James Robertson (1753-1829) - the Shetlander who mapped Jamaica and Aberdeenshire

decorative graphic
James Robertson (1753-1829), courtesy
of Shetland Museum and Archives.

by Joanne Wishart (formerly Shetland Museum and Archives)

Early life and work in Jamaica

James Robertson was born on the island of Yell in the north of Shetland, the youngest of 10 children. He attended Aberdeen Grammar School and perhaps stayed in Aberdeen until 1778 when he was awarded an Honorary M.A. from Marischal College. In the same year, he travelled to Jamaica, working as a land surveyor and proprietor of a cattle pen; cattle were frequently employed to power the machinery in sugar mills. The earliest extant estate plan by him in the National Library of Jamaica dates from 1791, and in 1796 he petitioned the Jamaican House of Assembly with ambitious proposals to map the whole island. Robertson’s petition was cleverly worded to gain the support of the planters, who dominated the House of Assembly:

'A New Map of the Island including all Rivers, Roads, and Paths in and across the interior and Central parts of the Country, describing the quality of the Soil, showing the facility of making roads of communication, ascertaining the quantity of the Cultivated and uncultivated lands in each parish and Comprehending the harbours, Coast, Rivers, Roads, Paths, Estates, Penns, Coffee works and other settlements would be highly Conducive to the House’s interests.'

The House of Assembly agreed with him, and Robertson promised too that the maps would be completed within three years; he kept his word and presented his three county maps (each on four sheets at one-inch to the mile) to the House by November 1799. The House of Assembly were satisfied and the official record is that ‘They had carefully examined the maps and are unanimously of the opinion that they have been executed with the greatest accuracy, and that they comprise all the objects stated in the petition.’ Robertson went on to create a smaller-scale map of the whole of Jamaica on three sheets by early in 1801 for the House of Assembly, who agreed too that it had been ‘executed with great accuracy’.

Robertson was paid a very generous £10,450 plus interest, as well as any money from sales of the maps. Probably in 1802 Robertson returned to Britain with copies of the maps and had them engraved by S.J. Neele of the Strand. The maps were published in 1804 and copies sold in London and Jamaica.

View Robertson's maps of Jamaica (1804)

Robertson's mapping of Jamaica is valuable in being the most detailed geographic survey of the island in the early 19th century, at the height of its prosperity from sugar. The Jamaican historian Barry Higman describes it as ‘the most complete map of Jamaica during the period of slavery’. It shows the location and distribution of 830 sugar estates, naming their proprietors, along with selected topographic details, presenting a powerful image of British colonial control. The geodetic accuracy of the maps was examined by Alan Eyre in the 1980s, and by comparing distances from six points deep in central Jamaica, reckoned Robertson’s map to be 98% accurate.

Return to Britain and the Aberdeenshire county map

In contrast to his years in Jamaica, Robertson had a difficult working life back in Great Britain. Although he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, following his submission of a scientific paper ‘Observations on the Permanency of the Compass at Jamaica’ in 1806, his petitions to the Admiralty with plans to map the Northern Isles, and to landowners in Northumberland for a county map were rejected. However, following active petitioning to the Aberdeenshire gentry, he was eventually given instructions to make ‘a complete military map which showed the seats of the nobility, names of places, roads, coasts, harbours, the latitude and longitude, and the magnetic variation correctly ascertained besides other objects remarkable either for use or curiosity’. Robertson understood that the Committee would buy 400 copies of the map for which they would pay 5 guineas each, but the Committee understood that they would only invite subscriptions for the map - they held no responsibility for the final number of maps he would be paid for. There were also differences of opinion on how long the survey would take, and between the Committee’s clear desire for an original survey, and Robertson’s preference for using existing estate maps and road surveys.

Robertson began his survey in September 1810, and 18 months later, in April 1812, requested that he be shown estate maps, contrary to the Committee’s wishes. Two years later, he requested permission to extend the survey to the neighbouring counties of Kincardineshire, and parts of Forfar, Perthshire, Inverness-shire, and Moray. Work dragged on, and it was not until 1822 that the map was finally published. Although Robertson sent a copy to the Committee, and claimed he had 400 copies ready for delivery, so he expected payment, the Committee flatly refused. They claimed that as the map had taken so long, many of the original subscribers had moved away or even died. But more seriously, they were very critical of the content of the map itself - one calculation was that it had more than 2,416 omissions.

Thomas Burnett, an advocate in Aberdeen, wrote to James Robertson in November 1822 to express the unanimous disappointment of the Map Committee and subscribers at the delay, and to make it clear that the Map Committee would not be liable for any reduction in the number of subscriptions as a result. Robertson claimed that according to an agreement of September 1810, the Map Committee was to pay him £2,100, the full amount payable for 400 copies of his map, and they were responsible for finding the requisite subscribers. This agreement is not to be found in the Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Archives collection, though it is mentioned in a minute of a general meeting of landholders, commissioners of supply and justices of the peace in Aberdeen on 7 September 1810, and it may be found in the Court of Session records at the National Archives of Scotland.

James Robertson brought his case to the Court of Session and made a claim for his money against the Marquis of Huntly and others of the Map Committee. The members of the Map Committee defended themselves against the claims of James Robertson by claiming in turn that his map was not produced from a survey of the counties as proposed in his prospectus. To substantiate this claim, a number of lists and reports of inaccuracies and omissions were drawn up in relation to the representation of the three counties. The case continued until 15 January 1829 when James Robertson died, following which an out of court settlement was reached with his executors.

View Robertson's Topographical and military map of the counties of Aberdeen, Banff and Kincardine (1822).

Further reading

A.L. Eyre, ‘Mapmaker extraordinary’ Scots Magazine, new series, vol.126, no.5, February 1987, 482-489.

A.L. Eyre, ‘James Robertson of Gossaburgh 1753-1829: surveyor, slave owner, sugar planter, socialite’ The New Shetlander , no.152, Summer 1985, 22-24.

B.W. Higman, Jamaica surveyed : plantation maps and plans of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Jamaica ; San Francisco : Institute of Jamaica Publications Ltd., c1988)

View listing (PDF, 187 Kb) of archival documents from Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Archives relating to Robertson's Map of Aberdeenshire, Banffshire and Kincardineshire, as well as the related court case. These records can be consulted at the Old Aberdeen House office ( further details and contact information ). (With many thanks to Ruaraidh Wishart, Senior Archivist, Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Archives, for supplying this list).