open country

When I went to the Youth Festival at Iona in 1994 I met Kit. He had come with his friend and his friend’s mother. He was an awkward young teenager. I noticed after the first service in the abbey that he was standing alone in the cloisters. We had all been asked to half an oatcake and share it with someone we had not met before.

I walked over to Kit. He was dressed not like any other youth. He wore a suit jacket, a plain shirt and trousers. He had a head of thick red hair and narrow dark eyes. I introduced myself. I will never forget his reply. “My name’s Kit. I like maps. Would you like a shot of my binoculars.”

Perfect. I love the start of this conversation so much that every time I look at a map I hear Kit in my head. Sometimes I even say to people when we are poring over a map, “I like maps.” Of course, I get a sideways look and I just smile.

Recently, I had the chance to go to a lecture purely devoted to the mapping of Scotland. It was an illustrated talk by the Edinburgh group of the Royal Scottish Geographic Society and we were shown maps from 1360 onwards. More importantly, the purpose of the changing styles was explained.

Charles Withers is a professor of historical geography at the University of Edinburgh. First he asked us to draw a map of Scotland from memory on a blank piece of paper that we had all been given on arrival. Being someone who works with maps daily I was quite pleased with my effort. David, my friend who had suggested the talk, was annoyed with himself: being a cartographer he wanted perfection.

Scotland is so complicated with its jagged coastline and hundreds of islands that an exact replica by memory is virtually impossible. What the professor wanted to demonstrate was that we have a “powerful map consciousness and we put our trust in maps”.

However, he continued: “Maps, for all their currency and utility, are not complete because we cannot have a scale of 1:1. They omit, they stylize. They use symbols to represent a real feature. They are a selective view of the world. Most pertinently, they are authoritative documents. Map history is a chronological narrative from impreciseness to accuracy.”

Professor Withers explained that map historians look at how the authority driving the creation of a map is intrinsically linked to the style and artwork involved. Early world Christian maps always showed Jerusalem at the centre and the Mediterranean running north to south.

The earliest known map of Britain is Gough’s map, named after Richard Gough who donated it to the Bodleian Library in Oxford in 1809. It is unknown who commissioned it. Some scholars believe it was Edward I. His military expeditions around Scotland and Wales would have collected much information. However, the common belief is that the map was produced in Edward III’s reign, because of features like Coventry’s city wall, constructed in 1355.

The information in Gough’s map is more comprehensive in England. Come the 1500s Scotland was being mapped more accurately, but not for tourists. In the 1540s, a circumnavigation of Scotland and her islands allowed James V to know where his loyal and disloyal people were. This shift in intellectual activity, where people are associated with the land, predominated in the 16th century as national identity was embedded as map consciousness.

By the early 1600s, a series of maps of Scotland produced by clerics and military men meant that at this time Scotland was the best-mapped country in Europe. By the 1700s maps of Scotland show the Highlands as an almost separate country, cleaving Scotland in two. Also in this century are estate maps showing the beginning of land enclosures and boundaries.

Then in the 19th century, maps that are accompanied by pictures are beginning to show famous landmarks – showing a sense of civic pride in certain regions. These maps are laid out in a similar way to tourism maps today.

Lastly, the professor refered to the common usage of maps on the television. Even if we cannot share in the experiences of war we can look at the maps of Helmand province on our screen.

This is the land where our army personnel are dying.