Thursday, November 3, 2016

Scotland Mapping The Islands - Christophet Fleet, Margaret Wilkes, Charles W.J. Withers

The best thing about writing book reviews for other people is the way it leads me to things I wouldn't otherwise have payed any particular attention to. 'Scotland: Mapping The Islands' is just such a book. Without the push of needing to find something that had a particular connection to Shetland, if I'd seen it at all I would have most likely only thought of it in terms as a good potential present for D.

I would have been quite right to have done so, he's very enthusiastic about this book - we've gone far beyond pointed hints and are now in attempted kidnap territory. He'll probably end up as its eventual custodian because it's senseless to duplicate our books, but I don't really want to let go if it. (Only the knowledge that I'll struggle to fit it on my own bookshelves is reconciling me to this).

'Scotland: Mapping The Islands' is a companion volume to 'Scotland: Mapping The Nation' (which I can see I now need to buy as well), neccesary because the story of the islands and the way they've been perceived is different to that of the mainland - and a big enough subject to demand their own book.

I'm not immune to the fascination of looking at islands on maps, which certainly conjur some of the magic of actual islands. I enjoy the pictorial quality of old maps, I've been interested to note the way names change on them, and the way the shapes of a place have changed as surveying techniques developed, but beyond the curiosity of the moment I'd never given any of it much thought. I'd certainly never really considered why maps were made, or on the effect that the relativley unfixed nature Islands have had on maps has on the imagination.

Which makes it fair to say this book has had a profound impact on me and how I think.

The majority of the maps and charts used to (lavishly) illustrate the book come from the collection held by the National Library of Scotland. It breaks down into chapters on Peopling, Naming, Navigating, Defending, Improving, Exploiting, Picturing, and Escaping which also run in a roughly chronological order. You can also choose to read the book by island or island group by following them through the index.

The first thing I did was follow Shetland through the book, it's an interesting example because it still floats around on maps - it's far enough North to mean that putting it in its correct place on a map of Scotland or the UK means that you have to diminish the size of the mainland to fit everything in the page, and the overall effect isn't particularly pleasing from a design point of view (to much sea, not enough land). The convention is to stick it in a box to one side, which isn't very pleasing either but is an excellent reminder that maps are so often an interpretation of the world rather than a strictly factual representation of it.

It came as something of a surprise to know how late it was that accurate surveys of the Scottish Islands were completed. 1886 for example before you could see what the island of Foula actually looked like as well as where it was on a map. I could see it from my bedroom window as a child, the idea that it had only truly been pinned down less than a hundred years before my first view of it stuns me.

It's also an immensely readable book, full of human stories, interest, and enthusiasm - as well as so much to think about. I am particularly grateful that it came my way.


  1. Many thanks for the recommendation ... it is the perfect Christmas present for a friend of mine!