Charting the Nation - Maps of Scotland and associated archives 1550-1740


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Mapping Scotland

Maps are one of the most ancient and most modern products. All human beings acquire knowledge of their surroundings through personal encounter and communication with others. Transforming these 'mental maps' into artefacts- essentially, making a map as something to extend memory and which may be made sense of by others- arguably predates writing. Yet our understanding of a map as a scaled representation of the real world designed in standardised ways is relatively recent. Maps, then, are complex cultural creations that need to be understood in the context of the times and peoples who made them.

The maps and manuscripts collected here for Scotland between c.1550 and c.1740 are not the work of Scots alone. Mapmaking was a European, even a worldwide, practice at this time. In order to provide background to the material and to appreciate why mapping was so widespread in what we may term the 'early modern period', this introduction provides a brief summary of what maps meant and for whom in the period covered by Charting the Nation. The first part of this introduction summarises the map history of Scotland before 1550 and after 1740. The second outlines the nature of maps and of mapmaking in the early modern period, noting the different sorts of maps produced and the purposes behind them. A short guide to further reading is included.

Maps and mapping in Scotland

The earliest known representation of Scotland in map form is in the map of the British Isles in the eight-book Geographia of Claudius Ptolemaeus (known as Ptolemy) who lived between c.90 and c.150 A.D. For reasons that are unclear, Scotland is correctly placed to the north of England in this map, but instead of a largely northwards orientation, the country is shown tilted eastwards. Ptolemy's Scotland may be inaccurately mapped, but the 're-discovery' of Ptolemy's Geographia and its publication in Renaissance Italy from 1477 revolutionised the nature of global and large-scale geographical representation. Differences between his claims and the direct experience of the world reported by Renaissance navigators and geographers raised questions of a conceptual and practical nature concerning the shape and extent of the world.

The earliest printed map of Scotland on its own, 'Scotia' (see image 00000364), dates from about 1564. Although the map derives from one of Britain produced in 1546 by George Lily, 'Scotia', is probably engraved by Paolo Forlani, who was known to have worked in Venice, then an important centre for mapmaking. At much the same time, Alexander Lyndsay, a Scottish coasting pilot, produced a map of Scotland in association with King James V's partial circumnavigation of the country in 1540, although the map was not published until 1583 (image 00001374). From the later 1580s, Timothy Pont was engaged in mapping Scotland. The surviving manuscript maps and textual accounts of his endeavours provide one of the most detailed map records of any European country in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Pont's maps ( formed the basis of Joan Blaeu's maps of Scotland in his Atlas Novus, published in Amsterdam in 1654. These maps constituted the first atlas of Scotland.

From the later seventeenth century, royal and civil recognition of the importance of maps was evident in Scotland in the appointment of Sir Robert Sibbald as Geographer Royal from 1682, and in the funding of John Adair by the Privy Council and the Parliament of Scotland to undertake the country's mapping. The important work of these men and others in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries is clear from the cartographic and textual material included in Charting the Nation.

From the second half of the eighteenth century, a 'new beginning' for map-making was apparent in Scotland in the rise of estate maps and, between 1747 and 1755, in the work of the Military Survey. By the turn of the nineteenth century, estate maps undertaken to new levels of surveyed accuracy, institutionalised support for national mapping and charting in the work of the Ordnance Survey and of the Hydrographic Office of the Admiralty, and the common usage of standard scales and practices for mapping signalled the appearance of the 'modern' map.

Scotland's map history is, however, neither unique in these terms nor a linear progression from the 'inaccuracy' of Ptolemaic representations to the 'truthful' precision of standardised Ordnance Survey sheets. Far from being mirrors of the world, maps reflect particular political and cultural concerns and have symbolic values as well as practical utility. Questions of accuracy must be allied to matters of meaning and questions of map-making always related to those of map using. What characterised Scotland's mapping between c.1550 and c.1740 is typical of wider changes throughout Europe.

Scotland's early modern mapping in historical context

From the mid sixteenth century, the effects of the voyages of reconnaissance, new understandings of the extent of the habitable globe and the growing recognition by statesmen of the practical utility of mapping all combined to lend new power to maps. For administrative and for symbolic reasons, governments and kings needed to know the bounds of their territory. Landlords wanted estate maps. Maps had strategic and commercial value. They had cultural significance too. In the new Protestant Bible from Calvin's Geneva, maps helped understand the written Word. Maps became an object of status, of courtly power and of domestic display.

Maps became important in early modern Europe because they were documents that measured, visualised and symbolised power over space. We should note, however, three interrelated 'modes' of mapmaking: maritime charting; small-scale mapping of the world or of its regions (properly, 'chorography', and, in mapping terms, 'topographical mapping'); and large-scale surveying of the land. In early modern Europe (unlike in later periods), the distinction between these modes was never hard and fast.

Commercial map publishing emerged in north-west Europe in the mid-sixteenth century. Many of the large multi-volume atlases and maritime charts - the latter reflecting the sea-borne commerce of the French, the Spanish, Dutch and the English, for example - were initially expensive productions affordable only by a wealthy few. In time, however, cartographic literacy and the prevalence of maps increased because humanist education, printing, and the commodification of land at home and abroad familiarised Europeans with maps and with how they worked. By the mid seventeenth century, there were four interrelated groups of mapmaking practitioners: mariners, intellectual geographers, commercial publishers and land measurers. After about 1660, initially in France and Britain, the increased intervention of the state in the large-scale surveying of their lands means that a fifth group can be identified: 'professional geographers' or, in more detail, military and state surveyors. The work of such men is particularly clear, for example, in the first Cassini survey of France between 1680 and 1744. From the mid eighteenth century in Europe and in overseas colonies, new standardised forms of mapping further secured the intellectual, practical and political importance of maps as ways of knowing and showing space.

These issues are all apparent in the four main sets of maps incorporated and represented in the Charting the Nation collection: maritime mapping (including coastal charting); estate and topographical mapping; chorographical mapping; and, from the early eighteenth century on, maps relating to the Board of Ordnance with their expressed intention of military survey and topographical portrayals of landscape and roads. It is noteworthy that much of the maritime mapping is Dutch in provenance. Some items, such as Waghenaer's map of the east coast of Scotland, Beschrijvinge van een deel vann Schottlandt, 1586 (image 00001483) show in stylised form a topographical view of the eastern Scottish coastline as it would have appeared to sailors and merchants sailing westwards from Low Country ports. Other more decorative features on this map - as on many others - symbolise the map as an instrument of commerce. Part of John Adair's brief following the 1686 Act of the Scottish Parliament in his favour was to provide more detailed maps of the coasts as an aid to Scotland's maritime trade.

Although estate mapping in Scotland is more apparent from the second half of the eighteenth century, and is so because of advances in Scotland's agrarian economy from that period, the evidence of earlier estate maps - the earliest here, a coloured plan of Arniston (image 00001586) drawn to illustrate a legal dispute between two landowners and dating from 1586 - is testimony to the importance of maps as practical records of land administration in early modern Scotland.

Small-scale chorographical mapping as an expression of political authority is apparent, for example, in Robert Gordon's 'Scotia Regnum' (image 00000383) that appears in volume V of Blaeu's Atlas Novus (1654). As a genre of mapping in Scotland, it is continued by others in the second half of the seventeenth century. In the eighteenth century, men such as Herman Moll demonstrate the widespread and continued interest in small-scale mapping, an interest apparent in the large numbers of such maps produced outside Scotland.

Military unrest associated with Jacobitism, notably from the early eighteenth century, lent added significance to the state's need to know who, and what, was where. The Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 prompted the Military Survey of Scotland begun in 1747 (the major outcome of this survey, William Roy's map, is available at It is clear from the Board of Ordnance material incorporated here, however, that maps and plans of military installations were understood as a strategic necessity well before and long after 1745.

What is also discernable from the Board of Ordnance material is a different sense of topographic visualisation. This is not merely a different concern for geometric accuracy. It is almost a different language of mapmaking. There are parallels with late seventeenth-century representations such as those of John Slezer (see image 00000745, Dunotter Castle (1675); and Slezer's Theatrum Scotiae (1693)). But this mapping style has more in common with those new 'ways of seeing' and of mapping that characterise the modernising Scotland of the later eighteenth century than with earlier work.

Guide to Further Reading

The best summary of Scottish map history as a whole remains Donald G. Moir (ed.), The Early Maps of Scotland to 1850, 2 vols (Edinburgh, 1973-83). The period covered by Charting the Nation is chiefly discussed in volume I: volume II has a short section on early maritime mapping. The holdings records in these volumes are, however, not up-to-date. A useful guide to secondary literature on maps and mapping prior to the Ordnance Survey in Scotland is John N. Moore, The Historical Cartography of Scotland (Aberdeen, 1991). Timothy Pont's maps of Scotland are discussed in Jeffrey Stone, The Pont Manuscript Maps of Scotland: sixteenth century origins of a Blaeu Atlas (Tring, 1989) and in Ian C. Cunningham (ed.), The Nation Survey'd: Essays on late sixteenth-century Scotland as depicted by Timothy Pont (East Linton, 2001).

One accessible history of Scotland's mapping is Margaret Wilkes' The Scot and his Maps (Motherwell, 1991) and another forthcoming. A scholarly account of mapping as part of the history of geographical enquiry in Scotland is given in Charles W. J. Withers, Geography, Science and National Identity: Scotland since 1520 (Cambridge, 2001).

The history of maps and mapping in the early modern period more generally has been the subject of several studies. On England, for example, see Catherine Delano-Smith and Roger Kain, English Maps: A History (London and Toronto, 1999). For France, see Joseph Konvitz, Cartography in France 1660-1848: Science, Engineering and Statecraft (Chicago, 1987). For Spain and the mapping of Spanish territory in the New World, see Barbara Mundy, The Mapping of New Spain: Indigenous Cartography and Maps of the Relaciones Geograficas (Chicago, 1996). The studies in David Buisseret (ed.), Monarchs, Ministers and Maps: The Emergence of Cartography as a Tool of Government in Early Modern Europe (Chicago, 1992) discuss for other European nations the issues summarised here for Scotland.

An excellent short summary of the historiography of map history is to be found in Matthew Edney, 'Cartography: disciplinary history', in Gregory A. Good (ed.), Sciences of the Earth: An Encyclopedia of Events, People and Phenomena, 2 vols (New York, 1998), I: 81-5, and I have drawn upon this for some of my remarks above. See also his 'Cartography without 'progress': reinterpreting the nature and historical development of mapmaking', Cartographica, 30, nos. 2, 3 (1993), 54-68. The important work of Brian Harley on map history, for the period covered by Charting the Nation and more generally, is apparent in his 'Secrecy and silences: the hidden agenda of state cartography in early modern Europe', Imago Mundi, 11 (1988), 111-130, and in his 'Maps, knowledge and power', in Denis E. Cosgrove and Stephen J. Daniels (eds), The Iconography of Landscape (Cambridge, 1988), 277-312.

The journal Imago Mundi ( is an international journal for the history of cartography and its annual volume carries scholarly articles, short notices and book reviews on maps and map history.

See also our Links page for a list of other relevant websites.

Charles W. J. Withers

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Last Updated: 09-09-2014