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. £30.00. US Distributor: CasemateIPM 1950 Lawrence Road, Havertown PA 19083. $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.

GB1900 – Online Project – Great for Genealogists Opening Screen – Project to save Great Britain place names identifying all places on 6 inch to one mile maps for 1900

Online Project to Save Great Britain’s Place Names – Great for Genealogists

Come join the project to identify all the place names in Great Britain. First I will explain what the project is, how it works and then why it is a great way for you to get to know the neighborhood in which your ancestor lived.

The new online project – GB1900 – is calling for volunteers to help make sure local place names can live on and not be lost forever. GB1900 aims to create a complete list of the estimated three million place-names on early Ordnance Survey maps of Great Britain (England, Scotland and Wales). It will be a free, public resource, of great value to local historians and genealogists. I will come back to this later.

The project partners include the University of Portsmouth (Great Britain Historical GIS Project: A Vision of Britain through Time); National Library of Scotland; National Library of Wales; University of Wales; The People’s Collection of Wales and the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Wales.

On their new GB1900 web site,, volunteers work on digital images of all the 2nd Edition Ordnance Survey County Series maps of the whole of Great Britain, at six inch to one mile scale. These maps show not just every town and village but every farm, hill and wood – and include names for most of them. The site’s software enables contributors to mark each name by clicking next to it, and then to type in the name itself. To ensure correctness each name needs to be identically transcribed by two different volunteers.

The final list of place names will be not just the most detailed gazetteer ever created for Britain, it will be the world’s largest ever historical gazetteer. It will be released under a Creative Commons license, making it usable by everyone without charge.

How the GB1900 Project Works

Go to The first time you will need to register – name, email address and password. In the future when you return to login you will provide your email address and password. As of this morning there are 590 volunteers who have transcribed 440,789 places, and confirmed 42,766 places. What this means is that many more individual places have been tagged by individuals that have been confirmed by a second transcriber. Every place is being identified by two transcribers.

The first time into the system read the brief tutorial. It is easy to understand, but read it carefully. The mistake I made by not reading the tutorial carefully enough is that I was placing the marker on the map at the location of the feature, e.g. farm, mill, etc. This was wrong. The marker needs to go under the first letter of the text for that feature. Having tagged enough places now on the maps I can see the validity of this, especially in the crowded urban areas. Unfortunately, if you put a marker in the wrong place you can’t undo it.

You will see three types of markers. Brown – these are the places you have tagged; Green – these are places someone else has tagged; Purple – these are places tagged by someone and tagged again correctly by a second transcriber. When registered, you place the cursor under the first letter of a place name and hit enter. An entry box appears. Type in the name of the feature and confirm. The marker appears on screen, but you can’t see how it is labelled. If you are confirming a green marker and type in what the other person typed it changes to a purple marker, if you type in something different you get a brown marker. As you do more data entry menus will start to appear on your data entry box as you start typing. This is especially useful if you have common features in your area of interest, e.g. quarries, old mine shafts, foot paths, foot bridges, etc.

Common mistakes that I have made include – apostrophes in the wrong place, or missed; expanding an abbreviation, e.g. street when its only st on the map, which is easy to do especially when the entry box covers up the information on the map; or being too quick and ending up with a marker being placed where there is no feature. Unfortunately, if you make a typing error and immediately spot it, or put a marker in the wrong place there is no way to correct it.

Personal Statistics identifying how many places you have transcribed and confirmed, and listing the top 10 users (Paul Milner at number 10)

If you log out and then come back into the system, then click on your name you will be told how many entries you have transcribed and how many entries you have confirmed. There is a ranking table for transcribers, and the number selected is the lower of your two numbers. So as of this morning I am number 10 on the top ten user list with 2,021, having transcribed 2,021 names, while I have confirmed 2113 places first marked by others.

As a Genealogist you should get involved.

You should get involved because looking at these detailed 6 inch to the mile maps helps you to get to know the neighborhood in which your ancestors lived. Doing the transcription reinforces in your mind the places names – streets, farms, mills, rivers, woods, all of which are named. But also you will learn about the: wells, parish boundary markers; public houses, foot paths and foot bridges.

The gazetteer on the opening pages seems to use the underlying modern Open Street Map index, so it will not find all locations on the map. It can be used to find a village or town that you want to explore. A slider in the upper right corner of the map can show you how the area has changed between the old 1900 maps and present. For my readers outside Great Britain the find my location button will not work.

For those with Welsh ancestors this project grew out of the project, so there are more place names already identified in Wales than other places in Great Britain.

For those with Irish connections, the old maps are not part of this project (yet?). However, the modern interactive map of Ireland is available on the opening screen, move the slider in the upper right to the left to see the modern underlying map.

This is a fun way to get to know the area in which your ancestor lived, be involved in a worthwhile project, and most importantly you don’t have to worry about old handwriting issues that you may have with other transcription projects. Come join this fun project, help yourself and your fellow researchers. Learn your ancestral neighborhood.

Book Review: The Big Houses and Landed Estates of Ireland – A Research Guide by Terence Dooley

The Big Houses and Landed Estates of Ireland: A Research Guide by Terence Dooley

A question about the records associated with Landed Estates in Ireland was raised in a casual conversation in the exhibit hall at last week’s FGS conference in Ft. Wayne, IN. I hope you find this review helpful.

The Big Houses and Landed Estates of Ireland: A Research Guide. Maynooth Research Guides for Irish Local History: Number 11. By Terence Dooley. Published by Four Courts Press, 7 Malpas Street, Dublin 8, Eire. US Distributor: International Specialized Book Services, 920 NE 58th Avenue, Suite 300, Portland OR 97213. 2007. 192 pp. Illustrations, index. Softcover. $24.95.

This new book is a valuable tool for those with Irish connections for the majority lived on the landed estates, whether they were the landed magnates owning tens of thousands of acres; middlemen leasing large tracts of land from head landlords and renting them in turn in smaller parcels of various sizes to tenant farmers; cottiers who exchanged their labor for half an acre or so of potato ground; landless laborers who worked on estates or farms; or the big house or demesne servants. The estates themselves varied greatly in size from the smallest of around 500 acres to those such as the Marquis Conyngham who owned 160,000 acres. The smaller estates were generally in one county but the larger ones could have parts in many counties, making the locating of records more problematic.

At the heart of the approximately 7,000 landed estates in nineteenth-century Ireland is the “big house” built to announce the economic and social strength of their owners in the locality and in the class as a whole, and to inspire awe in social equals and possibly encourage deference in the lower classes. Even the houses on the smaller estates were big in comparison to any house inhabited by the tenant farmers, cottiers or laborers. The term “big house” also captures some of the historical resentment that was felt towards the people in these houses by nationalist Ireland, especially after the land wars of the 1880s.

This is a practical book, opening with a broad outline of the history of landed estates in Ireland from their growth in the sixteenth century to their break up in the twentieth, with particular attention given to outside influences affecting life on the estate. Researchers are directed towards the important published sources. The third chapter provides a historiography of the big house describing the growth, consolidation and decline over four centuries. The author highlights the need to be aware of local anomalies not always identified in broad national generalizations. Doing the background reading in these two chapters will provide the wider social, economical and political historical contexts for family historians and provide an understanding into whether what occurred on a particular estate was typical or peculiar to that estate.

Chapters two and four describe the important primary sources available for the study of the estates and their houses, highlighting the strengths and weaknesses of each which is very valuable if as a researcher you are accessing them for the first time. They do point out that not all records discussed survive for all estates. Many of the records will be familiar like Griffith’s Valuation, Tithe Applotment books, directories, gazetteers, and deeds. But the less familiar sources might include: estate records; parliamentary papers; records of the Irish Land Commission and Congested Districts Board; encumbered estates; memoirs; travelers guides; newspapers; architectural archives; maps; paintings and topographical drawings; even contemporary fiction. The references to publications and websites are useful and current. The index is good, but a comprehensive bibliography would have been a nice way to pull together the many citations in the footnotes. This is an excellent book, highly recommended, for researchers wanting to go beyond the basics and those seeking to put their ancestors into context.

Book Review: Maps and Map-Making in Local History

Maps and Map-Making in Local History by Jacinta Prunty

I am in the process of updating a lecture on Irish Maps to be given at the 2013 Federation of Genealogical Societies Conference in Ft. Wayne, Indiana. This process reminded me of what is probably my favorite book about maps and I thought readers may also want to know about it.

Maps and Map-Making in Local History. Maynooth Research Guides for Irish Local History. By Jacinta Prunty. Published by Four Courts Press, 7 Malpas Street, Dublin 8, Eire. US Distributor: ISBS, 920 N.E. 58th Avenue, Suite 300, Portland OR 97213. 2004. 344 pp. Illustrations, index, maps. Softcover. $30

This book opens with the quote: “Maps are graphic representations that facilitate a spatial understanding of things, concepts, conditions, processes or events in the human world” (p.15). The rest of the book expands upon that theme, successfully introducing the reader to the use of maps in research, writing and presenting local history. The illustrations are all from Ireland, so it is especially valuable for those researching in Ireland, but the concepts and ideas introduced are applicable for anyone working with maps. In fact two of the appendices are worth the price of the book alone, simply because they do apply to any location —  “Questions to be asked of maps” and “Questions to ask of your place in the search for maps”.

This is essentially a practical guide, including notes on the map series that are immediately useful for local history, and thus family history in Ireland, plus information on the major repositories, catalogs and finding aids, ways to use the maps in research, and the ways the maps themselves were made. Maps provide the context in which family historians place families within a community. In local history, researchers examine how that community operated in relationship to its neighbors, what resources were shared, how the interactions and development was affected by the landscape, all of which can be seen with maps.

The book is divided into four sections. The first, and largest, provides a historical overview of map-making in Ireland. The watershed here is the six-inch to one mile Ordnance Survey maps. Their production, content and legal standing are described in detail. The maps created before and after this significant series are also thoroughly described. This section is well illustrated and provides researchers with a glimpse of what is available. The author suggests, in the process, that the researcher should obtain any and all maps for the relevant geographic area, regardless of the time period or the maps focus (e.g. railways, canals, roads, military, plantation, geology, antiquities, estates, or bogs).

A very practical chapter on map-reading skills discusses scales, projections, orientations, national grid, grid references, sheet numbering, height, contours, boundaries, measurements, dates, and symbols. Ms. Punty explains where to locate maps, how to get started, and how to use guides to local and major archives or library collections, some of which are online. The book concludes with some case studies on how maps can be used by historians, local and family. This last section of the book also addresses the issues of copyright ownership, and provides guidelines for making your own maps, with or without computers. Many references to published and online materials provide further guidance throughout the text for researchers wanting to explore Irish maps and map-making further.

There is no doubt that this will become the standard guide for anyone working with Irish maps. It is highly recommended for personal and society collections.

Blogger Trail leads to online Irish Civil Registration Map

It is always fascinating following the trail laid down by the Blogger network for you never know where it will take you and what gem you will find. This morning I logged on to read John Reid of Anglo-Celtic Connections with a post celebrating the third anniversary of Ruth Blair’s blog – the Passionate Genealogist. I followed the link to Ruth’s blog and scrolled down to read a post from January 18 entitled Ruth’s Recommendations.

In Ruth’s list was a link to a free Handy Map of Irish Civil Registration Boundaries available through What a delightful map it is. Yes, similar maps of civil registration boundaries are available in print, but this is the best that I have seen online and in color. The result is that it got clipped and inserted into my updated lecture on Finding Your Ancestors in Ireland, which is one of the 38 presentations I will give on my upcoming Australia lecture tour (leaving the US this coming Wednesday).

Yes, I did leave the logo on the map to give them credit, and to also remind me and my audience where I got the map from in the first place.

Thanks for the lead.