Ordnance Survey large scale Scottish town plans, 1847-1895

Introductory information

Between 1847 and 1895, the Ordnance Survey mapped some 61 Scottish towns at the most detailed scales in their entire history. The resulting maps are not only a comprehensive snapshot of urban Scotland, but also a rich information resource on the history and geography of all the larger populated places in Scotland. This introduction provides a brief background to the maps, their scales and details shown, as well as their colouring and sheet lines. Each individual town plan page is linked to a short essay (from the Background Information link) which provides an historical context.


The Ordnance Survey, officially founded in 1791, spent the early years of the nineteenth century engaged primarily in rural mapping of southern England at the 1 inch to the mile (1:63,360) scale, before being diverted to map Ireland from the 1820s at the 6 inch to the mile (1:10,560) scale. When survey work began in Scotland and northern England in the 1840s, there was a new and greater interest in detailed urban mapping. The increased concerns about public health and sanitary conditions in towns had lead to a growing opinion, encouraged by such bodies as the Poor Law Commission (established in 1834), that the prevention of disease was a primary duty of the State. The major cholera epidemic of 1832, along with continuing outbreaks of typhus, were strong in people's minds, along with the growing awareness that cartography had provided the vital links to discovering the causes of these diseases. During the 1840s, the Poor Law Commissioners recommended that the Ordnance Survey created detailed town plans in association with their mapping of counties, for encouraging local authorities to make sanitary improvements. These recommendations were soon acted upon, with over 11 English town surveys begun in 1846-7, and a further 28 completed between 1848-1852, when the Board of Health was formed.

Scottish town plans

As the Ordnance Survey began work in southwest Scotland in the 1840s, proceeding generally in a northerly direction, county-by-county, so large-scale Scottish town plans were also made. 59 towns were mapped between 1847 (Stranraer) and 1874 (Wick), during the initial county map surveys. Thereafter, revisions were made for fourteen towns shown here, along with two new towns that were included as part of the 1890s revision of county maps. The revisions allow useful chronological comparisons to be made. It should be noted that for a few towns surveyed at their own expense (eg. Aberdeen in 1899-1900, Dundee in1900-1), the maps were not supplied (by legal deposit) to the Advocates Library, and therefore we have not been able to include these on this site. We have also excluded a very few later reprints of individual sheets with railway information, unless these reprinted sheets cover the whole town (eg. Stranraer). Copies of these maps may be found in the relevant local public libraries.


Initially the scale chosen was 1:1,056, or five-feet to the mile, a scale ten times larger than the 6 inch to the mile mapping (1:10,560) which became the de facto standard for all rural areas. However, for the purposes of sanitary engineering, the five-foot scale was soon found to be too small, and a number of towns (including Berwick-upon-Tweed shown on this website) paid for surveys at the true ten-foot scale (1:528) at the instigation of the Board of Health. Finally in 1855, following pressure from Ordnance Survey and its new Superintendent, Henry James, the Treasury approved the nation-wide mapping of towns at the metric ten-foot scale (1:500). This was used consistently for all new town surveys from this time, with the usual definition of a town being an urban centre with a population of over 4,000 people. Some smaller towns, such as Stranraer and Kirkcudbright were also included before this date, and others, such as Oban, mapped at their own expense.

Detail shown

For virtually all these towns, there were no more detailed maps created before this time or afterwards. At the 1:500 scale, adopted from 1855, any feature over 6 inches wide could be shown, and consequently bollards, lamp-posts, pavements, trees, steps and garden paths are all shown 'true-to-scale'. Due to the importance of the maps for improving urban sanitation, many features relating to gas, water supply, sewerage and drainage are shown, including fire plugs, hydrants, water taps, manholes, ventilators, stop-cocks, spot-heights and benchmarks. The maps show the divisions between all buildings, including tenements, as well as the wynds and vennels that are a regular feature of Scottish towns, but rarely visible on smaller scale maps. Many industrial premises are clearly depicted, sometimes showing their internal functions and manufacturing processes, along with harbours, docks, market places, canals, railways and tramways. The growth of tourism with new facilities in seaside resorts and tourist accessories can also be found. The maps also show the ground floor layout of public buildings, such as cathedrals, churches, schools, poorhouses, prisons, and town halls. On every town plan page on this website there are buttons linking to pop-up windows with more information on Symbols, and a detailed list of Abbreviations and their meanings.


Over half the towns on this site have coloured sheets, most with carmine for stone or brick buildings, grey for wooden or metal building, sienna for roads, and blue for water. By the 1890s economies had reduced colouring to simply blue for water. Where NLS has a choice of sheets, we have scanned our coloured sheets, except where these were damaged/defaced or incomplete, and we have preferred stippled sheets with shaded buildings over outline editions. In terms of map sheets, about 38% of sheets on this site are coloured, 21% in the original four-colour style.

Sheet lines and numbering

All these plans were published on sheets that were typically sized ca. 27 x 40 inches (70 x 100 cm), with maps 24 x 36 inches (61 x 92 cm). For the initial towns surveyed at the five-foot scale, the sheet lines are independent of the smaller scale county maps, and the sheets are numbered consecutively within each town. For the towns that were planned and executed in tandem with county series mapping from 1855, the sheets are always subdivisions of the smaller scale county maps, so that 5 x 5 town plan sheets fill one 25" to the mile (1:2500) sheet. For each town survey, our website shows a graphic index of sheets and their layout, for selecting each sheet for viewing.

Further reading