Book Review: Scotland – Mapping the Islands

Scotland – Mapping the Islands

Scotland Mapping the Islands. By Christopher Fleet, Margaret Wilkes and Charles W.J. Withers. Published in association with the National Library of Scotland by Birlinn Ltd. West Newington House, 10 Newington Road, Edinburgh, EH9 1QS. www.birlinn.co.uk. £30.00. US Distributor: CasemateIPM 1950 Lawrence Road, Havertown PA 19083. www.casemateipm.com. $42.99. 2016. 244 pp. Illustrations, index. Hardcover.

Islands fascinate us. This book looks at the history and geography behind the many maps of Scotland’s islands. The focus is on understanding the history and geography of the islands but also in showing how that history and geography has been realized in and produced through art, the artifice, and the authority of maps. This is the first book to take the maps of Scotland’s islands as its central focus.

A modern expectation is that maps accurately depict size, shape and relationships. Especially with the case of islands surrounded by water, researchers need to know where the islands are in relationship to one another, how big they are, and what their coasts look like.  That information has not always been available on the maps of islands of Scotland. Some islands are even transient, appearing twice a day depending upon the tide. For the map makers and their users distinguishing sea from land, one island from another, what is an island and what is not is vital.

This book is not an A-Z gazetteer of islands and island maps, from Arran and Barra to Zetland, showing maps of each. Rather the book has a narrative focus that is thematic, following a broadly chronological order. Each chapter addresses the ways in which an island’s history and geography have been captured in maps over time. The chapters reflect the sequence in which islands have not only appeared but also have come to exert their force and ‘pull.’ The sequencing of chapters reflects the processes by which the islands were peopled, then named, then navigated to and from (or avoided as hazards), defended, improved, exploited, pictured and escaped from or to.

The book has lavish color illustrations of numerous maps, from all time periods, many as two-page spreads. All supplement the detailed text of the chapter. At a minimum the detailed captions provide the source of the maps. More often the caption draws reader attention to features on the map – e.g. the island being in the wrong location, the wrong shape, the wrong size, the fact it is missing, who copied the map from whom, and how the map is different from its predecessors.  These captions thus extend the story of the main text and embellish the history ‘behind’ the maps in question.

The book can be read in the conventional fashion, from front to back, like I did, with each chapter building upon its predecessors. Alternatively, using the index, one can look at a particular island, or group, and see how the narrative of that place changed across time, and how it evolved through the different types of maps over time.   

The Highlands and islands are the center of the use of Gaelic in Scotland and its use is supported by governmental acts and policies. In this book many of the place names are written in both English and Gaelic, so readers will see examples within the text like: Western Isles / Na h-Eileanan an Iar; Lewis / Leòdhas. This is appropriate but makes the text in places harder to read.

The knowledgeable authors present the rich and diverse story of Scottish islands from the earliest maps to the most up-to-date digital mapping in engaging and imaginative ways. This book is an informative delight to read and view. It makes a great companion volume to Scotland: Mapping the Nation from the same publisher.

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