The term "British Isles" is a geographic one describing the two large islands of Great Britain (which contains England, Scotland and Wales) and Ireland, together with numerous smaller islands around their coasts. The major administrative divisions are England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland, the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands.
The term "United Kingdom" is a contraction of "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland", that is England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but has meant different things at different times. From 1707, when the parliaments of England and Scotland were united, we had the "United Kingdom of Great Britain". Then, in 1801, when Ireland joined the union, it was the "United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland". Finally, in 1922, when 26 of the 32 counties of Ireland left the union to form the Irish Free State (the forerunner of the Republic of Ireland), the present name was adopted.
The adjective "British" is generally taken to mean "of the United Kingdom" rather than "of Great Britain" or "of the British Isles", but "Irish" can mean either "of Ireland" or "of the Republic of Ireland" depending on the context.
In England, Wales and Scotland, the word "County" is not part of a county's name, so it is incorrect to refer to, for example, "County Devon" or "Devon County". There is a single exception to this rule - County Durham, where this form is used to distinguish the county from Durham City. In Ireland (both Northern Ireland and the Republic), however, the opposite is true; county names are usually prefixed with the word "County", for example County Down and County Clare.
The suffix "shire" appears on many county names in England, Scotland and Wales. The general rule is the "shire" is used only where there is a town or city with the same name as the county - hence "Nottinghamshire" to distinguish the county from the city of Nottingham. There are some cases, however, where the suffix "shire" is regarded as optional, for example Devon / Devonshire and Nairn / Nairnshire.
Specific notes relating to individual areas can be found on the relevant pages.
The documents linked from the head of this page list the administrative sub-divisions of the various parts of the British Isles and attempt to clarify the far reaching local government changes made (or about to be made) within the United Kingdom since 1965.
While every effort has been made to achieve accuracy, there may well be errors. Comments, corrections and suggestions are welcome.
Note: The Association of British Counties provide a number of helpful pages, including one on The problem of "county confusion" - and how to resolve it which explains the differences betwee historic counties, counties as designated under the 1972 Local Government Act, and those under the 1997 Lieutenancies Act.
- Whitaker's Almanac 1969
- Bartholomew Gazetteer of Britain 1977
- BSI Standards Catalogue 1991
- Chambers English Dictionary 1988
- The Ordnance Survey Atlas of Great Britain 1982
- Pears Cyclopaedia 1973-74
- Pears Cyclopaedia 1988
- The Statesman's Year-Book 1984-85
- Local Government in the United Kingdom by Dan Wilson and Chris Game 1994 (Macmillan)
- Directory of Local Authorities 1996 (F.T. Law and Tax)