It was clear when I decided to attempt the A to Z Challenge that some letters were going to prove awkward. X was always going to be one of them. So hopefully you’ll forgive me for the slight cheat in this post. There is however a Scottish connection – albeit a rather tenuous one – to this phrase. Although he never used the phrase in Treasure Island, didn’t invent the idea of using X on a map to mark a specific location (which according to the OED dates back to at least 1813), and wasn’t even the first to use a pirate treasure map as a literary device (James Fenimore Cooper’s The Sea Lions used a similar plot device more than 30 years earlier), Robert Louis Stevenson is popularly associated with the idea of X marks the spot.
However, huge fan as I am of RLS, the real topic of this post is not literature but rather cartography – maps.
Growing up, I was always fascinated by maps. My family owned a secondhand bookshop, and my parents would regularly bring home books for me. One day, though, my mum brought home a huge box of maps that she’d bought. Pretty soon, the walls of my bedroom were covered with maps of all sorts of places I’d never been – there was even one of the moon!
The best maps, as well as being functional, were truly beautiful. One of my favourite collection of maps – a first edition of which I had the great privilege of owning when I was a bookdealer, albeit for a very brief period of time – is volume V of Joan Blaeu’s Theatrum orbis terrarum sive Atlas novus, known as Blaeu’s Atlas (or simply Blaeu in the book trade), originally published in 1654. Today, though, you don’t have to spend upwards of £5000 (!) for an original Blaeu to enjoy his work. You can view a digital version of it on the website of the National Library of Scotland.
Beautiful as Blaeu’s maps are – and I still regret having to sell my copy – they are not terribly practical for family-history purposes. The lack of detailed, accurate maps of Scotland was officially recognised in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745-6. George II ordered Lt-Col David Watson to produce a military survey of the Highlands of Scotland to assist with the suppression of the clans. One of Watson’s assistants was William Roy. The resultant work, known as Roy’s Military Survey of Scotland, is a landmark in cartography. For many parts of the Highlands it provides the only accurate map from the 18th century, at a time of massive change. Fortunately for us, the National Library have also digitised Roy’s masterpiece.
The Ordnance Survey – the official mapping organisation in the United Kingdom – eventually emerged in part from the work of William Roy and his colleagues. The OS was a pioneer in cartography, and produced some incredibly detailed maps. They are usually referred to in terms of inches – one inch, six inch, twenty-five inch, quarter-inch. These figures refer to the scale used – the number of inches per mile – the largest the number, the greater the detail.
These maps can be extremely useful when trying to identify particular places where your ancestors lived. Many small settlements, hamlets and farms no longer exist, or their names have changed beyond all recognition over the years. But consider this: the first edition of the 25-inch Ordnance Survey maps – dating from 1855-1882 – consists of 13,045 sheets. Even if you could find and afford to buy copies of them all, most people would find it highly impractical to keep them. Fortunately, the amazing staff of the NLS have digitised tens of thousands of Ordnance Survey maps. Even more usefully, they have georeferenced them, so that you can view maps of the same area from different periods. This makes it much easier to find maps of the particular district you’re interested in.
You can find a list of the Ordnance Survey maps available on the NLS map site here, or you can search the map collection by placename using an interactive map, starting here.
The Ordnance Survey itself provides tools to allow you to use maps to display information. We have produced a few examples for you. The first shows the people listed in the 1911 census for Kinclaven, in Perthshire. A number of the farms inhabited in 1911 are no longer to be found on modern maps, so we used the 19th century OS maps provided by the NLS to identify the precise locations where Kinclavenites lived.
Our second example uses a modern map to show the locations of hundreds of archives and local libraries all over Scotland, very useful for finding where records of your ancestors might be held.
Our third example involved mapping a client's ancestors. It's a useful illustration of just how detailed mapping can be. Contact us if you would like us to map your ancestors.
Genealogy and Family History - A mix of our news, curious and intriguing discoveries. Research hints and resources to grow your family tree in Scotland from our team.