Robert Gordon of Straloch by Jeffrey C. Stone

Robert GordonBorn in 1580, into a family closely associated with the Earls of Huntly, educated in Aberdeen and Paris, married in 1608 when he acquired the estate of Straloch (north of Aberdeen), later to acquire his elder brother's estate of Pitlurg, Robert Gordon was a man of both learning and substance.

He was much involved in events surrounding the struggles in Scotland between King and Covenanters, suggesting a substantial role in public life. Shortly after his death in 1661, he was described as 'one of the most worthy and learned Gentlemen of our Nation'.

Although best known for his contribution to Blaeu's great atlas of Scotland, this probably represents only a small part of the scholastic pursuits which his position permitted him to indulge in. Robert Gordon's contact with the work of Pont occurred relatively late in his life, in consequence of his established scholastic reputation, and not the cause of it.

In 1641, Charles I wrote an oft-quoted letter, in which he entreated Gordon 'to reveis the saidis cairtiss', a phrase which has caused subsequent misunderstanding as to what exactly Blaeu required of his potential new informant. It is apparent from later correspondence that the publisher was not so much looking to revise plates which were already engraved, as to fill gaps in his coverage of Scotland. Nevertheless, such authoritative sources as the Dictionary of National Biography state that Gordon's role was 'to correct and complete the maps which Timothy Pont had begun'. Professor David Stevenson has suggested that Gordon wanted to produce replacements for maps which Blaeu was content with. This was undoubtedly the case in Fife, but probably not for other parts of the country. However, Professor Stevenson was drawing on new sources of archival evidence, which led him to go on to suggest that Gordon developed wider ambitions than an editorial role for Blaeu. His suggestion is in keeping with the evidence of some sixty-five extant manuscript maps by Gordon in the National Library of Scotland. The majority of these maps seem to bear no relation, either to the maps published by Blaeu or to the gaps in his coverage. Judging from the sheer volume of his surviving work, Gordon devised his own cartographic agenda. He seems to have set about depicting Scotland quite independently of Blaeu, but what motivated him and what were his intentions are simply not known.

Gordon's map-making took place quite late in his life, when he would hardly have expected to emulate Pont by setting off to survey Scotland on the ground. In any event, he presumably felt little need to do so, as he had access to much of Pont's rougher work, if not to all of Pont's more polished manuscripts which Blaeu had already engraved.

There is little evidence of Gordon adding fresh detail in the course of his map compilation, except in his native northeast. However, he could draw on a lifetime of gathering information and collating second-hand sources about remote parts of Scotland, albeit in the chorographic tradition whose medium was textual rather than cartographic.

The importance of Gordon's extant manuscript maps is not so much that they contain further information about past landscapes, additional to Pont's observations and from a slightly later date. They are important as evidence of an episode in the history of Scottish cartography about which we know very little.

They are also important because they cover some parts of Scotland where there is no extant coverage in the original manuscripts of Pont. Gordon had sight of maps by Pont which have not survived. In these areas, such as Wester Ross, his maps are a repository for the work of Pont.