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Back to the Drawing Board – Scottish Review of Books
by Alan Taylor

Back to the Drawing Board

March 28, 2013 | by Alan Taylor

Into my possession recently came a facsimile of Herman Moll’s Atlas of Scotland. Published originally in 1725, it was reprinted in 1980 in a limited edition of 500 with green cloth boards and a brown leather spine. The copy which I have is numbered 149. The publisher was Heritage Press, based in Towie Barclay Castle near Turiff in Aberdeenshire, which dates to the sixteenth century but is presently in a state of neglect. Publication, it seems, was made possible by the enlisting of subscribers, among whom were Princess Margaret, Peter Shand Kydd, Princess Diana’s stepfather, Keith Schellenberg, erstwhile laird of Eigg, the actor Iain Cuthbertson and Andy Stewart, the bekilted host of The White Heather Club who – in my mind at least – will forever be associated with the The Muckin’ o’ Geordie’s Byre.

If nothing else such a diverse group exemplifies the ecumenical appeal of maps and atlases. In 1725, Scotland was still finding its feet in its relatively recent union with England. Ten years had elapsed since the inept rising in 1715, led by John, Earl of Mar, and there were twenty more to go to the inglorious ’45, when Bonnie Prince Charlie sought to restore the Stuarts to the throne. These were limbo years as the  two principles in a forced marriage sought a way of living harmoniously together. But in his introduction to Moll’s Atlas, John Adair, ‘late Geographer’ of Scotland, was markedly upbeat in his assessment of the country’s prospects. The air, he remarked, was ‘whol-some and temperate’, though he conceded that the weather could be more dependable. There was clean water and decent soil, beneath which there were plentiful deposits of minerals and stone. But best of all, wrote Adair, was the bounty that lay in the sea and rivers, where ‘the greatest and surest Treasure’ awaited those inclined to go in  search of it.

Of Herman Moll, however, there is no mention other than his name of on the title page. He was born in the 1650s in the Netherlands which can fairly claim to have been to  cartography what Italy was to the fresco. In 1678, Moll moved to London where he opened a book and map shop. Like others in the field, he drew heavily on the work of his predecessors, not only cartographers but historians, travellers and geographers. Map-making is the most palimpsestic of arts, each map adding to and subtracting from those which have appeared previously. There is no shame in this. Rather there is an understanding of the inadequacy of human knowledge and a desire to right wrongs. In 1711, Moll began his Atlas Geographus, which eventually ran to five volumes and was much copied. His success was such that he was well-known among his illustrious contemporaries, including Daniel Defoe. He was also acquainted with Jonathan Swift who, in Gulliver’s Travels, wrote: ‘I arrived in seven hours to the south-east point of New Holland. This confirmed me in the opinion I have long entertained, that the maps and charts place this country at least three degrees more to the east than it really is; which I thought I communicated many years ago to my worthy friend, Mr. Herman Moll, and gave him reasons for it,  Although he has chosen to follow other authors.’

What Moll knew personally of Scotland is unclear. But what is apparent is that, like other cartographers, by and large he did not draw maps based on first-hand experience but on the existing work of others. Thus, as Christopher Fleet, Margaret Wilkes and Charles W.J. Withers note in Scotland: Mapping the Nation (Birlinn, 2012) while in his 1714 map of the country he brought the names and locations of places up to date, there remained several ‘errant’ features, such as ‘the “crooked line” of the Great Glen, the blunt north end to the Island of Lewis and the orientation of Skye.’ Would Moll have produced a more accurate map had he visited these places himself? In all likelihood he would but such an investment, in time as well as capital, was as prohibitive as it was impractical. For while he was obviously concerned to produce accurate maps Moll was also a businessman who had to maintain a steady flow of production. Such has been the story of map making throughout the ages.  What cartographers and explorers were always eager to do, however, was fill up blank space, where dragons were assumed to be lurking or which was labelled ‘terra incognita’ until someone had ventured there and relayed what they’d witnessed. The unknown was troubling and dangerous but also tempting for who knows what might be found there.

Scotland in the eighteenth century was not of course an empty country though it was, as Dr Johnson suggested prior to his 1773 tour with Boswell, wild, savage and primitive. Map-wise, the country came into being in the mid-sixteenth century, when Paolo Forlani, a Veronese map-maker based in Venice produced what’s believed to be  the first printed map that shows Scotland on its own. It is a rudimentary effort and looks like a child’s drawing. There are a few names – Iona, ‘Ila’, ‘Grampivs’, ‘Wigton’, etc, numerous mountains and a number of lochs and rivers – but it is not a map you could use with any confidence. Nearly a hundred years passed before there would be one on which you could rely. This was The Blaeu Atlas of Scotland, which is one of four beautifully reproduced in limited editions by Birlinn in cooperation with National Library of Scot-land (the others are The Great Map: The Military Survey of Scotland, 1747-1755, John Thomson’s Atlas of Scotland, 1855,  and J.G. Bartholomew’s The Survey Atlas of Scotland, 1912) in what is undoubtedly one of the great publishing projects so far of the twenty-first century.

Blaeu is one of the most fabled names in cartography. Like his father Willem, Joan Blaeu was a mapmaker in Amsterdam and worked for the Dutch East India Company. His great work, his magnum opus, was the multi-volume Atlas Novus, which took seventy years to bring to a conclusion. Scot-land was the subject of volume five which included forty-nine engraved maps of the country, offering a unique perspective on how the land lay half a century and more before the Union with England.  Like other mapmakers Blaeu leaned heavily on secondary sources and information from friends and colleagues. As Charles Withers writes in a splendid  introductory essay to the Atlas, its story is one of ‘war, of delays in the post, underachieving churchmen, anxious statesmen concerned with Scotland’s visual representation, and, naturally money. It is a story too of avaricious printers, neglectful children, courtly geographers, poetic professors, Antwerp mapmakers and Danish astronomers, as well as Amsterdam publishers, English and Scottish historians, and the views of Royalty about the power of maps.’

In common with Herman Moll, Joan Blaeu’s knowledge of Scotland was secondhand. Indeed, what he knew of it was garnered first from Sir John Scot who held various important positions in the Scottish parliament, including Director of Chancery, Lord of Session and Privy Councillor. Scot travelled often and widely in the Low Countries where he came into contact with Blaeu, with whom he corresponded. It was through Scot, for example, that Blaeu obtained  the maps by Timothy Pont which would form the basis of his Scottish atlas.

Pont is a similarly revered figure in the annals of Scottish cartography. Around the turn of the sixteenth century he was appointed minister of Dunnet in Caithness, before which, it seems, he gave himself the task of mapping Scotland, none of which saw of the light of day while he was alive. Why Pont chose to do this remains something of a mystery. Certainly, he was well-connected. His father was also a clergyman, a friend of John Knox and an advisor  to King James VI. Timothy Pont graduated from St Andrews in the early 1580s and in 1592 he was appointed to undertake a survey of minerals and metals in Orkney and Shetland.

The authors of Scotland: Mapping the Nation speculate that Pont may have completed his mapping work by the time he was called to Dunnet though they also think it is conceivable that he moonlighted while a minister. When exactly he died is unknown but he was no more by 1615 when his wife is listed as a widow. What survived, however, were his maps, which did not cover the whole of the country but a majority of it. Usually Pont offers admirable detail but occasionally he has no option but to plump for  ‘extreme wildernes’ (when describing parts of Sutherland). Nonetheless what he offered was a peerless picture of Scotland in the sixteenth century, a place, like so many others at the period, where most people lived on the land, and where there was a thriving rural economy and fermtouns, country mills, impressive estates and not a few trees.

Though Pont was the begetter of the maps which made Blaeu’s atlas possible we should not underestimate Sir John Scot’s role in the enterprise. According to Blaeu himself, Scot ‘passed whole days in my establishment writing, dictating what made for illustrating the maps of his country, with such felicity of memory that, though  lacking all papers and books, he dictated regional shapes, situations, boundaries, old and more recent lords, produce of the soil, rivers, and similar matters in great profusion.’ Thus – according to Withers – Scotland was ‘“put on view’’ as never before’. Moreover, the Blaeu Atlas, and its international cast of contributors, offered a snapshot of a hitherto little known and uncharted country. Maps bring places into existence, making them familiar and visitable, at once demystifying them and opening them up, not only  to tourists, as in recent times, but also to traders and military men. In the latter regard, William Roy’s The Great Map: The Military Survey, 1747-55 is significant. Unlike many others mentioned here, Roy was a Scot, born near Carluke. His map, made in the aftermath of the ’45, was the most scientific, comprehensive and precise yet produced of the country. Good information, it was reckoned, was needed to prevent and squash further insurrection and Roy offered it though he was modest in describing his own achievement. It was, he said, a ‘sketch’, if a very pleasing one at that. He also cautioned that ‘no geometrical exactness is to be expected, the sole objective in view being, to shew remarkable things, or such as constitute the great outlines of the Country’.  Browsing through The Great Map’s pages one can imagine plotting a course through Glen ‘Terridon’ or around inaccessible lochs in the pursuit of rebels. Maps not only show what is there but what is not. From Roy’s depiction you can surmise what a bleak and uninhabited and scary place Scotland was and why only those who had good reason to go there would bother.

By the mid-nineteenth century Scot-land’s face was beginning to mature and you could look at maps such as those included in John Thomson’s Atlas and construct a mental picture. Thomson’s achievement was rooted in new geographical, scientific and technical knowledge, including advances in the printing industry. It was the age of specialism. Gone were the days when men could legitimately boast that they knew everything there was to know. Every decade of the nineteenth century threw up a few new societies: the Geological Society in 1807; the Astronomical Society in 1820; the Zoological Society in 1826; the Royal Geographical Society in 1830; and the British Association for the Advancement of Society in 1831. As Charles Withers notes, ‘The term “scientist”, at least in its modern connotations of professionalisation and subject expertise, likewise dates from the 1830s.’

John Thomson was a man who epitomised his era. Born in 1777 in Edinburgh, he was a child of the Enlightenment. From bookselling he moved into publishing, producing A New General Atlas in 1817 which was followed by the Cabinet Atlas  two years later. But for Thomson the 1820s was a boom and bust decade. In 1825, he was declared bankrupt for the first time; five years later he was bankrupt again. A large part of his financial woes stemmed from his investment in The Atlas of Scotland, proposals for which he began circulating in 1818, fourteen years before it eventually appeared. Such an ambitious project required the commitment of numerous subscribers whom Thomson had difficulty in bringing on board, though he claimed there were 1,200. Engraving and printing costs were high, as was the cost of paper. Ultimately, Thomson was defeated. According to Christopher Fleet and Paula

Williams he ‘fades from the record’ after 1836. But his Atlas offered him an afterlife, its quality incomparable. ‘No other county maps of Scotland,’ write Fleet and Williams, ‘could compete until Ordnance Survey maps became widely available…Thomson’s maps, for all their faults, were the best available depiction of Scotland for over 30 years, longer for some counties, at a time when the landscape of the country was changing.’

Statistics reveal just how profound that change was. In 1800, 17 per cent of Scots lived in towns of more than 10,000 inhabitants. By 1850 that figure had rise to 32 per cent and by 1900 to 50 per cent. The bigger towns – Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen – grew bigger and  bigger, suck in people from near and far and visibly changing the nation’s landscape. The challenge for mapmakers was how to keep pace with developments; new roads and railways, canals and bridges. Throughout the twentieth century it was the Edinburgh firm of Bartholomew which mapped this emerging, constantly metamorphosing Scotland, producing maps which catered for every need, including recreational. At its head was John George Bartholomew, who was born in 1860 and died at Sintra in Portugal in 1920. There were mapping Bartholomews before him but he took the business to a different level, pioneering new techniques in map production, encouraging the better teaching of geography in schools and helping to found the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.

Though his achievements were many it was The Survey Atlas of Scotland which cemented his place in cartographic lore. Paying tribute to those who had preceded him, such as Joan Blaeu and Timothy Pont and John Thomson, and the Ordnance Survey on whose work the Survey Atlas was dependant, Bartholomew made the case for a collection of maps that truly reflected reality. To ensure accuracy, local authorities were consulted. For the first time ever, colouring showed the height of land and the depth of sea and rivers. It was – is – a lovely object, each plate a joy to behold. There used to be a copy in the library I used as a boy and I would go there after school and trace rivers with my fingers, wonder how steep hills could be and try to imagine what unpronounceable places were like. It was the kind of book you could open anywhere and know that you’d find yourself far away from home.  


BIRLINN, PP200, £100, ISBN: 9781841585857


BIRLINN, PP400, £200, ISBN: 9781841586670

THE ATLAS OF SCOTLAND, 1832 John Thomson

BIRLINN, PP416, £150, ISBN: 9781841586878


BIRLINN, PP158, £100, ISBN: 9781841588643

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