Early maps of Scotland before the 1850s
This guide gives a brief summary of some of the types of maps produced from the late 16th to mid-19th centuries. Most are available for consultation in the Map Library.
For a list of printed maps (with a few manuscript maps) see The Early Maps of Scotland to 1850, ed. D G Moir. 2 vols. Edinburgh: Royal Scottish Geographical Society, 1973, 1983. Volume 1 summarises the mapping history of Scotland, with reproductions of a few important maps, then lists (chronologically) maps depicting the whole of Scotland. Volume 2 is particularly useful for local and family historians, with lists of maps of parts of Scotland and thematic maps, such as county maps, town plans, road, rail and canal maps, and marine charts.
Early printed maps do not usually give much detail, until large scale Ordnance Survey maps were published, from about 1850. The first known printed map of Scotland on its own was engraved and printed in Italy, probably by Paolo Forlani, who was working in the 1560s and 70s. It derives from a 1546 map of Great Britain.
Until the beginning of the 18th century almost all the printed maps of Scotland were produced outside Scotland. Mapmakers made several attempts to portray the outline of the country.
- Topographic, military and county maps
- Battle plans and legal maps
- Estate plans
- Road, canal and railway maps
- Town plans
From about 1850 the Ordnance Survey began to publish detailed maps of Scotland and the importance of privately-produced map information declines.
Topographic, military and county maps
These maps show features such as hills, rivers, settlements, place names and other general information.
Timothy Pont surveyed most (or perhaps all) of Scotland in more detail than had been done before, and 38 manuscripts, with some 77 maps, are in the National Library. As not all the manuscripts have survived, these do not cover the whole country. In 1996 the Library initiated Project Pont, to encourage multidisciplinary research on Pont's maps. Photographs and explanatory text are in Jeffrey C Stone's The Pont manuscript maps of Scotland: sixteenth century origins of a Blaeu atlas (Tring: Map Collector Publications, 1989), whilst an updated thematic examination of Pont's work is available in Ian C Cunningham's The Nation Survey'd (East Linton: Tuckwell Press, 2001). Images of all the Pont manuscript maps and related textual materials, along with substantial supporting information can be found on our Pont maps website.
William Blaeu, in Amsterdam, engraved several maps from Pont's manuscripts for his proposed Atlas Novus. Robert and James Gordon revised and augmented Pont's manuscript maps for publication, to add to these maps (over 60 Gordon manuscript maps are in the Map Library).
Blaeu's Atlas Novus was published in Amsterdam, with 47 printed maps of parts of Scotland based on Pont and Gordon manuscripts. This could be described as the first atlas of Scotland. (The volume also includes Ireland.) In the 1654 edition, which had six volumes, maps of Scotland are in volume five. By 1662 the atlas, now entitled Atlas Major, had grown to 12 volumes, and Scotland is in volume 6. A reduced facsimile of maps from the 1654 atlas has been published: Jeffrey C Stone's Illustrated Maps of Scotland from Blaeu's Atlas Novus of the 17th century (London: Studio Editions, 1991).
Sir Robert Sibbald wished to improve and update Blaeu's atlas and planned a new atlas of Scotland, commissioning John Adair to prepare the maps. Adair also surveyed coasts, and his sea charts were published in 1703. Sibbald's atlas was never published, and many Adair maps were not printed until the 1730s, usually engraved by Richard Cooper.
It is thanks to Sibbald's proposed atlas that so many 16th and 17th century manuscript maps survive in the National Library today. Sibbald collected together maps by Pont, the Gordons and Adair to provide information for his atlas. When he died, these manuscripts were purchased by the Advocates' Library in 1722.
The Jacobite Risings, and the difficulties government troops faced in finding their way about the north of Scotland, led to the production of military maps. The Library has some 400 maps (mostly manuscript). The Wade collection relates to the building of the military roads in the late 1720s to 1730s, while the Board of Ordnance plans cover a broader scope, showing routes, towns and fortifications, starting around 1710 and continuing into the early 19th century. All of these maps can be viewed on our Military Maps of Scotland (18th century) website.
After the risings revealed the need for mapping, a Military Survey of Scotland was conducted from 1747 to 1755. Also known as William Roy's survey, it covers mainland Scotland but not the islands. The maps were never published and the British Library Map Library in London holds the original manuscripts. The National Library of Scotland's Map Library has photocopies and 35mm colour slides for consultation only, whilst images of the Roy map can be viewed on the SCRAN website.
County map production was stimulated by prizes offered by the Royal Society of Arts for maps with a minimum scale of 1 inch to 1 mile. The earliest covered south and central Scotland, but some parts of the north did not have maps covering each county separately until John Thomson's Atlas of Scotland was completed in 1832, with maps issued separately from 1820. As the atlas covers the whole country at the time of the Clearances, it is particularly useful for tracing farms and villages which disappeared by the time of the first Ordnance Survey in the mid-19th century.
Battle plans and legal maps
For most parts of Scotland, detailed maps are not available until the Ordnance Survey maps of the 1850s. There are, however, some exceptions. For example, battle plans drawn to record a battle, may give details of the surrounding countryside, and legal disputes over land may have required a plan showing boundaries or other details. View a selection of battle plans on our Military Maps website under 'Battles'.
Agricultural improvements required estate plans, usually in great detail. Most were hand-drawn and usually only one or two copies were made, so few may survive. The peak period of agricultural improvement was from the 1760s to 1820s, although there are some earlier plans when a landowner was particularly innovative.
Some plans suggest improvements which may never have happened, while others how the results of improvement. Other sources may need to be checked to establish whether the changes were carried out.
Although the Map Library has some 4000 estate plans, the best source for estate plans is the National Archives of Scotland, Department of Maps and Plans, West Register House, Charlotte Square, Edinburgh. Many are listed in Descriptive list of plans, Vols 1-4. Edinburgh: HMSO, 1966-1988. Estate plans may also be found in local archives and many remain in private hands.
Charts are particularly useful for information about the islands round Scotland. The east coast was relatively easy to map and was on the main trade routes with Europe across the North Sea, so seacharts were produced from the late 16th century.
The heavily indented west coast was much harder to chart, and was not a regular trading route until the cotton and tobacco trade with the Americas became more important, so there are few good charts until the 18th century.
Nicolas de Nicolay's chart of the whole of Scotland was published with a rutter, or guide to seamen, in Paris. It was based on information collected by Alexander Lindsay, pilot to James V, for the king's voyage in 1540 to quell the Lords of the Isles.
Murdoch Mackenzie surveyed the Orkney Islands, then . . .
. . . he surveyed the west coast of Scotland, including the Hebrides, for the Admiralty (published in 1776).
Early Admiralty charts may pre-date the Ordnance Survey in some parts of Scotland. Online are 74 Admiralty Charts of Scottish coasts, 1795-1904.
Road, canal and railway maps
Few maps show roads or routes until the 18th century.
Taylor and Skinner's survey and maps of the roads of North Britain or Scotland is the first road book of Scotland and shows strip maps of the principal roads. A facsimile was published in 1991 by Old Hall Press, Leeds.
From the late 18th century, acts of Parliament were required for road, canal and rail developments and these may be accompanied by maps, which often indicate landowners along the proposed route.
Few printed town plans exist except for major towns (Edinburgh, Aberdeen, St Andrews).
A few towns may have manuscript plans. Some county maps include small inset plans of the county town, e.g. Glasgow's first printed town plan was published as an inset in Charles Ross's Map of the shire of Lanark in 1773.
John Wood published separate town plans from 1818, collected in 1828 in the Town atlas of Scotland. Many show occupiers' names, which makes them useful for family history.
Report on Parliamentary Boundaries. These maps give little detail apart from the main street pattern, but they may be the only source for some small towns which are not in Wood's Town atlas.