The Blaeu Atlas of Scotland: Scotland from Theatrum Orbis: Terrararum Sive Atlas Novus Pars Quinta: published by Joan Blaeu, Amsterdam, 1654

Stuart Hannabuss (Gray's School of Art, Aberdeen, Aberdeen, UK)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 27 June 2008




Hannabuss, S. (2008), "The Blaeu Atlas of Scotland: Scotland from Theatrum Orbis: Terrararum Sive Atlas Novus Pars Quinta: published by Joan Blaeu, Amsterdam, 1654", Library Review, Vol. 57 No. 6, pp. 457-460.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Never had Scotland been better displayed, at least cartographically. The Blaeu maps have an almost legendary status in the history of cartography and are now virtually unobtainable in their original form. Widespread interest in early maps in general and in Blaeu maps in particular has encouraged the Edinburgh publisher Birlinn, working with the National Library of Scotland, to publish this impressive volume containing most of the original maps (there were 49 in the first edition in 1654). The text is equally interesting and was originally in Latin (versions in other languages followed on at the time), and so this new version benefits from translating this text into English so that English‐speaking readers can examine it perhaps for the first time. Not only does this mean that map libraries and collectors can have a highly useful working copy, but it also means that a full version is available for the general reader. This is a book that has to be laid and stored flat in a map cabinet but is nevertheless durably bound for regular usage.

The part covering Scotland formed part five of Blaeu's larger work the Theatrum Orbis Terrarum Sive Atlas Novus. It offers a unique insight into Scotland in the first half of the seventeenth century. As a project it was remarkable too, starting life around 1600 with the mapping survey of Timothy Pont (a minister in Caithness but also an enthusiastic map maker). The maps were not published in his lifetime (he died before 1615) but then taken up in the 1630s by Robert Gordon of Straloch (1580‐1661) and Sir John Scot of Scotstarvit in Fife (who held several important appointments of state). Numerous people were involved both in drawing and designing the maps themselves and in compiling the accompanying text.

For their part the Blaeu family (Joan's father Willem was also a map publisher), based in Amsterdam, were keen to create and publish a comprehensive atlas of the world (or at least known parts of it) on the model of earlier maps by Ortelius (whose map of Spain, for instance, appeared in 1586) and others. Willem Blaeu was a pupil of Tycho Brahe, known today as an astronomer but at the time a cartographer of places like Norway. Abraham Ortelius's Theatrum Orbis Terrarum of 1570 is regarded as being one of the first atlases in the modern sense and its success accelerated interest in a publishing field already busy representing territories, on land and sea, and often called cosmographies, that not only mapped space but also asserted national power and served exploration and adventure. This aspect of map‐making, that they were never value‐free, has been developed substantially in modern historiography, teasing out themes like the iconography of landscape and the imperialism of travel. Scientifically, too, they show the developing knowledge and skill of representing the world in objective and quantitatively measured terms, something hinted at in popular books like Dava Sobel's Longitude.

Ortelius was also interested in local detail in maps, in representing not just the wide sweep of a country or territory but also the fine detail of specific areas of it. This had its own name, chorography, and, as Charles Withers (University of Edinburgh) states in a helpful introduction, was differentiated from the term “geography”. Chorography aimed to provide a detailed impression of local areas and places, usually recording families and property of note, distinctive natural features, important antiquarian information and the like. Detail might also be embedded in and extended in pictorial and illustrative devices (such as heraldry) accompanying such maps. So it is with this background (which this new publication acknowledges) that readers will appreciate this book, for experts providing an attractive resource and for the general reader opening up a wealth of detail well worth exploring.

The original versions of the maps (and remember that we are speaking here only of part five, that part dealing with Scotland) had an accompanying text in Latin. Dutch and German, French and Spanish editions were also available by 1665. The text itself is of great interest, consisting of Blaeu's letter to the reader, copyright privileges (a glimpse into their method of working), related sources (such as Camden's Britannia of 1607 and Buchanan's Rerum Scoticarum Historia of 1582), and then, of course, the descriptive narrative of the places – Lauderdale and Arran, Stirling and Angus, Strathnaver and Edinburgh, Skye and the Orkneys. They are concentrated on the central belt of Scotland and the coastal edges east and west and north, with one extensive map trying to cover the large bit in between.

We get a vivid impression of how the project lurched forward at times, often between wars and lack of money, and of how it really was something of a miracle that maps were actually drawn and text written. Very much a collaborative project over many years, it represents, for any publishing historian (resembling other large projects like the compilation of dictionaries and encyclopedias) a fascinating study. From another viewpoint, too, we get a vivid portrait of Scotland several hundred years ago, and in this case ready access to earlier and contemporary sources (like Andrew Melville's Topography of Scotland, also represented here) is of particular value. Nomenclature and place‐names present as many fascinating insights as difficulties.

For any historian the information in the text is of substantial interest: the dependence of Fife on coal (which also “enjoys pure and healthy air, both for preserving and for regaining health”), the historical background to the families in Buchan, Robert Gordon's chorographic description of Sutherland (parishes, quarries, antiquities, salmon fisheries, and “deep fountains of fresh water”), and the Orkneys (text attributed to Walter Stewart, minister of South Ronaldsay) with descriptions of cliffs and waves and tides enough to stir the blood of any traveller. History and legend interweave, and excerpts of poetry appear naturally. Such texts derive, then, from numerous hands. Such works, too, were created in sheets and assembled to order, and this accounts for the fact that some have longer versions of the text, and others have shorter, than others. Bibliographically such works, as with works like the Cries of London and botanical and zoological works like those of Loudon and Gould, present their own challenges. It would have been good to have had more about this in the introductory material, even though scholarly works exist on such matters (one at least is cited on page 15, Chris Fleet's 2004 historical study).

Last but by no means least are the maps themselves. They tell their own story, something that Macfarlane suggests has been lost in modern map‐making, despite contours. They also offer what has been called a vertical as well as a horizontal dimension to maps – not merely places and territories represented horizontally, but, in showing hills and rivers running between and through them, and heavily forested areas and the like, giving the viewer a vertical sense of space as well. How true generally this is can be argued about but, here in Blaeu's maps of Scotland, we find the fine detail of the lochs of Knapdale (many with small islands of their own), individual mountains on Arran, the demesnes of abbey land beside Paisley, castle estates all over like Elphinstoun Castle on the Forth Estuary, and carefully differentiated islands (clusters of them in distinct colours).

At times the cartography is impressionistic (another problem for Blaeu when he received maps that were merely sketches and that required a lot more work). Many places exist today, by name if not in importance, making such maps attractive in reproductions for tourists and visitors to heritage sites. At the same time, we see palimpsests of the past that underlie the present – small villages like Freuchie in Fife that existed then and still exist as thriving communities today (it is near Falkland) – but in topography quite unlike today (where Glenrothes and Leslie are just down the road). Edinburgh (here Edenburgh) is a compact line of spired buildings and sits beside a separately‐designated fenced parkland called Arthurseat. To the south Roslyn sits as a small settlement within such a park. Decorative borders include coats of arms, cupids with dividers, shepherds and fishermen and sea creatures, foliated cartouches and indications of scale. Captions are in both Latin and English.

The level of detail, then, is remarkable and, with the text, such maps offer a unique insight into what Scotland looked like at the time. Readers may find it helpful to know that the National Library of Scotland has a website in conjunction with the publication (to be found at and on from there) and that Ian Cunningham published a study of Timothy Pont's maps in 2001. The edition obtained for review lacked a gathering in the text (pages 65‐80 inclusive) so, if you are serious about buying it, check it out first – hopefully a blip in and for a review copy only. Maps are images that, in a sense, can be neither wholly true or false; they are certainly snapshots of power at a time, of ways of seeing and ways of being. When accompanied by text as revealingly informative as these, we do indeed have a unique resource. Birlinn and the National Library are to be congratulated in persisting with a project only a little less (it must have seemed some of the time) to the original project of Blaeu and his collaborators.

Further reading

Cunningham, I.C. (Ed.) (2001), The Nation Survey'd: Timothy Pont's Maps of Scotland, Tuckwell Press in association with the National Library of Scotland, East Linton.

Daniels, S. and Cosgrove, D. (Eds) (1988), The Iconography of Landscape: Essays on the Symbolic Representation, Design and Use of Past Environments, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Elsner, J. and Rubiés, J.‐P. (Eds) (1999), Voyages & Visions: Towards a Cultural History of Travel, Reaktion Books, London.

Fleet, C. (2004), “The Blaeu Atlas of Scotland: new translation and website”, IMCos Journal, Vol. 97, pp. 517.

Hooper, G. and Youngs, T. (Eds) (2004), Perspectives on Travel Writing, Ashgate, Aldershot and Burlington, VT.

Macfarlane, R. (2007), The Wild Places, Granta Books, London.

Withers, C.W.J. (2001), Geography, Science and National Identity: Scotland Since 1520, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

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