The United Kingdom, also called the U.K., consists of a group of islands off the northwest coast of Europe. It is a unique country made up of four nations: England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. England, Wales, and Scotland also make up Great Britain.
Much of the north and west of the U.K. is covered in high ground, knife-edged mountain ridges separated by deep valleys. This terrain was shaped in the last Ice Age, when thick glaciers covered the land.
In the south of England, the countryside is mostly rolling hills.
In northwest England and the Scottish Highlands are dozens of lakes, called lochs. These were left behind when the Ice Age glaciers melted. They tend to be long and narrow, and some are very deep. Legends say that a giant monster called Nessie lives in Loch Ness in Scotland.
Map created by National Geographic Maps
PEOPLE & CULTURE
The British are the creation of waves of invaders and migrants, including Celts, Romans, Anglo-Saxons, Vikings, and Normans. In the 1950s and 1960s, people from former colonies in the Caribbean, Africa, and Asia came to the United Kingdom to work.
Sports and literature are among the United Kingdom's cultural claims to fame. Soccer, rugby, cricket, boxing, and golf were all invented in Britain. And the U.K. has produced many great writers, including William Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, and Robert Burns. J.K. Rowling, the writer of the Harry Potter books, is British.
About 5,000 years ago, the center of the United Kingdom was covered with thick forests. Thousands of years ago, these woodlands were cleared by ancient farmers, and today only about 10 percent of the land is forest.
The United Kingdom's complex geology gives rise to a wide variety of landscapes and a range of habitats for its animal and plant life. But it is a very crowded country, and there are not many truly wild places left. The most successful wildlife species are those that can live alongside people.
Great Britain's rugged mountains, like the Scottish Highlands, offer habitat that is relatively untouched by humans. The country's 7,700 miles (12,429 kilometers) of shoreline, ranging from tall cliffs to beaches to marshes, also provide homes for wildlife such as seabirds and seals.
GOVERNMENT & ECONOMY
Britain's system of government has developed over many centuries. Kings once ruled with advice from a council of religious leaders and nobles. This council eventually expanded into the Parliament, which now passes all the country's laws. Today, the monarch (which can be a king or queen) has no real power.
The United Kingdom has been a leading trading nation for more than 500 years. In the 19th century, British industry helped make the country the most powerful nation in the world. It is still one of the strongest economies on Earth.
The first Britons (people who live in the United Kingdom) were the Picts, who arrived about 10,000 years ago. In the eighth century B.C., the Celts arrived from Europe and pushed the Picts north into Scotland. In A.D. 43, the Romans invaded and ruled for nearly 400 years. They built roads, bathhouses, sewers, and large villas.
By the sixth century A.D., German peoples known as Angles, Jutes, and Saxons were moving into Britain. The Angles gave their name to England, and English people became known as Anglo-Saxons. From the 900s to the 1400s, England was ruled by Viking, Danish, and Norman invaders.
In 1485 the Welsh noble Henry Tudor claimed the English crown and became Henry VII, the first of five Tudor monarchs. Several important lines of kings and queens followed.
By the 1800s, Britain was one of the most powerful nations in the world. Trade generated immense wealth, and the country built a huge overseas empire. But the early 20th century was a time of setbacks for Britain. Drained by World War I and II, Britain could no longer afford its empire, and most of its colonies became independent.