Finding a sense of place

28th October 2011 at 01:00

Scotland: mapping the nation

By Fleet, Wilkes and Withers

Birlinn General (pound;25)

5 OUT OF 5

"Look at Scotland and enjoy a feast for the eyes," urged Ioan Blaue in 1654, as he introduced Volume Five of the Atlas Maior which contained 95 maps of Scotland. His stunningly beautiful 12-part production was the most expensive book of the 17th century and is a milestone in the history of printed books. It also served to thrust Scotland onto a world stage as one of the best-mapped countries of the world.

Sixty years earlier, Timothy Pont (Scottish hero, son-in-law of John Knox, and our earliest and single most influential cartographer) had made the maps used in the Blaue atlas. His achievements, and those of his fellow map makers, jostle for attention in this comprehensive and gorgeously- illustrated book.

On almost every page are maps that exemplify the depth and range of Scotland's cartography. Here is the beautiful Mercator map of 1595 showing a thickset Scotland, serving as a template for many delineations that followed. In contrast are the topographically accurate, but no less striking, Bartholomew maps of the late 19th century, with subtle layer- colouring for showing relief above and below water level.

The illustrations are of a very high quality, crisp and clear with plenty of detail. The maps themselves are both pristine and well worn, at times bearing the marks of their use - one sheet carries the clear imprint of a heavy boot.

However, this book is much more than a visual treat. The authors are at pains to set the cartography in a social and political setting and every map is interrogated using the crucial questions: What does this map do? How does this map work? Who is this map for? The result is a scholarly but accessible narrative that gives us the key for understanding this remarkable range of images: from rail, road, tram and canal routes to salmon fishing and golf courses; from Luftwaffe bombing maps of Edinburgh to medieval Mappa Mundi; from temperance maps of Glasgow to estate plans of Highland lairds that plot the evictions of crofters from lands settled for generations.

In tracing the development of Scotland's maps, we graphically witness the growth in identity of an evolving nation through its historical geography.

Here also is the world writ small. While cleaving close to this one country, the authors effortlessly patch in the major developments in world mapping, from Ptolemy to Google Street View, with lucid accounts of the science, art and technology that has served map making, printing and selling over the centuries. A timeline at the front of the book usefully matches events in Scotland's map history to world cartography and history.

Map consciousness is probably higher now than at any previous time in history. The digital revolution has ensured their ubiquity and application: maps now serve as a powerful metaphor for finding one's place in the world.

This book is peopled with the largely unsung heroes who have throughout history put Scotland on the map with ingenuity and singleminded purpose. Elegantly written, thoroughly referenced and exquisitely presented, it is a worthy testament to their achievement.

About the authors

Chris Fleet works in the map library at the National Library of Scotland. Charles W J Withers is professor of historical geography at Edinburgh University, and Margaret Wilkes is former head of the map division at the National Library of Scotland.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today