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National Information

UK mapAs an international student living in the United Kingdom you will need, and probably want to have, at least a basic understanding of the four different countries that make up the UK – England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. This is because :

  • England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland all have their own specificity and should be regarded as having their own identity, as well as belonging to a larger unit.
  • Since 1999, 'devolution' has significantly changed the way that the UK has been governed. For more details about devolution, and what individual powers each country has, see the BBCs 'Beginners' guide to devolution.'
  • Remember that national identity in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland is particularly strong in certain areas.
  • Aspects of religion and language are important in each of the four countries.


Click on the links to learn about the four countries.

Big Ben England

Wales flag Wales





  • England is probably the country that first springs to mind when one thinks of the United Kingdom. Sometimes, however, one tends to use the word ‘England’ rather too generally, to denote the whole of the UK, when in fact, we mean to talk about other countries in the UK. This can often be seen as rude and insulting to people who live outside England.
  • England has a population of almost 50 million people, and makes up over 80% of the UK’s total population.
  • The largest cities in England are : London (the capital), Birmingham, Sheffield, Leeds, Newcastle, and Manchester. London is one of the most well-known cities in the world. Many people will see London as being representative of the whole of England, and indeed, the whole of the UK.
  • Well known symbols, or ‘icons’ of England include (according to the British Council site) : football as a sport; actors Jude Law and Kate Winslet; Bridget Jones; pubs and beer. But for many people, these also represent the whole of the UK, and not just England.
  • In a recent British Council survey, many people commented that it was very difficult to distinguish between English and British culture and identity.
  • English people usually find something else to identify with rather than ‘nation’ – they identify strongly with the place or region in which they live, whether it be a major city or one of the English counties such as Yorkshire, Devon or Northumberland. They also identify strongly with faith groups.

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  • Wales has its own National Assembly, which makes decisions of importance to Wales. Since May 2011, there has been an executive branch of the Welsh Assembly known as the Welsh Government. This has aditional powers.
  • Well known universities are based in Wales such as Cardiff, Swansea, Lampeter, Aberystwyth and Bangor.
  • Wales is well known for its beautiful and attractive landscapes, mountains (especially Snowdon) and lakes.
  • The Welsh language is probably the most important distinguishing factor between Wales and the rest of the UK. Welsh (or Cymraeg) is one of Europe’s oldest languages and is spoken by one in five Welsh people.
  • Two to three children and teenagers out of five speak Welsh, which shows that the language is very much alive among the young.
  • The Welsh language is actively promoted in Welsh schools and all children have to study it to GCSE level.
  • Road signs and other signs are most often bilingual, in both English and Welsh.
  • The Welsh language is very strong in North-West Wales, where 75 per cent of the population speak Welsh. Towns, villages and cities in Wales often have both a Welsh and an English name. Wales is home to one of the longest place names in the world - Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch which means St Mary's (Church) by the white aspen over the whirlpool, and St Tysilio's (Church) by the red cave!
  • Wales is well known for its ‘Eisteddfodau’ (festivals celebrating Welsh language, art, culture and heritage). These celebrations include a mixture of music, dance, drama, debate and cultural competitions.
  • The Welsh national sport is rugby union. The national team is sometimes known as the Dragons (a red dragon appears on the national flag of Wales).



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  • The Scottish Parliament was opened in July 1999. The Scottish Parliament is involved in decisions affecting health, education and local government. An executive branch of the devolved Scottish Parliament, known as the Scottish Government, has been in existence since 2007, and has additional powers.
  • Scotland is the UK’s most northern country. It has around 790 islands off its coasts – 130 of these islands are inhabited.
  • Scotland has stunning landscapes, beautiful beaches and lochs, which are fresh water lakes. There are over 600 square miles of lochs in Scotland including the most famous one, Loch Ness.
  • Scotland has a population of just over five million people which is about 8.5 per cent of the whole UK population. Over 2 million of these live in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and almost half of Scotland's population live in the Central Belt, where both the largest city (Glasgow) and the capital city (Edinburgh) are located.
  • Scotland is well known for holding one of the biggest arts festivals in the world. This is commonly known as the Edinburgh Festival but is actually made up of a number of different festivals which happen at different times of the year, though many do take place in August and September. Many people have heard of the Fringe Festival, but there are also the International Festival, the Film Festival, the Children’s Festival and the Edinburgh Mela which is an intercultural festival.
  • Musically, Scotland has recently produced bands such as Travis and Franz Ferdinand. Other famous Scots, according to the British Council survey, include Ewan McGregor, Sean Connery and JK Rowling (the author of Harry Potter)
  • Of all the countries in the UK, Scotland has been victim of perhaps the greatest amount of stereotyping. Images of Scotland often focus on things like tartan, kilts, heather and haggis (a particular food served on Burns night) as well as the scenery. These are of course an important part of Scotland, but Scotland is increasingly developing its reputation in other respects – for instance, it has a thriving computer games industry.

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Northern Ireland

  • As the British Council web site indicates : “Northern Ireland shares the Westminster government with the UK but has had its own devolved Assembly, currently suspended, with local control over various issues including education and arts. The population is waiting for local politicians to come to agreement so that the Assembly can be reinstated as independence from Westminster is valued.”
  • The capital city of northern Ireland is Belfast.
  • Northern Ireland is part of the UK, but is physically separated from mainland England, Wales and Scotland by the wild and sometimes treacherous Irish Sea.
  • The physical characteristics of Northern Ireland may be seen as affecting the ‘mindset’ of its population. Many citizens feel at the same time a UK citizen and an Irish citizen, and indeed, a European citizen. Others may shun their UK identity and embrace their Irishness, while many others insist on being ‘British’.
  • Northern Ireland has a population of 1.5 million. Nearly 60% of Northern Ireland citizens are under 40. so Northern Ireland has a strong youth culture.
  • There are many issues connected with religion and identity in Northern Ireland. Protestants tend to consider themselves as ‘British’, and part of the UK (though as the British Council web site points out, this may change when the Irish rugby team is playing!) Catholics tend to embrace the Irish identity and an all-Ireland ethos.
  • As the British Council states, there are many exceptions to the rule, and Northern Ireland is home to many people of other religions and cultural identities. There are also a huge number of people from both the Protestant and Catholic communities who value each other as friends and fellow citizens, and to whom religion takes a back seat.
  • As with other countries in the UK, people in Northern Ireland speak English. There also exist the lesser-used languages of Irish and Ulster Scots and many associated cultural activities.
  • There are many stereotypes associated with Northern Ireland, including : its troubled and violent past but also more positive aspects such as the building of the Titanic, the Giants Causeway World Heritage Site, linen industry and musicians such as Van Morrison and Ash.
  • There is a strong emphasis placed on traditional Irish folk music.

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The text was prepared by Dr Gerard Sharpling.
Centre for Applied Linguisitcs, University of Warwick

Useful links:

British Council 

The British Council is central to promoting Britain the English language across the world to other countries. Their information is usually a good, reliable source for anyone seeking information about the different areas that make up the UK.