crofters, and farming combined with fishing is the main occupation. The island of Lewis-Harris, the largest and most northerly of the outer Hebrides, is particularly notable for the traditional domestic industry of spinning wool from local sheep and weaving it into tweeds. This industry is largely concentrated in Stornoway, which is also a minor fishing port. Out of over the total of 500 islands of the Hebrides more than half are inhabitable. Only several families live on some of them.
Separated from the mainland by the stormy seven-mile wide Pentland Firth there are the Orkney Islands, comprising about a hundred islands, though only a third are inhabited, by about 19,500 people. Most of the people are engaged in dairy- and poultry farming; bacon, cheese and eggs are exported to Central Scotland.
Situated about 70 miles north of the Orkneys are the Shetland Islands, which provide thin, infertile soils suitable only for rough pasture. The total population is about 18,000. The Shetland farmers are essentially crofters, but during the summer months they are actively engaged in herring-fishing. Apart from fish, the only exports from the islands are Shetland ponies and lace knitted from the wool of local sheep. Lerwick, the chief settlement, contains about 5,000 people, but the Shetlands are far from prosperous, and the population is still steadily decreasing.
In the middle of the Irish Sea there is the Isle of Man (571 square km). The island is administered by its own Manx Parliament and has a population of about 50,000 chiefly engaged in farming, fishing and tourist trade. The only settlement of any size is the holiday resort of Douglas (23,000). Another important island in the Irish Sea is Anglesey, situated off the north coast of Wales. Anglesey contains only 52,000 people, and more of the working population are now engaged in industry than in fishing and agriculture. This is due partly to an increase in the tourist trade and partly to the introduction of several new industries, for example, the construction and eventual operation of the nuclear power station at Wylfa.
The Isle of Wight is in the English Channel. It is diamond-shaped, 40 km from west to east, and about half as much from north to south. The Isle of Wight lies across the southern end of Southampton Water, and is separated from the mainland by the Solent. With its sunny beaches and pleasant varied countryside, the island forms one of the South Coast's most important tourist resorts. It is linked to London by ferry and rail services. The decline of light and other industries has presented serious problems of employment for the island, and at present the population is being reduced by migration to the mainland, where the situation is far from being better.
Off the extreme south-western coast of Great Britain there is a tiny group of the Isles of Scilly.
The Channel Islands lie to the south-west on the French side of the English Channel. They are known to the French as the Isles Normandes, and their position can indeed be best seen from a map of north-west France than southern England.
The Channel Islands form an archipelago, detached by shallow waters from the Cotentin peninsula in Normandy. As part of the Duchy of Normandy, they have been attached to the English Crown since the Norman Conquest (1066).
The population of the Channel Islands (over 133,000) is distributed over a total area of only 194 sq km. This results in a high density of population — 686 per sq km — throughout the islands, greatly increased in summer by holiday-makers. Here there is a strict legislation over immigration and the purchase of property.
In the rural areas many of the people speak a French-Norman dialect, but the official languages are English and French, the former gradually becoming the more important.
The chief islands of the group are Jersey and Guernsey. Jersey (76,000) is the largest and most populous island; it occupies 60 per cent of the total area and has almost 60 per cent of the population.