Admiralty Charts of Scottish coasts, 1795-1963


Detail of Admiralty chart of Edinburgh and Leith, 1842

This selection of 950 charts includes our main NLS holdings of Admiralty charts that are out-of-copyright, published over 50 years ago. Admiralty Charts show many coastal features in good detail, and are also useful in predating the work of Ordnance Survey for many northern counties before the 1880s. For many of Scotland’s busier estuaries and ports, there are also regular revisions of charts coming through to the present day - often more revisions than for Ordnance Survey maps, and at different dates.


The Hydrographic Office of the Admiralty was officially founded in 1795, with a Scot, Alexander Dalrymple, the first Hydrographer to the Admiralty Board. Initial progress in charting was hampered by resource limitations and the Napoleonic Wars, and privately funded marine surveyors and publishers continued to dominate chart production in the early 19th century. The Hydrographic Office issued its first officially published Admiralty chart in November 1800, but it was not until 1815 under Commander George Thomas, that systematic surveying of the east coast of Scotland began (view Thomas’ chart of the Firth of Forth, 1815).

From 1821 charts which the Hydrographic Office had prepared for the Navy were allowed to be sold to the merchant marine (subject to some security restrictions), which helped to increase demand and provided a growing source of revenue. Following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, surveying dramatically expanded worldwide, including British home waters, often called the 'Grand Survey of the British Isles', and new standards of accuracy, consistency, and quality were promoted. In 1829, there were only 44 charts published of Home Waters, but by 1855 when Francis Beaufort (Hydrographer from 1829 to 1855) retired, 255 charts were available, and Admiralty charts had been produced for all of Scotland's coasts.

In Scotland, the Northern Isles were also an early priority, surveyed thoroughly by George Thomas from the 1820s, updating the work of Columbine in 1795. Thereafter the coasts were generally surveyed from the south-west working northwards particularly by Charles Robinson, George Bedford, and Henry Otter in the 1840s and 1850s. Michael Slater and Thomas Henry Tizard were also active on the East and North coasts, largely completing the coverage during the 1860s. The charts are therefore especially useful in providing coastal information that pre-dates Ordnance Survey mapping (by decades for some northern counties and the Western and Northern Isles), with attractive and striking hachured mountains, and sometimes with views of bays and harbours.

Features and information included

By the 1830s under Francis Beaufort, there was a growing trend towards standardisation of features, symbols and abbreviations. As well as depicting the coastline and high and low water marks with accuracy, many other features of interest to mariners were also included, including rocks, sandbanks and wrecks, depths in fathoms, navigational aids such as lights, buoys and beacons, and the nature of the sea bottom for locating good anchorages. Most charts also included a compass rose with a magnetic north indicator, so that compass bearings could be easily traced using parallel rules for any transit on the chart. Most also included some indication of scale, either as a natural scale / representative fraction (ie. 1/31,706) or as a scale bar, a statement about the projection (usually the Mercator, for maintaining rhumb lines as straight lines on the chart) and included a border showing degrees of latitude and longitude.

Although the amount of topographic information about landward areas has always varied, many charts include very detailed and informative depictions of topography and coasts. Conspicuous buildings such as churches, towers, or chimneys were always of interest, as well as the overall size and shape of settlements. Charts are often useful sources of information on communications, such as roads, railways, bridges, and canals. The terrain and contours of the land were also of great value for navigation. Many early charts depict relief with attractive hachures, sometimes accompanied by views along a particular transit, whilst later charts often include contour lines and heights of principal features. The type of foreshore - whether rocky, a cliff, muddy, or with sandy dunes - is usually recorded, and sometimes too the type of land-use and vegetation, especially if visible from the sea. Land reclamation from the sea and other coastal change can be visibly observed by viewing charts over time.

Many quite striking changes in topography and detail can be observed in the first half-century of chart production. Early charts were often reliant on quite variable earlier surveys. The Hydrographic Office collaborated closely with Ordnance Survey, but as the OS Primary Triangulation of Great Britain was not completed until the 1820s, and their primary survey of Scotland was not completed until the 1880s, before this information often had to be recorded first hand. There were often significant differences of position between Ordnance Survey and Admiralty charts until the late 19th century. Many later charts state that their principal landward information was derived from Ordnance Survey maps, but it was always a selection, and incorporated with other detail from original survey.

Numbering, revisions and editions

Until the late 1830s, Admiralty charts were usually identified only by their title, describing the area covered. However, from 1839, each chart was usually also assigned a standard Admiralty chart number, printed at the bottom right hand corner of the sheet. These Admiralty chart numbers became a prime means of uniquely referencing a particular chart, although if charts became obsolete or were superseded, numbers were reused for charts of different areas.

Through new surveys, correspondence, ships’ reports, and information gathered from other sources (including Ordnance Survey maps), Admiralty charts were continuously updated. Many of the charts contain a note on them that any prior editions should be destroyed in the presence of the ship’s captain; obsolete information could be fatal. Information on dates of survey, compilation and revision are usually made quite explicitly beneath the title within the cartouche, as well as in the lower margin of the chart. Corrections were often made by hammering out detail on the master copper plate from which the chart was printed. Quite often, formal dates of publication are therefore many years or even decades before the date of the latest corrections, and although the chart presents a spread of earlier information, the date of latest revisions or corrections is often most useful for dating features on the chart. We use the Admiralty chart number, title and the date of most recent revision for the charts on this website, but further information can usually be found on the chart itself and by looking at any related editions.

Where to find other Admiralty charts

The largest accessible collection of Admiralty Charts is held by the British Library

The Hydrographic Office archive holds the main national record set of Admiralty charts. Although their collection is not complete, it is the most complete collection in the United Kingdom, and they also hold many other important related records.

The National Archives holds many charts that were used or collected by government departments and the armed services in the normal course of their administrative or operational functions. They may include editions, states and printed amendments not represented elsewhere, although most are of standard issue. Many charts bear manuscript additions and amendments relating to their use. Individual charts may also accompany correspondence indicating errors and desirable amendments.

The National Maritime Museum has a large collection of Admiralty charts, and some original surveys.

The Royal Geographical Society (with the Institute of British Geographers) also holds an incomplete, but significant collection of Admiralty charts.

Further reading