Friday, October 18, 2019
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Maps: A Portal to The Past

Maps: A Portal to The Past

Maps are a beautiful example of perspective. 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 one perspective: traditionally a birds-eye view of a landscape and its topography. Perhaps important landmarks are marked or particular boundaries are noted, but how accurate can a map truly be? More importantly is it absolutely necessary for a map to be accurate to remain important? What happens when a map becomes outdated in terms of its ability to get you from point A to point B, does it lose its worth?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, 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 here as well. 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 quite 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?

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: 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. 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.

This idea brings me 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 (or available) 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 maps, it lives on and continues to ask questions and spark the sense of wonder and excitement about the world that has always driven mapmaking.

One thought on “Maps: A Portal to The Past

  1. I like how in your second paragraph you point out why you’re interested in this map of Scotland. And by pointing out that you go there quite often its a cool little way to give yourself more of a voice of authority in a way that doesn’t seem aggressive.

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