Maps: The Shapes of Scotland

The use and meaning of maps was the subject of a fascinating online talk from Chris Fleet of the National Library of Scotland.

The library houses an incredible collection of maps from early depictions of Scotland where the imagery was more important than the map itself to the use of them to in finite detail help walkers negotiate our beautiful landscape.

The geographical representation of Scotland takes us from the early 11thC where it is seen as being on the periphery of the Christian world centred on Jerusalem to the representation of an independent nation and then as part of a union with England.

The major change where Scotland the nation emerges on maps takes place in the 16thC.

Chris Fleet pointed out that maps are documents of authority being powerful both politically and intellectually.  There was a growing realisation from those commissioning the maps of their political power.

I have had the advantage of having attended excellent talks about maps and Scotland’s map makers in Orkney.

Blaeu's map of Orkney

Blaeu’s 17thC map of Orkney Slide from Orkney International Science Festival

Revealed By Maps: Scotland’s Islands and Murdoch Mackenzie: Orkney’s Great Mapmaker were two that took place at last year’s, 2019 Orkney International Science Festival.

You can read about those in the links and if you are in Kirkwall you can view the plaque commemorating the work of Murdoch MacKenzie.

Prof Frank Rennie

Professor Frank Rennie , Lews Castle College, UHI

Frank Rennie of the University of the Highlands and Islands delivered an excellent talk , without any additional aids or prompts which fascinated his audience, me included on What makes a place special to you? ‘The Other Landscape’

Maps and how we depict the land around us also reflects the political messaging of the time.

In the 18th C it was about eliminating the name of ‘Scotland’ itself and using the term ‘North Britain’. This was unsuccessful  but it persisted right into the 19th and 20th C with the ‘North British Railway’ established in Edinburgh in 1844, the North British Rubber Company established in 1856 also in Edinburgh and in 1885 the North British Distillery which still trades under that name. There are many more examples and a debate stirred up just this week in Wales  over  the use of Welsh place names. There are still in Scotland people who object to Gaelic  signs and place names.

Maps were still expensive in the 18th C and not all were available to the public. Roy’s Military Survey of Scotland (1747 – 52) was never published and was for the eyes only of a few senior military officers and the King. Scotland was a land which required military control after 1715 and 1745.

Moving into the 19thC and maps take on wider publication. Scotland was of interest now not just to military commanders and traders but to visitors wishing to enjoy the landscapes so vividly described in the novels of one of the most popular authors of the time, Sir Walter Scott.

The Atlas of Scotland by John Thomson (1832) was the most detailed map of the country till the Ordnance Survey was established. This was expensive to produce and consequently to purchase.

Using new technology of colour lithography, Bartholomew’s The Survey Atlas of Scotland used the 1/2inch to a mile scale. This technology allowed maps to be produced cheaply and in bulk.

Our most common place for the public to find maps today is on google – which although convenient to use, we can access it on our phone, also leaves out much and erases local details.

By the 17th C Scotland was one of the best mapped countries in the world and we are still producing them like the XYZ Map Company  in Dalkeith. Scotland also produced great  mapmakers like Orkney’s Murdoch Mackenzie and Dr John Rae who charted much of the North West of Canada.

In a quick 30 minutes Chris Fleet took us through this brief but informative exploration of Shapes of Scotland: Maps History and National Identity. To be available on YouTube soon.

If we are to draw on any positives from the Covid19 lockdown restrictions it is surely the increase in online talks being published. Free and easily accessible these events increase our knowledge and understanding of our history, culture and national identity.


Mercators map of Scotland

Mercators map of Scotland 1595 slide from Orkney International Science Festival

Reporter: Fiona Grahame

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