Monday, May 28, 2012

Map of the Week 5-28-2012: Blaeu’s 1654 Atlas of Scotland

Map of the “Yle of Skie,” from Blaeu’s 1654 Atlas of Scotland.  “Continue now, look at Scotland, and enjoy a feast for the eyes.”  So writes Joan Blaeu in his 'Greetings to the Reader,' part of the preliminary material to his 1654 Atlas novus. (from introductory remarks by Charles Withers, Professor of Historical Geography at the University of Edinburgh, on Blaeu’s Atlas of Scotland, at

Joan Blaeu (1599-1673) was a very esteemed and prolific Amsterdam mapmaker working in the Map-mad 17th century.  He received the prestigious appointment as mapmaker to the Dutch East India Company, which was responsible for opening up new markets for trade throughout the world, and for whom accurate maps would obviously have been of paramount importance.  But Blaeu’s maps were also tremendously beautiful and desirable in their own right as objets d’art.  For instance, in many of Vermeer’s wonderful paintings of everyday life in the Netherlands, a framed Blaeu map appears in a position of prominence in the interiors of the homes that are the setting for his paintings, indicating their cherished status as symbols of wealth and discernment of the occupants, but showing also how popularized and widely-owned his maps had become with the middle and upper classes.  (See an example of this at
The Atlas was, for all intents and purposes, more than 70 years in the making, and for an interesting history of how the Atlas came to be, and all the obstacles, both technical and bureaucratic, impeding its eventual publication, see the excellent account at  When completed, Volume V of Blaeu’s Atlas Novus contained 49 maps of Scotland and 6 of Ireland.  It was published originally with all text in Latin, and later editions were translated into Dutch, French, Spanish, and other languages, but never into English! 
Blaeu’s Atlas of Scotland and Ireland was a quite a ground-breaking work.  It used the latest in scientific geographic knowledge (and all that word implied in the 17th century – Geography was really a catch-word for most of the knowledge about the world) combined with “Chorography.”  What is Chorography, you might well ask?  It is a term which has gone out of service, for the most part, but perhaps will enjoy something of a comeback with the recent interest in more qualitative techniques and mixed-method approaches in Geography, all of which have seen a resurgence in recent years.  
From the good Prof. Withers again: “Geography in the age of Pont and Blaeu was not as we would now understand the term.  Early modern geographical knowledge drew upon natural history, astrology, even natural magic and was apparent in various forms: descriptive geography, mathematical geography - of importance to navigators and in mapmaking - and, notably, chorography.  Chorography as understood and practised in the late 16th and 17th centuries drew upon the work of the classical authority Claudius Ptolemaeus (known as Ptolemy).  In Book I of his eight-book Geographia, Ptolemy distinguished between geography and chorography:  'The purpose of Geography is to represent the unity and continuity of the known world in its true nature and location ... The aim of Chorography is to represent only a part'.  Crucially, chorography was a qualitative art: 'Chorography therefore concentrates more on the quality of places than on their quantity or scale, aware that it should use all means to sketch the true form or likeness of places and not so much their correspondence, measure or disposition amongst themselves or with the heavens or with the whole of the world' (cited in Withers 2001a, 140-1).
The intellectual worlds of the late 16th and 17th centuries recognised and used this crucial distinction between geography, the accurate representation of the whole known world, and chorography, the pictorial and written 'impression' of local areas and places, without regard to what we moderns would take to be quantitative accuracy.  Chorography appealed to late Renaissance intellectual ideas of order.  But it did more than that.  For three reasons, 'The chorographic/geographic distinction was perhaps the most important classifying scheme for maps in 16th-century Europe' (Mundy 1996, 5). It was a means to classify existing maps.  It created a standard dual model of how space should in future be mapped. It corresponded to models of the political state: 'indeed, its contours followed the fault lines between regionalism and nationalism' (Mundy 1996, 5-6).  The distinction was widely employed throughout the late 16th and 17th centuries in Europe, Japan, Russia and the Portuguese and Spanish colonies of the New World (Withers 2001a). In England in this period - and, after 1603, in the newly created geographical entity that was 'Great Britain' - chorography was 'the most wide-ranging of the geographical arts, in that it provided the specific detail to make concrete the other general branches of geography' (Cormack 1997, 163).
Chorography's textual features took several forms.  Description of places and regions very commonly incorporated topographical poetry: 'self-fashioning' through versifying was a commonplace in Elizabethan accounts of land and nation (Greenblatt 1980; Helgerson 1986, 1992; Klein 2001).  Chorography emphasised the local and did so historically and geographically: with reference, for example, to the genealogies of families of note, and to the remarkable features in a place.  This attention to place had political significance in that matters of a local nature - notable families, distinctive natural features, historical antiquities and such like - were made to appear part of that place, fixed over time as well as in space. Because of this, chorography - with geography one of what the late Renaissance and early modern worlds understood as the 'eyes of history' - was closely associated with chronology (the other 'eye'), with antiquarianism and with emerging ideas of public utility and of national identity (Cormack 1991a, 1997; Mayhew 2001).
In sum, chorography was a particular form of geographical knowledge, rooted in certain intellectual traditions and apparent in words and maps, that was concerned to capture the 'impression' of a region or place.  It was, textually, an essentially conservative form of regional description in as much as it assumed the continued authority of the monarchy and nobility.  That fact in turn is why chorographical writing often lauds leading families and prominent individuals of note: patronage, patriotism and the political well-being of the realm revealed through its regional portrayal were closely associated elements in Blaeu's world.” (From: “A Vision of Scotland,” by Prof. Charles Withers, at

Works Cited in above Excerpt:  
Cormack, L. B., Charting an Empire: Geography at the English Universities (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997).
Greenblatt, S., Renaissance Self-Fashioning from More to Shakespeare (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980)
Helgerson, R., 'The Land Speaks: Cartography, Chorography and Subversion in Renaissance England', Representations 16 (1986), 51-85
Klein, B., Maps and the Writing of Space in Early Modern England and Ireland (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001)
Mayhew, R., 'Geography, Print Culture and the Renaissance: "The Road Less Travelled By", History of European Ideas 27 (2001), 349-369
Mundy, B. E., The Mapping of New Spain: Indigenous Cartography and the Maps of the Relaçiones Geograficas (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996).
Withers, C. W. J., 'Pont in Context: Chorography, Mapmaking and National Identity in the Late Sixteenth Century', in The Nation Survey'd: essays on late sixteenth-century Scotland as depicted by Timothy Pont edited by Ian C. Cunningham (East Linton, 2001a), 139-154.

“The nether ward of Clyds-dail and Glasco” Zoom-able map at:  

On this map of the Lower Clyde region, north is the right side of the map, “Glasgva” is shown in the top middle as a major city (in red) on the banks of the River Clyde, with the location of “The Mills” below it (to the east of the city, but in this orientation it looks like to the south since we are used to north being on top rather than to the side.  Likewise, the River Clyde runs east-west in reality, but in this map appears to run north-south, until we get used to the idea that north is on the right).  Many of the place names on this map still exist on modern maps, with little change, such as Parthick (now Partick), Blyths Wood (now Blythswood), Burrowsfield (now Barrowfield), Carntynenoc (now Carntyne), etc. 

            The map of the Isle of Skye (Yle of Skia) shown above at the top of this post – zoom-able version at - depicts the largest of the islands in the Inner Hebrides.  In old Norse, the name for Skye is skuy (misty isle), skýey or skuyö (isle of cloud).  In Gaelic the name for the Isle of Skye, Ellan Skiannach, means “the winged island,” possibly owing to its many notches and indentations and peninsulas radiating out from the central core of mountains, making it look like feathered wings.  
              "This Ile is callit Ellan Skiannach in Irish, that is to say in Inglish the wyngit Ile, be reason it has mony wyngis and pointis lyand furth fra it, throw the dividing of thir foirsaid Lochis."  English translation from Lowland Scots: This isle is called Ellan Skiannach in Gaelic, that is to say in English, "The Winged Isle", by reason of its many wings and points that come from it, through dividing of the land by the aforesaid lochs.  From Munro, D. (1818) Description of the Western Isles of Scotland called Hybrides, by Mr. Donald Munro, High Dean of the Isles, who travelled through most of them in the year 1549. Miscellanea Scotica, Quoted in Murray (1966) p. 146. 

Near the center of Blaeu’s map of Skye (above and to the left of the town of Portry – now Portree) is Loch Cholumbkil (Colum Cille - Saint Columba’s lake), and in the middle of the loch is a little island with an abbey, and on the little island is a little lake.  The loch appears to be at the end of a river which leads from a sea loch, Loch Snizort (love that name – SNIZORT!).  Unfortunately, I can find no trace of this lake within an island on a lake within an island on a current map of Skye, but I will look for it when I am in Skye next week and perhaps find it on large-scale OS maps. 
I did find some notes about Loch Columbkille in an old journal written in 1883 by a well-known (at the time) travel writer and painter who spent 6 months in the Hebrides, so apparently the Loch and its islet were still extant 130 years ago or so. 

“This fine sea-loch divides itself into an inner and an outer harbour, perfectly land-locked. The former is still known to the older fishers as Loch Columbkille, being one of the spots specially dedicated to St. Columba, who was patron saint of half of Skye, and many neighbouring isles. The other half was the property of that St. Maelruhba to whom, as we have seen, were offered such strange sacrifices.' At the further end of the loch, close to the sheriff's house, is a small rocky islet, where a few fragments of building, and traces of old graves are all that now remain to mark the spot where once stood the oldest monastic building in Scotland; so, at least, say certain of our wisest antiquarians.”
From In the Hebrides, (Chapter 13) by C. F. Gordon Cumming (1883) at

Kilt Rock is a spectacular rock formation south of Staffin on the Trotternish peninsula, Skye. The 200ft-high cliffs take their name from the basalt columns which resemble the folds of a kilt. There is also a waterfall where the River Mealt plunges 200 feet straight down to the shore.

The ruins of Duntulm Castle lie approximately six miles north of Uig on the Trotternish peninsula of Skye. Duntulm was previously the site of an iron age broch, a Pictish fort and a Viking stronghold. The castle changed hands several times between the Macleods and the MacDonalds but it was secured as a MacDonald stronghold after the Battle of Trotternish in the 16th century.  Written in Gaelic as Dun Tuilm, the meaning is often debated but it is most commonly translated as 'fort of the green grassy headland'. The castle was abandoned by the MacDonalds in favour of Monkstadt in the 1730s and stone from the castle was used in building the new house.  This left the castle in a dangerous state of disrepair and it has only recently been stabilized.

These illustrations were taken from 'In the Hebrides', by CF Gordon Cumming (1883) at

            This will be my last blog posting for a little while.  I have to take a short hiatus for the next few weeks from all extracurricular activities.  I will be in Skye for the long Jubilee weekend, I need to finish my research and prepare and give five presentations in June based on my work here over the past 6 months, and finally I will then have to organize myself and pack up my life here in order to return home to NYC.  I hope to be back to full blogging power in mid-summer, and I’m sure will have a good backlog of interesting tid-bits of geographica to share. 

1 comment:

  1. A few months back I purchased Blaeu's Atlas Maior - Anglia, Scotia Et Hibernia (published by Taschen). It is quite large at 15.7" x 10.6" x 2.3"! The cartography is stunning and I look forward to utilizing some of his techniques in my own maps.