Blog > The British "Isles"
Confusion often arises around the term The British Isles, some incorrectly using it interchangeably with Great Britain. However the British Isles historically refers to all islands of Britain and Ireland which are made up from the countries that comprise the Republic of Ireland and the United Kingdom. Some count the Channel Islands too, although strictly speaking they lie closer to the French than to British coast.
Apart obviously from the two main islands of Britain and Ireland, there are a multitude of smaller islands some inhabited, some not, which lie off the coast of these two larger land masses. Impossible to give a precise figure of how many, as this depends on your definition of an island, but some count over 6000 or more of these smaller islands that lie off shore. Of these around 200 of them have some form of permanent habitation.
The largest in terms of population is the Isle of Wight which lies off England's southern coast, with over 140,000 inhabitants. (In fact Portsea Island in Hampshire which is only separated from the mainland by a narrow channel technically has more residents but it is doubtful that even the people who live there realise they are on an island!)
The largest in terms of land mass is Lewis & Harris in the outer Hebrides, which despite its name is a single land mass, 841 sq. miles.
In fact a significant number of the overall total can be found off Scotland's splintered and indented western coastline with iconic names such as Arran, Islay, Mull, Skye, steeped in the history and folklore of the nation.
Many of the off shore islands of the British Isles are well worth a visit in their own right, many featuring spectacular scenery, unusual flora and fauna, and often with distinct cultures and customs of their own. Here we take a look at a selection of these islands in more detail.
Also referred to a Holy Island, Lindisfarne has been an important site in the hitory of early English Christianity ever since it was first settled by Irish monks travelling from Iona in AD 635. Located off England's northeast coast, it is joined by a tidal causeway to the mainland with access possible by a land bridge when the tide is low.
The ruins of a 12th century priory are still visible on the islands, the only remnant of the monastery that once existed here. The Lindisfarne gospels, famed for their colourful and intricate illuminations and now in the British Library, were written here.
Tresco is the second largest island in the Isles of Scilly archipelago which lies 28 miles off the south coast of Cormwall. This family-owned island is just two and a half miles long and half a mile wide and is a popular destination for tourists attracted by its remoteness, immaculate sandy beaches and pure azure waters.
One of its star attractions however are the world famous Tresco Abbey Gardens which feature an incredible range of semi tropical plants from all over the world which thrive here due to the exceptionally mild climate it enjoys.
The island is also popular with bird watchers who flock here during the migratory seasons to see rare and unusual species which regularly drop in, blown off course.
Brownsea island lies in Poole harbour just off England's southwest coast. Owned by the National Trust, the island offers a great range of natural habitats including woodland, heathland and a lagoon allowing a great variety of flora and fauna to thrive. It is perhaps best known for being one of the last strongholds in England of the native red squirrel which in most parts of the mainland have been driven out by the imported American grey squirrel.
The island also holds an important place in the birth of the British scouting movement as it was here in 1907 Baden Powell first invited 20 boys to participate in an experimental camp based on using his scouting skills learnt during the Boer War.
The small uninhabited island of Staffa is located on Scotland's West coast, 6 miles west of Mull, in the Inner Hebdrides. It was immortalised by the composer John Mendelssohn who after a visit to island in 1829 composed his Hebrides Overture inspired in particular by the astonishing acoustics of Fingal's Cave with its eye-catching hexagonal basalt columns similar to those found in the Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland. The island is also an important habitat for many rare seabirds including guillemots, razorbills and puffins.
Barra is a small inhabited island, the most southerly in the Outer Hebrides. It is famed for its spectacular, rugged scenery and white sandy beaches which combined with a vibrant community spirit and rich local history makes it a fascinating place to visit.
One of its most unusual features is Barra Airport where uniquely scheduled flights both land and take off on the beach. Careful monitoring of the tides and wind direction is an ever constant duty of the local air traffic controller.
Barra was also used as the filming location for the original "Whisky Galore" filmed in 1949.
The Arran Islands are a grouping of three rocky islands located just off the west coast of Ireland close to Galway Bay, known for their rocky scenery, remote location and native Irish speaking population.
The largest island Inis Mór is best known as the location of the UNESCO World Heritage Site Dun Aengus (Dun Aonghasa), a prehistoric bronze age fort perched precariously on the edge of a 300 ft vertical cliff with spectacular views out over the Atlantic Ocean
The Aran sweater is perhaps the most famous symbol of this island community. Originally designed as a durable outer garment for the local fisherman, it has become a fashion item recognised throughout the world. It is thought the unique knitted pattern of each sweater was a means of identifying the washed-up bodies of drowned fisherman.
St Michael's Mount
Perched like a fairy-tale castle on its own island in the shimmering blue waters off the coast of Cornwall, St Michael's Mount is one of the regions most distinctive landmarks.
It is operated jointly by the National Trust and the St Aubyn family whose ownership of the property dates back to the 17th century. The property was gifted to the National Trust in 1954, but the family retained a leasehold which allowed them to remain living in the castle.
The island is connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway which can be crossed on foot at low tide. The island is home to a thriving community who live and work there mostly involved in servicing the 30,000 tourists who visit annually.
As well as the castle a spectacular sub- tropical terraced garden can be found on the southern slopes where a favourable micro-climate allows many exotic plants to grow.
Isle of Skye
The Isle of Skye is the largest of the Inner Hebrides Islands off the west coast of Scotland and is one of the most popular visitor destinations in the country.
It can be reached either by ferry or the Skye Bridge which opened in 1995 and connects it to the mainland at the Kyle of Lochalsh.
The island is famed for its spectacular mountain scenery dominated by the two Cuillin ranges and is a popular hiking and climbing destination.
However the island also has a rich history and culture with clan loyalties very much to the fore, Clan MacDonald and Clan MacLeod both having their clan castles on the island, Armadale and Dunvegan respectively, both open to the public.
It is home too to one of Scotland's most prestigious whisky brands, the Talisker distillery in Carbost has been producing single malts here since 1830.
The diminutive Isle of Iona, barely three miles long and one mile wide long, lies a short ferry ride off the southwest corner of Mull (an offshore island in its own right). It has long been considered the cradle of Christianity in Scotland, dating from when in 563 AD St. Columba arrived on its white sandy beaches with 12 followers and established a monastic community here.
It attracts annually 130,000 visitors who come for either quiet religious reflection or to enjoy the peaceful scenery, excellent walking opportunities and wide variety of marine wildlife.
The local community of around 130 permanent residents is mostly based around the restored Abbey, which continues to hold daily services and the nearby St Oran's Chapel in whose graveyard it is claimed the ancient kings of Scotland have been laid to rest including Macbeth.
The island of Anglesey or Inys Môn to give it its Welsh name, lies across the Menai Straits from the North Wales coast to which it is connected by the Menai Suspension Bridge. Built by Thomas Telford and opened in 1826 it's the first modern suspension bridge in the world.
It is by quite some distance the largest island in Wales and in fact the seventh largest in the British Isles with an area of 276 sq. miles and a population of close to 70,000.
Anglesey's coastline has been designated an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), because of its many pristine sandy beaches, picturesque bays and dramatic sea cliffs, all of which can be accessed from a coastal path 124 miles long which circumnavigates the island.
The island's main port of Holyhead is also a major ferry terminal for people and goods travelling to and from Ireland, however for those who are not simply passing through there are many attractions to enjoy including medieval castles, idyllic gardens, numerous prehistoric sites and unspoilt nature.
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