North Britain

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"North Britain" is a term which has been occasionally used, particularly in the 17th and 18th centuries, for either the northern part of Great Britain or Scotland, which occupies the northernmost third of the island.[1][2][3] Its counterparts were "South Britain", generally used to refer to England and Wales[1][2][3] and "West Britain", usually referring to Ireland.


Early uses of the designation have been noted after the 1603 Union of the Crowns of the Kingdoms of England and Scotland. King James VI & I used the terms "South Britain" and "North Britain" for England and Scotland respectively, most famously in his Proclamation of 1606 (here)[4] establishing the first Union Flag, where Scotland and England are not otherwise named:

Whereas some difference has a risen between our Subjects of South and North Britain, Travelling by Sea, about the bearing of their flags ...

This usage was repeated in Charles I's Proclamation of 1634 on the use of the flag, though adding England and Scotland too for explanation:

Our further will and pleasure is, that all the other Ships of Our Subjects of England or South Britain bearing flags shall from henceforth carry the Red Cross, commonly called S. George's Cross, as of old time hath been used; And also that all other ships of Our Subjects of Scotland or North Britain shall henceforth carry the White Cross commonly called S. Andrews Cross.

After the Act of Union 1707, Scotland was sometimes referred to as "North Britain". In 1707, the Royal Scots Greys were renamed the "Royal North British Dragoons". In Rob Roy (1817), Sir Walter Scott refers to a Scottish person in England as a North Briton, sometimes in the mouth of an English character but also in the authorial voice.

"Why, a Scotch sort of a gentleman, as I said before," returned mine host; "they are all gentle, ye mun know, though they ha' narra shirt to back; but this is a decentish hallion—a canny North Briton as e'er cross'd Berwick Bridge — I trow he's a dealer in cattle."

— Scott, Rob Roy[5]

Historic use[edit]

"North Britain" is often used historically, referencing the time period before the formation of Scotland and England. As such, it forms a geographic, yet politically and culturally neutral description of the area.[6]

The term, particularly in adjective form, found use in the creation of the railway system. The North British Railway operated from 1846 to 1923, leaving a later legacy in the name of the North British Hotel in Edinburgh, which was renamed The Balmoral Hotel in the 1980s. The North British Locomotive Company existed from 1903 until its bankruptcy in 1962, again leaving a naming legacy in other organisations.[7]

North British Distillery Company sign

The name is found in other private enterprises, an example being the North British Distillery Company in Edinburgh, founded in 1885.[8]

An example of its use in respect to northern Great Britain rather than Scotland can be found in the title of the North British Academy of Arts which existed from 1908 to 1924 in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, a city in northern England.[9]

The North Briton and New North Briton were newspapers in the 18th and 19th centuries, and in 1844 there was also a North British Advertiser. The North British Review was founded in 1844 by members of the Free Church of Scotland as a Scottish "national review" for those unsatisfied with the secular Edinburgh Review or the conservative Quarterly Review. It continued until 1871.[10][11]

Particularly in the 19th century, "North Britain" or "N.B." was widely used for postal addresses in Scotland.[12] However, by the early 20th century, any vestiges of popular usage of this style had declined. "South Britain", the complementary style apportioned to England, had never seriously established itself, either north or south of the Anglo-Scottish border.[13]

21st-century use[edit]

In current usage, the northern parts of Great Britain are sometimes referred to simply as 'the North', though this term is more frequently used to describe northern England. This usage is often prevalent in social commentary on the suggested "North–South divide".[14]

The universities of Aberdeen and Edinburgh, in addition to Heriot-Watt University, organise a North Britain Student Forum on geoscience and engineering topics.[15] There is a North British Rowing Club based in Edinburgh.[16]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b "South Britain, or England and Wales. / Bowen, Emanuel / 1747". 1999-02-22. Retrieved 2011-12-18.
  2. ^ a b The Edinburgh history of the Scots ... - Charles Jones - Google Books. Retrieved 2011-12-18.
  3. ^ a b Patriotism and Poetry in Eighteenth ... - Dustin Griffin - Google Books. 2005-11-17. Retrieved 2011-12-18.
  4. ^ Fox-Davies, Arthur Charles (1904) [1986]. The Art of Heraldry: An Encyclopædia of Armory. London: Bloomsbury Books. p. 399. ISBN 0-906223-34-2.
  5. ^ Walter Scott (1817). Vol. I, Chap. Fourth.
  6. ^ Examples of this usage are to be found in William Roy's Military Antiquities of the Romans in North Britain (1793)
  7. ^ "northbritishgolfclub". Retrieved 2011-12-18.
  8. ^ "North British Distillery". Archived from the original on 2011-10-28. Retrieved 2011-12-18.
  9. ^ Dominion, 9 January 1909, page 11e.
  10. ^ "Ruskin MP - notes".
  11. ^ "MH".
  12. ^ Britishness since 1870 - Paul Ward - Google Books. 2004-06-15. Retrieved 2011-12-18.
  13. ^ Robbins, Keith (1993). History, Religion and Identity in Modern Britain. Continuum International Publishing Group. p. 241. ISBN 1-85285-101-5. It seemed appropriate to develop the notion of a 'North Britain' and a 'South Britain'. The former style was to have a useful life for some two hundred years, but then rapidly declined. 'South Britain', on the other hand, never seriously established itself as a conceivable alternative to 'England'.
  14. ^ "Tory 'Northern Powerhouse' claim questioned after North/South divide report". Newsweek. 19 January 2015. Retrieved 18 June 2016.
  15. ^ "NORTH BRITAIN STUDENT FORUM: GEOENGINEERING RESEARCH FORUM". Heriot Watt University. Archived from the original on 16 April 2009. Retrieved 5 October 2013.
  16. ^ "Contacts & Links". Scottish Rowing. Retrieved 2011-12-18.