Saturday, December 05, 2020

Maps: A Portal To The Past (Final Revision)

Anything from a different time period can serve as a valuable example of perspective, maps exemplify this beautifully. Whenever a new map is created a new world is born, a world that exists in its own sphere of reality. Although this world may look very similar to our own it is important to remember that it is not. A map presents the viewer with a singular perspective: traditionally a birds-eye view of a landscape and its topography, although maps are not limited to this. Perhaps important landmarks are marked or particular boundaries are noted, but as time moves forward, how accurate can a map truly be? More importantly is it absolutely necessary for a map to be accurate to remain relevant? What happens when a map becomes outdated in terms of its ability to get you from point A to point B, does it lose its worth? A map is a glimpse into the perspective and knowledge of the world at one point in time, as one of Brennan’s maps show us a map can tell us just as much in what is missing as it does with what is marked.

The map that has jumped out to me the most from the Ray R. Brennan map collection is John Cary’s “A New Map of Scotland”. The map was created in 1808 and published in: Cary’s New Universal Atlas: containing distinct maps of all the principal states and kingdoms throughout the world from the latest and best authorities extant. I was drawn to this map because of the ways that I disagreed with it and yet still felt very connected to the content. I am a dual citizen with passports for the United States of America and Scotland. My mother grew up in Edinburgh and I have grown up spending my summers there on the various isles, braes, lochs, and cities. Looking at this map I was confused, the first thing that grabs your eye when you look at it is Ireland. For a map of Scotland, it feels as if it is trying to be something else. Peter Turchi notes in his book, Maps of the Imagination: The Writer as Cartographer, that it is important for the creator to “decide precisely when and how to draw the reader’s attention to their omissions” (Turchi 62). This statement has great weight and significance which can be applied to many different situations outside of just maps and writing. Often what a person chooses not to say can be far more impactful than what they do say, or blank space can reveal new shapes and perspectives. While it exists outside of cartography it is especially relevant in Brennan’s map. In the map of Scotland, you can’t help but notice that the country only takes up about a quarter of the space on the map. It is almost entirely Ireland and the ocean. This use of “omission” lead me to the conclusion that space was put there to distract from how little information has been collected in Scotland. Upon taking a closer look at the cities and towns named I found that quite a lot was missing. Yes, the Isle of Arran was there and so was Killbride, but I couldn’t find Glasgow, or Edinburgh, or even Leith. I have to say I was disappointed but more than that I was very confused. Edinburgh and Glasgow are arguably the most important cities in Scotland and they were well established in the 1800s. Edinburgh castle which is one of the most important landmarks of the country was built in the 1600s and has played a significant role in British history especially regarding the monarchy. And Glasgow has famously served as the center of economics for the country. So why was the ocean taking up so much more space on the map? Why leave a large section of the country uncharted?  I couldn’t imagine that a map with such a limited perspective would have been very useful to someone trying to navigate Scotland.

In an attempt to better understand the reasoning behind the choices of omission, several theories presented themselves. The first is that Scotland is a very rugged and brutal country both now (and even more so) then: the landscape is treacherous, the weather is at times unlivable, and during the 1800s transportation was certainly not what it is today. It is possible that these areas were simply too hard to get an accurate mapping of. But then how were they able to collect so much detail of the eastern section? Another possibility is that the purpose of this map was not necessary to provide a sense of Scotland as a whole, perhaps it was to focus in (in detail) on an area that was more relevant and necessary to have information about, perhaps for a more specific group of people. According to one author mapping is “a human activity that seeks to make sense of the geographic world, it is a way in which we find our way in the world” (Crampton 12). It occurred to me that perhaps the map aims to draw connections between and present information regarding how “we find our way in the world”. It is clear that a significant amount of detail put into coastal regions of Scotland, not just off of the mainland but all the coastal areas of the isles are heavily mapped and notated. There are even notes in the waters between isles remarking on where the best places to fish are. Perhaps then the focus of the map is to show the details of the coastal areas and islands to make travel by boat more accessible. This connects to Crampton’s idea because these regions are arguably the more significant ones for “wayfinding”. At this point in time, it is logical to conclude that most contact and trade with Scotland is occurring by boat and a map of the surrounding isles and interconnections between lochs and rivers would be very important and relevant. With this perspective in mind, it would also make sense to include so much ocean and Ireland which can serve as a point of reference for ships making their way to Scotland, however I would have expected this intent to be better represented in the title of the map. 

After stepping away from the Brennan map for an extended period of time and returning to it I have come to learn that what I was originally viewing was in fact only a quarter of the complete map.  The full map spanned four pages and unaware of this I focused on the North Western corner.  Having examined the map in full one thing that stood out to me was North Berwick which was spelled differently on the map.  I double and triple checked that my spelling of it was correct to how it is spelled today and I was right but still confused as to the mismatch with the Brennan map.  This lead me to question how this might change over time.  Specifically in Scotland it seems that time has caused a lot of subtle shifts within the language.  For example looking at the clans, over the years there have grown many different variations of the clan names for example my friend Ryder who’s last name is McDaniel is from the MacDonald clan and McDaniel is just a variation that arose over time.  Clearly something happened that caused for the change in North Berwick but I wonder how much power the mapmaker themselves hold over imparting that change and whether this map would still be considered helpful/accurate today even with the variation in spelling.

Again I am brought back to the question of whether a map needs to stay accurate and relevant to remain important. Maps are timeless portals to the past. While this map would not serve me well today in 2018 if I wanted to take a train from Edinburgh to Inverness it is still significant. Cary’s map provided an essential and irreplaceable glimpse into the world of the 1800s and what information was and wasn’t important at the times. The Scotland that I know and love is very different from the one presented on this map and from the one that the world knew in 1800. However, because of this map, it lives on and continues to ask questions and spark the sense of wonder and excitement about the world that has always driven mapmaking. 

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