The Position of the British Isles

Introduction - Historical importance - Bearing on Modern 1950 Position - Global Positioning - Area and Dimensions - Population (1950)

It will be the purpose of this book to examine the natural environment afforded by the British Isles for their human inhabitants; to examine the advantages and the disadvantages of that environment; to analyse the natural resources of value to man which are proper to these islands; to see the use which the inhabitants have made of those resources, and so to lead up to a study of the present position—the capital which has been accumulated in consequence of past exploitation, and the outlook for the future in the utilisation of the resources which remain. The philosophers of ancient Greece knew well that the earth was a sphere, and “every schoolboy knows” of the experiments of Eratosthenes by which the actual size of the sphere was measured. But the known world of the ancients occupied but a small portion of the surface of the sphere. It centred round the Mediterranean Sea. To the south it was bounded by the Sahara Desert, beyond which there were but legendary lands. On the south-east it extended to the Indian Ocean, to the east as far as Central Asia, beyond which again lay the mysterious land of Cathay known only because of the silks and porcelain brought by traders to Mediterranean Europe. On the north-western margin of the known world lay the islands of Britain. The name “Albion,” which is still some imes applied to the larger of the two islands, perpetuates the point of view of the ancients. The British Isles were approached and explored from the Continent, and it was the white chalk cliffs of Dover, facing as they do the land of Gaul, which suggested a name for the whole country. The Celtic lands of Ireland, Wales, and Scotland lay on the outermost fringe, so little known that in many of the ancient maps Scotland is represented as an island. Through ut early Christian or Medieval tiWes the marginal or terminal position of the British Isles became accentuated as the scientific concepts of the ancients became lost during the Dark Ages. The fantastic maps of the medieval monks show Jerusalem as the centre of a flat earth separated by the blue curtain of the sky from the celest ial Jerusalem above, but again with the British Isles on the margin and doubtless near the dangerous “edge” of the world.

The year 1492 not only marks the discovery of the Americas by Columbus, but it marks the end of the dominance of the countries of the Mediterranean basin. It released the British Isles from the disadvantage of being on the fringe of world politics and placed London in the centre of the land of the globe, and the British Isles in a dominating position relative to all the world. This re-orientat ion was not the result of an accidental discovery. Columbus’s voyage was based on a firm belief that the earth was a sphere and that it was consequently possible to sail round it. Anyone holding such a view at that time did so not only in opposition to public opinion but also in constant danger of being branded “heretical.” One may wonder why the land on the far side of the Atlantic remained so long unknown to Europeans. True, the coasts of Greenland, of Labrador, and of Newfoundland were doubtless known at a much earlier date to Icelandic and Norwegian fishermen; but however attractive the fisheries might be, the character of the lands was not such as to cause enthusiastic wonder. Flowing southwards, parallel to the coast of Greenl and, is a cold current bearing a constant stream of icebergs from the Arctic, and whilst a vessel may sight land, the cross ing of this belt of cold water and actual landing on the shores is a matter of extreme difficulty, and climatic conditions are obviously not those to attract such attempts. The navigators of the Mediterianean, a sea which, with its great ext ent and its treacherous sudden storms, was no mean school for navi ators knew that when they passed through the Pillars of Hercules, or the Strait of Gibraltar, and turned southwards they were in the belt of the constant North-East Trade Winds, that would always blow them from known lands and would allow the venturous mariner no hope of return. Over the north of France and the south of Britain, the winds, though variable, were on the whole from the southwest; but to venture with a sailing vessel of a few tons, which could be victualled only for a limited period, merely to test the theory that one could go outwards by the north-east wind, and at some far distant point find it possible to get in the current of wind which was on the whole south-westerly, required the efforts of a dominating and fearless leader, and Columbus’s own sailors nearly lost faith in their leader before 1nd was sighted. Once the discovery had been made no one can fail to be impressed by the rapidity of events which followed—the exploration and the settlement of the American continent—and of the consequent opportunity afforded to those countries of Europe which faced the Atlantic and of which the British Isles formed one. The Mediterranean became a backwater, its commerce and its cultures decayed, and it was not until 1869—70 that the opening of the Suez Canal afforded a resuscitation of its ancient trading glory. By that time the world position of Britain was too firmly established to be shaken by the revived importance of the Mediterranean. Instead, Britain profited by yet another route to the Far East.

It may be thought that in this modern world, with all the improvements in transport and communications which have characterised the last hundred years, position would be of little importance to these islands. Such, however, is far from being the truth. An attempt has been made in Fig. 3 to show facts which can much more readily be appreciated by a glance at a globe. From the thickly populated, industrialised countries of northern Europe to the corresponding area of urban development on the far side of the Atlantic, characterised by the north-eastern United States and by the St. Lawrence Basin of Canada, the shortest route (the Great Circle route) lies across the British Isles. Presuming that the prov erbial crow really does take the shortest route, that sagacious bird bound either from New York or from Montreal for any one of some fifteen or sixteen capital cities in Europe would, of necessity, have to pass over the British Isles. Actually, all ocean traffic from the ports of the northern seaboard of Continental Europe bound for North America has to make a detour to escape the British Isles and passes down the English Channel. The vessels are not taken out of their way by dropping anchor for a short time at one of the ports on the south coast of England, for example Southampton. A short time ago the importance of constructing a Channel tunnel was once again before the public eye. The scheme is interesting geographically because if the tunnel were completed a British port, such as

Liverpool, would almost automatically become the railhead of the whole European system—providing a new route for passengers and mails from Europe to America. However, where speed is important airways have replaced both seaways and railways, so that the Channel tunnel is not now likely to be undertaken. It is an interesting experiment to take a globe and a piece of string and to notice the shortest distance between Europe and various other parts of the world, and also to calculate the saving of distance—not to say the saving of time—which results by the utiisation of new routes. In any case they all serve to stress the importance of the position of Britain at present and the importance which its position is likely to maintain in the future. The modern development of trans-Atlantic

trade routes america europe Within the two dark lines are the shortest routes between New York and the capitals of European states marked by dots; in each case the shortest route passes through the British Isles. The pecked line shows the same relationship for Montreal; the dotted line for the Panama Canal.
air transport has already demonstrated this. Eastward bound it is not difficult to make Montreal or New York to London in one hop and from New York London may be by-passed en route to a continental airport. The westward flight, however, is often a battle against headwinds and convenient stops are afforded by Prestwick (Ayrshire) or Shannon (near Limerick), Goose Bay (Labrador) or Gander (Newfoundland). Not infrequently surprised passengers find themselves touching down in Iceland.
Before the British Overseas Airways Corporation put into service the Comet jet-liner on the South African route in 1952 cruising speed of air liners was 200 to 300 miles per hour and any point in the world was theoretically within 48 hours of London. The Comet doubled the speed and halved the time.
The world relations of Britain reflect in many ways her world position. If, by virtue of situation, the British Isles belong to the Continent of Europe, it is still not too much to say that the British Isles do not really belong to Europe. Viewed from the other side of the Atlantic, it seems obvious that Britain would form an essential unit in a United States of Europe or Western European Union. But the countries of Continental Europe are more “foreign” to the people of Britain than are countries overseas more distant but more closely related such as United States of America and, still more, the countries of the British Commonwealth. A few years ago Professor C. B. Fawcett carried out an interesting calculation in studying the direction of foreign mails from the British Isles. Eliminating business correspondence, the mail to America and car overseas dominions was overwhelmingly more important than that to the countries of Continental Europe. Blood ties, linguistic ties, social ties, and economic ties are with the new lands of the world.

The British Isles lie mainly within the quadrilateral formed by the two lines of longitude 0° and 10° West and the two lines of latit ude 50° and 60° North. In latitude the position is roughly comparable with the almost uninhabitable lands of Labrador, to the northern part of British Columbia, and again to the almost uninhabitable lands of Sakhalin and the Kamschatka Peninsula of the coasts of Asia. The British Isles, indeed, enjoy a more favourable climate than any other land so far from the equator. To the north of the islands the sea way is open between the coasts of Iceland and of Norway to the Arctic Ocean, and a constant drift of warm water and of correspondingly warm air passes by these islands into that open channel. We have long been accustomed to refer to this drift of water as the Gulf Stream, and if purists prefer to call it the North Atlantic Drift it does not alter the fact of the significance of the phenomenon. More especially, of course, is the fact significant in winter, since the shores of the British Isles lie in the winter gulf of warmth. Apart from the advantages of world position, there are numerous advantages from the position of the British Isles more local in character. The existence of a broad Continental Shelf on which the warm waters drifting across the North Atlantic are piled up ensures not only the maximum benefit from these waters in the amelioration of climate, but it accentuates the movement of water by the tides. Thus our ports, always free from ice, are kept free from silt by the strong tidal scour, whilst the shallow seas on the Continental Shelf afford the richest fishing grounds in the world, where variety, caused by the constant movement and mixing of the waters, is the spice of life in the fish world. The English Channel, narrowing eastwards to the Strait of Dover, which is only 21 miles wide at the narrowest part, separates the south of England from France. The North Sea lies between Britain and Holland, Germany,

In citing statistics and statements relative to the British Isles the greatest care must be taken to note the area to which reference is made in each specific case. The island of Great Britain consists of three countries— Scotland in the north, Wales in a part of the west, and England occupying the remainder. England, Scotland, and Wales have been joined under one monarch since 1603; but whilst England and Wales are usually considered together for many purposes, Scotland is distinct. Thus the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries refers to England and Wales but not to Scotland. Statistics and details which are published by the Ministry refer, therefore, to England and Wales only. Since 1920 Ireland has been divided into Northern Ireland and the Irish Free State (now known as the Irish Republ ic or Eire). Northern Ireland has a parliament of its own, but is otherwise
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 closely united to Great Britain. But the Republic of Ireland is an independent republic. Thus “United Kingdom” used to mean the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, now it means the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The distinction is important when comparing pre-1914 with later statistics. For many purposes the Isle of Man, with a parliament (or House of Keys) of its own, is not part of the United Kingdom. Again, the laws of Great Britain do not apply to the Channel Islands unless such application is specifically laid down and approved by the islands. The following table is given for reference purposes:

Denmark and Norway.1 Whatever may be the opinion of travellers crossing the “silver streak,” these separating seas are a great advant age to the islands rather than the reverse. The part they played in saving Britain from invasion during the Second World War is too well known and too recent to need emphasis. But Britain is double-faced. The ports on her southern and eastern shores face the most important and most developed parts of northern Europe. The embouchure of the Thames is opposite that of Europe’s most important river, the Rhine. On the other hand, Britain’s west-coast ports face the most developed parts of America. This is again symbolical of the intermediate position which Britain occupies, political, financial, and commercial, between America on the one hand and the countries of Europe on the other.


The table shows that the total area of the British Isles, including the Isle of Man and the Channel Isles, is 120,879 square miles excluding inland water. In round figures one may say 121,000 square miles or nearly one- eighth of a million. This gives a basis of comparison with other countries it is equivalent to about one twenty-fifth of continental United States and so on. Out of this total the larger island of Great Britain is roughly 89,000 square miles with 49,000,000 people, the smaller island 32,000 square miles with 4+ million people. The population of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland with the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands passed the 50,000,000 mark about 1950—on its total area of 94,278 square miles. The census population of the whole United Kingdom in 1951 was 50,423,668. The figures of area given on p. 125 are smaller because inland water is excluded.


H. J. Mackinder: Britain and the British Seas, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1907.


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