Uk topic #1: country and people

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1) Welcome to the UK! But what exactly is the UK? Germany is Germany, France is France, but the nation that is the “United Kingdom” is a bit more complicated. Take sports, for example: In the Olympics, there is a team called Great Britain and Northern Ireland, while in football the national teams are England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland separately. The reason for these differences is history. The United Kingdom was formed from different groups of people with their own identity, all fighting for a place in this part of Europe.

2) So, to make things simpler, this is how we normally refer to these islands in north-western Europe:

  • GREAT BRITAIN = England, Scotland and Wales

  • THE UNITED KINGDOM = Great Britain and Northern Ireland

  • THE BRITISH ISLES = The United Kingdom + The Republic of Ireland

3) The Republic of Ireland, also known by its Gaelic name Éire, is a separate nation. Here we will be focussing on the United Kingdom of Great Britain and NORTHERN Ireland. As this is a very long name for a country, most people just say “The United Kingdom” or “The UK”. In internet and email addresses .uk is used. Often, the name Britain is used instead of UK, and the normal word to talk about something to do with the UK is British. In official contexts, the word Briton is used to mean “a UK citizen”.

4) So, why is Britain “Great”? In this case, the word doesn’t mean “fantastic” or “amazing”, as many people think. There is a region in France called Brittany, and “Great Britain” just means a “larger Brittany”. The name Britain itself comes from the Roman invasion.

5) Many people in Ireland and some people in Britain think that the term British Isles is old-fashioned, because it makes them think of the time when the whole of Ireland was dominated by Britain. Various ideas have been suggested as a way of referring to the “British Isles”. Perhaps “Great Britain and Ireland”? Even this is not suitable, because there are some islands, for example Jersey, which are not officially part of Britain. What a mess!

6) Demographic data
Some things are clearer:

  • The population of the UK (2012) is approximately 63 million. England has 53 million, Wales has 3 million, Scotland 5.5 million, and Northern Ireland 1.5 million people

  • The capital cities are London (England), Edinburgh (Scotland), Cardiff (Wales), and Belfast (Northern Ireland)

  • The total area of the UK is approximately 245,000 square kilometres, that of England making up 130,000 sq km. The total area of Hungary is about 93,000 sq km.

7) Be careful!
England has been the dominant part of the UK for so long that many people use “England” instead of “Scotland” or “Britain”, for example. A Scottish person will not be happy if you are in Edinburgh and say “how wonderful it is to be here in England”. It should always be remembered that England does not make up the whole of the UK!
8) Landscape
Britain is characterized by a lack of extremes. It has mountains, but none of them are very high. It also has flat land, but you cannot travel very far without seeing hills. It has no really big rivers, no active volcanoes; there are some earthquakes, but almost none can be felt by humans… This may sound boring, but it is not – a journey of 150 kilometres can seem like twice as far because the landscape is so varied. The forests that once covered the land have largely disappeared; most of Britain (especially England) consists of farmland and towns/cities. Hedges dividing fields can be found all over the southern part of the UK. In most areas you can find signs of human life everywhere.
9) Climate
Even Britain’s climate lacks extremes – it is generally mild. There can be cool days in July and quite warm days in January. Indeed, London’s average temperature for the hottest month is around 22 degrees Celsius, and for the coldest month 6 degrees. There is a saying that “Britain doesn’t have a climate, it only has weather”. The weather is so changeable that you can never be sure of a dry day; drizzle is common in most of the UK. However, the amount of precipitation (=rain + snow) falling in London is on average about the same as some other European cities, for example Budapest. Of course, the further north and west you go, the wetter Britain becomes. Another interesting feature of the climate is the prevailing winds. These are usually from the south-west, so the “better side of town” can usually be found in the west of British cities. Factories are often located in the east of cities, so the smoke is blown over the eastern rather than western part of the city.
10) Flags and symbols

The Union Jack St George’s Cross St Andrew’s Cross The Welsh Dragon St Patrick’s Cross
Note: The Union Jack is the national flag of the UK. It is a combination of the English, Scottish and Irish flags, but without the Welsh dragon. More confusion: Northern Ireland does not have its own flag – St Patrick’s Cross represents the WHOLE of Ireland! Many Irish people dislike the Cross because the symbol was invented by the British…

The English rose The Welsh leek / daffodil The Scottish thistle The Irish shamrock
Britannia is a female symbol of Britain’s power over the sea, giving us the patriotic song starting “Rule Britannia, Britannia rule the waves…” John Bull is supposed to represent certain English values, rather like Uncle Sam in the USA. Typically, John Bull looks like an eighteenth century country gentleman. The kilt, a skirt worn by men, is a very famous symbol of Scottishness. The bagpipes are also associated with Scotland, while the harp is an emblem of both Wales and Ireland.
11) National characteristics and names
There are certain stereotypes of national character which are well known in Britain. For example, the Irish are supposed to be great talkers (and drinkers), the Scots have a reputation for being careful with money, and the Welsh are famous for their singing ability.

The most common surname in England and Scotland is “Smith”. “Mac” or “Mc” (as in McDonald) is Irish or Scottish, while the prefix “O” (as in O’Connor) is Irish.


  1. Think of well-known symbols of nationality in your country. Are they the same types of real-life objects (e.g. plants and clothes) that are used in the UK?

  1. In the British government, there are ministers with special responsibility for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, but there is no minister for England. Why do you think this is?

Every country in the UK has its own patron saint who is called upon to protect and save the country in times of danger.

St Andrew’s Day, November 30th, is Scotland’s National Day. St Andrew is the patron saint of Scotland, as well as of Russia and Greece. He is also the patron saint of fishermen. St Andrew’s Cross is thought to be the oldest flag in Europe. The colours of the flag represent white clouds and blue sky.

In the year 832, there was a battle between the Scots, and the Angles from England. It seemed as if King Angus of Scotland would lose, but while Angus was praying before the battle, Saint Andrew appeared to him promising victory. When Angus did indeed win, he decided that Andrew would be the patron saint of Scotland.

St Andrew’s Day is celebrated with traditional Scottish food and dancing, but is not a bank holiday.


The founder of many churches and monasteries, David was an important figure in the Welsh church in the 6th century. He is buried in St David’s Cathedral, in the far south-west of Wales. He was so respected that one medieval pope believed that two pilgrimages to St David’s were worth one pilgrimage to Rome. March 1st, St David’s Day, is now celebrated by Welsh people all over the world by wearing either of the national emblems – a leek or a daffodil. One legend states that Saint David advised Welsh soldiers to wear leeks in their caps so as to easily distinguish friends from enemies, thus ensuring great victory.

St David’s Day usually means singing and eating. Concerts are held, and leeks are worn – and eaten. School pupils dress in the Welsh national costume. It is, however, not a public holiday.

Today, the tiny city St David’s still welcomes thousands of ´pilgrims´, this time mostly in search of beautiful scenery and the fresh air of west Wales.


St. George's Day is on 23 April. It is England's national day. George was a brave Roman soldier who protested against the Romans’ torture of Christians and died for his beliefs. The popularity of St George in England stems from the time of the Normans, who saw him in a vision and were victorious. He became patron saint of England in the 14th century.

One of the best-known stories about St George is his fight with a dragon. But it is highly unlikely that he ever fought a dragon, and even more unlikely that he ever actually visited England. Despite this, George is known throughout the world as a knight carrying a shield with a red cross, sitting on a horse and always killing a dragon.

It is ironic that British fascists / racists use the flag of St George to symbolize white power, not only because George probably never visited England, but because he was born in Turkey and is also honoured by Muslims as well as Christians. It is also possible that he was buried in Israel. In a way, he could be considered the ideal multicultural saint!

Traditionally, 23 April is the day for wearing a red rose, the national flower, in the button-hole. But for most people in England, St George’s Day is just another ordinary working day. Indeed, only one in five people in England know that it falls on 23 April, and more than a quarter of people living in England do not even know who their patron saint is!


Saint Patrick of Ireland is one of the world's most popular saints, but he was not Irish. He was a Briton, born in the Roman province of Britannia to a wealthy Roman-Briton family. He was not the first Christian missionary in Ireland either. However, it is commonly agreed that he converted almost the entire population of Ireland to Christianity during his lifetime. Irish monks played an important part in keeping Christianity alive in Dark Age Europe. The popular green shamrock -the internationally known symbol of Ireland- and Saint Patrick are closely associated. According to legend, Saint Patrick traditionally used the three leaves of the shamrock to teach the Irish about the concept of the Holy Trinity.

Saint Patrick's Day, March 17th, is Ireland's National Day and a public holiday. It is celebrated throughout the world, linking many millions of people of Irish descent, but nowhere in the world is it more special than in Ireland. The Irish are famous for their parties. In Dublin, the capital city enjoys a spectacular week long festival. An exciting programme of events includes street theatre, fireworks, music, exhibitions, open-air markets, and fun fairs. Saint Patrick's Day is celebrated throughout the world and links many millions of people of Irish origins, especially in the United States, where there are about 39 million of them. The largest Saint Patrick's Day Parade in the world takes place in New York City.

Patrick could be said to be the perfect saint to bring together Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland, where St Patrick's Day is an opportunity to overcome the bad feeling between the two groups.


TASKS (2 points for question A4, 3 points for A7, 10 points for question B)


  1. Which UK flag is thought to be the oldest in Europe? ____________________________

  2. Which of the four nations has a public holiday on its national day? __________________

  3. Where is the world’s largest St Patrick’s Day Parade held? _________________________

  4. In your own words, explain why the Welsh wore leeks in battle. _____________________


  1. Which saint is also the patron saint of fishermen? _______________________________

  2. Where is St David’s Cathedral? ______________________________________________

  3. Which of the four nations do you think celebrate their patron saint best? Why do you think so?















Adapted from O’Driscoll, Britain, by Julian Goddard

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