What is the difference between the UK, Great Britain, the British Isles, and England? What is the United Kingdom? And why did Scotland join the UK? Let’s discuss these topics, and practice some vocabulary, on today’s episode of Thinking in English!

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Vocabulary List

Interchangeably (adv) – in a way that can be exchanged without making any difference or without being noticed

Figs can be used interchangeably with dates in this recipe

Kingdom (n) – a country ruled by a king or queen

They visited many kingdoms while travelling

Union (n) – a political unit made up of two or more separate units such as states

The United Kingdom is a union of England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland

To conquer (v) – to take control or possession of foreign land, or a group of people, by force

The English were conquered by the Normans in 1066

Sovereign (adj) – having the highest power or being completely independent

We must respect the rights of sovereign states/nations to conduct their own affairs.

Bankrupt (informal adj) – having no money

I’ll go bankrupt if you keep asking me for money!

Devolution (n) – the moving of power or responsibility from a main organization to a lower level, or from a central government to a local government

The majority of people in the region are in favour of devolution.

Referendum (n) – a vote in which all the people in a country or an area are asked to give their opinion about or decide an important political or social question

We will hold a referendum on independence next year



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I’m from the UK. You all should know this by now… I mention it in almost every episode! But I’m also from Britain… and I’m also English. Confused? You are not alone!

People from the UK have multiple different identities depending on which part of the UK we were born in. While we are all from the UK, that doesn’t mean we are all English or all British. One of the things that constantly annoys and infuriates people from Wales and Scotland is being called English… because they are not English.

A Thinking in English listener sent me an email a few weeks ago asking about this exact problem. He wanted to know why I use the terms UK, Britain, and England interchangeably in my episodes – basically, what is the difference?

By complete coincidence, later that night, I was hanging out with my friend Zac – a Fijian student living in Tokyo. On the same day as I received an email from a listener, Zac asked me the exact same questions – what is the difference between the UK and Britain?

I was already planning an episode on the history of Scotland… so I have decided to achieve two goals at the same time. This episode will look at the difference between England, the UK, Great Britain, the British Isles, and more.

But I also want to discuss the formation of the United Kingdom. I’ve already recorded an episode looking at Northern Ireland’s relationship with Britain, but what about Scotland? Scotland is the only part of the British Isles that has never been successfully invaded by England – so why is Scotland part of the UK?

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England vs UK vs Britain

But first, let’s take a look at the differences between England, the UK, and Great Britain. As a regular listener of Thinking in English, you would have heard me use all of these words. And Britain and the UK are often used interchangeably… so what is the difference?

The first thing to point out is that this is much easier to explain if you can see a map. I’m going to put a map in the podcast transcript – so go over there to take a look. It really helps to make things clear.

The second thing to point out is that while Britain and the UK are often used interchangeably, they do not have the same meaning. They are not synonymous and instead refer to different things.

Let’s start with the geographical term – British Isles. The British Isles is the name for a group of islands in Northwest Europe – containing two major islands (Britain and Ireland) and hundreds of smaller ones like the Isle of Man, Isle of Skye, and Isle of Silly. The island of Britain became known as Great Britain to differentiate it from the French region of Britain, now known as Brittany.

When the independent kingdoms of Scotland and England united in the 18th century (we’ll talk about this later), they chose the name the Kingdom of Great Britain. I’ve already recorded an episode on the history of Ireland, which had basically been an English colony for hundreds of years and officially joined with Great Britain in the early 19th century to make the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland.

Ireland left the United Kingdom in 1922, but six northern counties remained part of the union – becoming Northern Ireland. Today, the country has the official name of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Therefore, Great Britain has two meanings. First, it is a geographical term – the island of Great Britain is the largest island of the British Isles. Second, Great Britain is a political term for union of England, Scotland, and Wales – the three historical nations joined together.

The United Kingdom is just a political word – the independent, UN recognised country that combines Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

I was born in the nation of England. Therefore, I am English. England is part of Great Britain. Therefore, I am British, and Great Britain is one of the components of the UK, so I am a UK citizen. Someone born in Scotland is also British and a UK citizen… but they are not English – they are Scottish.

If you were born in Northern Ireland things are a little more confusing. You would be a UK citizen, as Northern Ireland is part of the UK. But you would not be British, as Northern Ireland is not part of the political or geographical Great Britain – instead you would be Northern Irish (and technically Irish as you were born on the geographical island called Ireland… but not necessarily Irish nationality as that refers to the country Ireland).

Overall… I don’t blame you if you are confused! Go to the blog and look at the map – it really makes things easier!


Why is Scotland in the UK?

Hopefully now you understand the difference between the different names for the UK and Great Britain. The Kingdom of Great Britain, and later the United Kingdom, was formed by uniting two historically independent kingdoms and countries – England and Scotland.

How did this happen? Why did Scotland join the United Kingdom?

History of Scotland

People have been living in the area now known as Scotland for thousands of years. Evidence of nomadic hunter-gatherer peoples dates back to around 10,000 years ago, with the first farming people believed to appear around 5000 years ago.

In 124 AD, the Roman Empire arrived in Britain. Hadrian’s wall was built by emperor Hadrian to defend the northern border of the empire – and basically split Britain into two different regions. The Roman’s never managed to successfully invade or conquer Scotland. The people living there, including tribes known as the Picts and Caledonians, as well as Gaelic people, defended their territory and land.

Around the 9th century AD, Vikings arrived from Scandinavia – they crossed the North Sea in boats to trade and conquer. Vikings settled on the west cost of Scotland, but at the same time the Picts were creating their own kingdom in the east – the Kingdom of Alba!

The Kingdom of Alba developed into a feudal society and had relative peace until a crisis in the year 1297. After the death of King Alexander III, the English king, Edward I, decided he should take over control of the north of Britain. English troops marched north but were defeated and forced back by the Scots and their influential leader – William Wallace!

Despite victory in this battle, the relationship between England and Scotland remained uneasy. Robert the Bruce defeated Edward II of England in another battle in 1314, and in 1320 the Declaration of Arbroath was signed by Scottish Noble families and sent to the Pope in Rome – proclaiming Scotland as an independent country.

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Uniting the Kingdoms

While England and Scotland were two independent kingdoms, this didn’t mean that the royal families were completely separate and unrelated. There was a great deal of inter-marriage and connection between all of the royal families of Europe at the time.

Mary Stuart, better known as Mary Queen of Scots, is a good example. She was the only surviving child of James V of Scotland and his French wife, Mary of Guise. She was also the great niece of King Henry VIII of England as her grandmother was Henry’s sister (and therefore was the great granddaughter of the English king Henry VII). Mary became Queen of Scotland just six days after her birth, after the death of her father.

After spending some time in France (and actually becoming the queen consort of France), Mary returned to Scotland, remarried, and gave birth to a son – James. Mary’s reign as Queen of Scotland was a difficult time – Catholics and Protestants were battling for political control across the British Isles.

Mary was forced to abdicate in 1567, and her one-year-old son James became king of Scotland. Mary fled south to England, looking for protection from her cousin Queen Elizabeth I of England. However, Mary was seen as a threat by Elizabeth – some catholic English people considered Mary the legitimate queen of England. Elizabeth imprisoned Mary for 19 years, before executing her in 1587.

Elizabeth I died in 1603 with no children. Who would become the new leader of England? Well, if you remember from earlier, Mary Queen of Scots was a direct relative of the English King Henry VII. Her son, James VI of Scotland, was therefore the great-great-grandson of an English King and considered a potential heir to the throne – and the most likely successor to Elizabeth I.

When Elizabeth died in 1603, James VI of Scotland also became James I of England – he was now king of two separate kingdoms. This historic event is known as the Union of the Crowns.

However, the Union of the Crowns did not mean that England and Scotland were unified. They were both independent and sovereign nations under James. While the new king had ambitions to create one unified country (he was also the King of Ireland at the time), it proved difficult to convince nobles and politicians to support his plans.

It was not until 1707 that the Act of Union brought the two kingdoms together as one country. In the 17th century, western European countries were rushing to establish colonies in the Americas. England, Spain, Portugal, and France had all successfully set up connections. Scotland wanted the same.

Thousands of Scottish people had invested their savings in something called the Darien Scheme – a plan to build a Scottish colony in central America. It failed: Scotland lost both a lot of people and money in the disastrous expeditions.

Scotland was basically bankrupt – as were most of the wealthy and influential families in the kingdom. The financial benefits of joining with England were enough to convince enough Scottish parliament members to vote for the Act of Union. The parliaments of Scotland and England were combined to make the Parliament of Great Britain.

Tax, trade, parliament, money, and war became the responsibility of the new parliament – although Scotland did keep its own religious and legal systems. A new flag was created combining the English St George’s cross with Scotland’s St Andrew’s cross – the Union Flag. The modern Union Flag was created in the 19th century with addition of the Ireland’s flag of St Patrick.

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Scotland as part of the UK?

While Scotland has been part of the UK for 300 years, campaigns for independence have been around since the 19th century. England, as the largest and most powerful part of the union, has had the most influence over the direction of the government. Some Scottish people dislike the powerful position England has in the union.

In the late 20th century, Scotland was given more power through the process of devolution. The Scottish Parliament was established in 1999, giving Scotland influence and control over their own domestic politics. This is why university is free for Scottish students and why Scotland has different images on their money (although it is the same currency as the rest of the UK).

The Scottish National Party (SNP) is currently the most popular political party in Scotland – and they are a pro-independence political party. After winning a majority of seats in the 2011 Scottish Parliament election, the SNP succeeded in negotiating a deal for an independence referendum with the UK government. In 2014, the people of Scotland were asked “Should Scotland be an Independent country?” – 55% of Scots voted “no.”

This has not stopped campaigns for Scottish independence. The majority of Scottish people voted to stay in the EU in the 2016 referendum, leading to calls for Scotland to leave the UK and join the EU.

The current First Minister of Scotland and leader of the SNP, Nicola Sturgeon, suggested Scotland hold another independence referendum in 2023. However, last week the Supreme Court of the United Kingdom decided Scotland are not able to hold another referendum without UK government support – and this is unlikely as the previous referendum was supposed to be a “once in a generation” event!


Final Thought

The UK and Great Britain are similar, but not synonymous. Hopefully after listening to today’s episode, you better understand the history and meanings behind the various nations, countries, islands, and names of my country!

I also tried to give a brief explanation of why Scotland is in the UK. It was not invaded or conquered like Wales and Ireland but was a poltical union decided after the Scottish king became the English king and Scotland was experiencing financial failure.

The future of Scotland is not an easy topic. I am a big supporter of the right of self-determination – I believe that people should be given the democratic right to vote on the future of their own country. And, as such, I think that if Scotland wants to become an independent country it should be allowed.

What do you think? Do you understand the difference between the UK, Great Britain, and the British Isles? Do you think Scotland should be allowed to become an independent country again?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

2 thoughts on “189. Why is Scotland in the UK? (English Vocabulary Lesson)”
  1. A detailed blog post Tom. I am now clear about the difference between UK, Scotland and Britain.

    Though I am not from those countries but I always read about them and glance at the cities there on TV or social media. For example, London is a popular city that is located in England

    United Kingdom is a United Nations recognized country that borders Northern Ireland and Britain. The difference here it is the geographical viewpoint and also political history

    Also, I love the way you write these blogs , it is versatile, I mean you combine links, social media links and even a vocabulary with words and descriptions sentences examples

    Really nice 📖📖🙏🔥

  2. Thanks for your video as always Tom¡
    Could you talk about the situation in Catalonia? It has been part of Spain for 300 years but a large part of the population wanted to become independent and currently after what happened in 2017 when our politicians organized an “illegal”referendum, and the Spanish police beat and fought against the citizens who went to vote, our politicians They were tried and accused of sedition, some imprisoned with sentences of 13 years in prison and others exiled in Belgium. The movement continues more alive than ever now, because as a result of the last elections in Spain, the Catalan independence parties have the “key” to form a government or go to new elections.
    currently the catalan government requests amnesty for the exiles and a binding referendum.

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