Blaeu Atlas of Scotland, 1654

The history behind the publication of the Blaeu Atlas of Scotland

by Christopher Fleet

The publication in 1654 of Volume V of Blaeu's Atlas novus was the result of over 70 years of cartographic, chorographic, and editorial activity, by a dispersed network of people in Scotland and the Low Countries. Through their combined efforts, dogged by war, poverty, copyright restrictions, and only intermittent official support, 'Scotland became one of the best mapped countries in the world' (Stone, 1989), and the Atlas remains to this day a uniquely significant landmark publication. Yet most of the maps themselves had been drafted over half a century earlier, a considerable number of the accompanying descriptive texts were even older still, and despite decades of editorial work, one of its leading contributors, Robert Gordon of Straloch was to complain in its prefatory pages that 'There were many things to be altered, added, deleted, which now await a new edition'. This brief account explains some of the reasons for this situation, describes the faltering progress on compiling the different constituents of the Atlas, and summarises the important roles played by many people in ensuring Timothy Pont's original survey work found its way into print at all.

'Defeated by the avarice of printers and booksellers', 1590-1628

This famous quote from Robert Gordon's letter to Sir John Scot, explaining Timothy Pont's failure to publish his corpus of maps, is backed up by evidence from early Scottish printing history. It is noteworthy that Timothy's elder brother Zachary was appointed 'chief printer within this realm' in October 1590, a position that would surely have facilitated publishing for Timothy. No surviving books are attributed to Zachary, and in that his appointment was preceeded by that of Robert Waldegrave by two weeks, who remained as King's Printer until 1603, we can only assume Zachary's appointment had little practical value (Mann, 2000). In 1606 the Edinburgh printer Thomas Finlayson acquired a 25-year licence under the Privy Seal, amongst other things to print and import all maps and charts (Aldis, 1896). There were also less official agreements. For example, in January 1607 Andro Hart, Scotland's wealthiest publisher and bookseller in the early 17th century, entered into a contract with two other printers, Richard Lawson and James Cathkine, 'not to print na manner of buiks mappes cairtis nor na utheris werkes...without the speciall mutuall and common advys and consent of us all thrie togidder' (NAS, RD1/313, 267r). It is significant that Hart was responsible for sponsoring the only Pont map engraved during Pont's lifetime, his map of Lothian and Linlithgow sometime before 1611, through Hart's contacts with the Hondius engraver/publishers in Amsterdam. Hart was one of the few printers in Scotland with the resources to attempt publication of an atlas of Pont's maps, yet he did not do so, and it may well be that the copyright granted to Finlayson eclipsed his own private contract, and acted as a deterrent for map printing at this time (Mann, 2001). The expiry of Finlayson's copyright in 1628 coincides with the first reference to Pont's manuscript maps after his death, and a new phase of interest in their publication. A letter from Charles I to Sir William Alexander (Secretary of State) in February 1629, shows that Sir James Balfour of Denmilne had acquired the maps from Pont's heirs in or shortly before 1628 (Roger, 1885, quoted in RSGS, 1973). This same letter also notes James VI's unrealised intention to have money given to Pont, and orders the payment of £100 to Balfour for his 'great panis and charges' in order to get the maps published.

Balfour, Scot, Gordon and Blaeu, 1628-1641

Sir James Balfour may have briefly entertained thoughts of publishing Pont's maps, and his manuscript 'Topographical Descriptions relating to Scotland' , including his transcription of Pont's description of Cunningham (NLS Adv.MS.33.2.27), show that he compiled chorographic texts suitable for such a purpose. Yet by June 1631 we know that he had passed at least some of them on, through Sir John Scot of Scotstarvit, to the Blaeu publishers in Amsterdam, who responded with glowing thanks. 'Your letter, with that of Master Balfour attached, and the map of the Merce, which I have received, place it beyond my power to express how much you will have put posterity in your debt here and elsewhere, when, as I intend, I shall have put the work into more finished form with your help' (Blaeu to Scot, 17 June 1631).

Sir John Scot (1585-1670) was undoubtedly a key figure in the publication of the Blaeu Atlas of Scotland, holding important political offices of Director of Chancery, Lord of Session and Privy Councillor, and through these having the right contacts and influence in Scotland and the Low Countries. From the mid-1620s, Scot had been in correspondence with Willem Blaeu about the publication of a volume of Latin poetry, and the discovery in 1967 of 15 further letters (NLS Adv.MS.17.1.9) from Willem and his son Johann (or Joan) Blaeu to Scot, between 1626-1633 and 1641-1657, provide vital information on the intermittent progress with the Blaeu Atlas (Moir & Skelton, 1968). From these we know that through some means the Blaeus had obtained a Pont map of Orkney and Shetland as early as 1626, and an engraved proof of this with Scots arms was sent to Scot in 1628. We also know through a later letter of 10 March 1642 that by this time Blaeu had engraved as many as 40 of the 49 maps within the Atlas, and he provided a detailed list of remaining areas for which maps were lacking.

From the evidence of his surviving manuscript maps, and his letter in the Blaeu Atlas, it is clear that Robert Gordon of Straloch had been enlisted to help in the project from the early 1630s, and certainly before 1636. It seems likely that at least some of Pont's manuscript maps were returned to Scotland between 1633-1636 (Stone, 2001), and together with Pont's written descriptions, these formed primary source material for over 61 surviving maps of Scotland that Gordon compiled between 1636 and 1641. Another letter from Charles I in October 1641 shows that the King had been shown proofs of the engraved maps, and he again encouraged progress on the project, exempting Robert Gordon from his official duties (Spalding Club, 1841, quoted in RSGS, 1973). Robert Gordon's skills were probably more chorographic than cartographic (Stone, 1981), and he compiled several of the historical descriptions of Scotland as well as regional descriptions for northern territories within the Atlas. As Blaeu's requests for material became more urgent in the 1640s, he failed to provide the detailed maps of territories requested by Blaeu, sending instead the less detailed regional maps of Extima Scotiae and Braid-Allaban ... Indeed, it has been suggested that his work in drafting maps that Blaeu had not requested, as well as engaging his son James to undertake fresh surveys of areas such as Fife and Stirlingshire that were already mapped, indicate a confusion over what Blaeu needed, and perhaps another purpose altogether (Stone, 1998).

The Church and James Gordon's surveys, 1641-1649

In August 1641, Sir John Scot made a petition to the General Assembly for a 'description of our Shyredomes, by some in everie Presbytrie' (Baillie, 1841-2), and by January 1642 the Church had instructed its commissioners to prepare information on its parishes according to a written list of instructions. In that these topographical descriptions could include both maps and written text, Scot was trying to encourage work through the Church that could contribute to the maps as well as the chorography within the Atlas. Some progress was initially made in Fife (perhaps promoted by Scot), by the presbytery of Kirkcaldy, and in St Andrews, with further sporadic work in Carrick, Galloway, part of Lanark and East Lothian, but thereafter support for the project waned (Stevenson, 1982; Withers, 2001). Although the General Assembly urged compliance a further four times between 1643 and 1649, the Montrose campaigns of 1644-1645, the Engagement Crisis of 1648, and execution of the King in 1649 unfortunately focused clerical attentions elsewhere.

Of greater value for Scottish cartography was the General Assembly's decision in August 1642 to release Robert Gordon's son James, Parson of Rothiemay from his ministerial duties to complete a new map of Fife, published in the Atlas as Fifae Vicecomitatus. A letter from Scot to Robert Gordon dated 2 September 1645 praises James for keeping of copy of this map, as the original had been stolen in transit to Amsterdam by a Dunkirk ship (Spalding Club, 1641)! By October 1646 James had proceeded to Aberdeen to prepare a very detailed description and map of the town, as well as assist in his father's description of the county. He then proceeded swiftly on to Edinburgh, where in April 1647 the Town Council paid him 500 merks (£350 scots) for drawing his spectacular map of Edinburgh, a bird's-eye view from the south that has remained famous to this day. Although both these plans were completed by 1649, they were not engraved by Blaeu until much later (1655-1656 for Edinburgh, and 1661 for Aberdeen), and never appeared in the Atlas. Similarly, the Glasgow burgh council minutes in June 1641 record the payment of James Coquhoune 'fvye dollars for drawing a portrait of the town to be sent to Holland' (Marwick, 1914, cited in Mann, 2001), but no published view or plan of Glasgow by him survives.

There is further record of activity on the Atlas without results. In September 1647 the General Assembly instructed James to survey the county of Stirling, although no map or description survives, and the engraved Sterlinensis Praefectura in the Atlas remains very much the work of Pont. The following year he was requested to compile a map of Angus by the nobility of the shire through the Earl of Southesk, but no work survives as proof that such a survey took place, and doubts remain over whether James Gordon or the Earl of Southesk had misplaced Pont's map of the county (Stevenson, 1982). Whatever the truth, Pont's map still survives, but no map of Angus appeared in the Blaeu Atlas, and Robert Edward's less detailed map of the county, published in 1678, also fails to make use of Pont's work (Martin, 1980).

The drive towards publication, 1645-1654

In September 1645 Sir John Scot escaped the Civil War in Scotland by visiting the Low Countries, and assisted Blaeu directly with the Atlas. By 1645 Blaeu had published Volume IV of his Atlas novus covering England and Wales, and had moved on to the Town Atlas of the Netherlands, yet had only eight of the Scottish descriptions completed by this time (Skelton, 1970). Fortunately for Blaeu, Scot 'passed whole days in my establishment writing, dictating what made for illustrating the maps of his country, with such felicity of memory that, though lacking all papers and books, he dictated regional shapes, situations, boundaries, old and more recent lords, produce of the soil, cities, rivers, and similar matters in great profusion' (Joan Blaeu's longer letter). Robert Gordon was given further Parliamentary exemptions from official duties in 1646 and 1649, again demonstrating official encouragement in the Atlas project, yet Blaeu had reason to continually seek more than Gordon was able to deliver. Doubts remain over quite what proofs Gordon saw of the Atlas prior to its publication, and in his prefatory letter he mentioned his wish 'that I had been allowed to unroll and pore over all Pont's autographs before they experienced the engraver's hand'. A further revealing remark in the 'Topographical Notices of Scotland' (Adv.MS.34.2.8) accompanying Gordon's description of Aberdeen (so presumably drafted in the late 1640s or early 1650s) notes 'The printer has as yet sent me nothing of what, induced by persistent requests, I had caused to be given to him in a half-finished state' (Mitchell, 1908, vol.II, p. 289).

Other contributions to the Atlas came from varied sources, and there is evidence of Robert Baillie, the Glasgow academic, despatching arms for dedications on the maps, via his cousin William Spang, minister of Veere and later Middleburg, who acted as 'desk-editor' for the project (Baillie, 1841; Mann, 2001). Samuel Wallace, deputy conservator and factor at Veere, Scotland's staple port in the Netherlands, was primarily responsible for transmitting material for inclusion to Blaeu, and in 1647 he reported to Gordon that Blaeu would take no further work in hand until the maps of Scotland were finished. In March 1647 Blaeu applied to the Scottish Parliament for copyright protection for his Atlas from the English Parliament (which had already been granted in Scotland) indicating that he was close to publication. By March 1649, Blaeu informed Scot that he was already beginning to print Scotland and intended to finish it that year, if only the descriptions were supplied. Amongst the final material to be compiled were Robert Gordon's notes on the map of Old Scotland, drafted in December 1649, and the accompanying Scotia Antiqua, map which was engraved by Blaeu in 1653. (The arrangement of groups of maps within the Atlas provide useful inferences on their order of engraving and authorship (Stone, 1980))

Unfortunately, other events conspired against Blaeu, and for a period of five years from 1649 progress on the Atlas was largely halted. The execution of the King in January 1649 and the new Cromwellian administration deprived Sir John Scot of his official posts by 1652, and a war between Britain and Holland (1652-1654) caused further delays. However, even before peace was declared in April 1654, Blaeu was in contact with Commonwealth forces in Scotland, and a 14 year licence was granted by Cromwell for publication of the Atlas on 14 June 1654. Blaeu also received licences from the States-General in the Netherlands (10 June 1654), and the Holy Roman empire (11 August 1654), all of which were printed in the first edition, securing comprehensive copyright. With some justification Gordon could write in his prefatory letter 'Now at last, after many labours endured, the loss of much time and troubles such as the mind shudders to recall, our Scotland is put on view ...'

The states of the Atlas

The Atlas of Scotland therefore appeared as Volume V of Blaeu's Atlas novus, including 49 maps of Scotland and six maps of Ireland. As the Atlas was not bound until ordered, a wide number of different states are known to exist, only some of which can be dated. All editions of the Atlas contain the main body of maps and texts, one of the versions of Blaeu's address to the Reader; the States-General's privilege; Andrew Melville's poem on Scottish topography, and Robert Gordon's 'Notes on the antiquity of the Scots'. However, one or more of the other prefatory items may be omitted. Our website aims to include all main elements known to exist from different versions of the Atlas. Although the National Library of Scotland's copy of the Atlas shown here (Koeman's Atlantes Neerlandici 2:401,Qe) includes Blaeu's longer letter to the reader, the dedication from Blaeu to Scot and the Cromwellian and Imperial privileges, we have also included a translation of Blaeu's shorter letter to the reader from a copy at the National Museums of Scotland, which lacks these latter elements. The catalogue of kings of Scotland exists in two versions, one ending with Charles II (to satisfy supporters of the Royal Family in exile in Breda), the other ending with James VI (for supporters of the Protectorate). Scot's Royalist sympathies may also explain why some copies do not have Blaeu's dedication to him, nor Robert Gordon's 1648 letter to him; the two-line epigraph from Blaeu to Scot was not included in the Atlas until 1656 or later. (Van der Krogt, 2000)

Editions of the Atlas with Dutch, French and German texts swiftly followed the Latin edition during 1654. In March 1656 Scot sent Robert Gordon's detailed description of Aberdeen and Banff to Blaeu, which appeared in copies of the Spanish edition from 1659, but did not appear in Latin until 1662. The text was reset for this second Latin edition of 1662, by this time appearing as Volume VI of Blaeu's Atlas Maior, but the only other plate changes were the addition of compass roses and ships on 28 map plates where they were originally lacking. There were later editions in French (1663), Dutch (1664) and Spanish (post-1664).


Aldis, H. C., 'Thomas Finlayson and his Press', Edinburgh Bibliographical Society Papers, vol. XX (1896), 1-14.

Baillie, R., Letters and Journals (Edinburgh, 1841-2)

Mann, A. J. The Scottish book trade, 1500-1720 : print commerce and print control in early modern Scotland (East Linton, 2000)

Mann, A. J., 'The Atlas of the 'Flemish Priest': government, law and the publishing of the first atlas of Scotland', Publishing History 50 (2001), 5-29

Martin, A. I., 'A Study of Edward's map of Angus', Scottish Geographical Magazine, 96 (1980), 39-45

Marwick, J. D. Extracts from the Records of the Burgh of Glasgow, 1573-1642 (Glasgow, 1941)

Mitchell, A., Geographical Collections relating to Scotland made by Walter Macfarlane II (Edinburgh, 1907)

Moir, D. G. and R. A. Skelton, 'New Light on the First Atlas of Scotland', Scottish Geographical Magazine, 84 (1968), 149-159

Rogers, C. (ed.), The Earl of Stirling's Register of Royal Letters (Edinburgh, 1885)

Royal Scottish Geographical Society, The Early Maps of Scotland to 1850, 3rd ed. (Edinburgh, 1973)

Skelton, R. A., County Atlases of the British Isles 1579-1850 (London, 1970)

Spalding Club, 'The Straloch Papers', Miscellany I (1841), 1-58

Stevenson, D., 'Cartography and the Kirk: aspects of the making of the first atlas of Scotland', Scottish Studies, 26 (1982), 1-12

Stone, J. C., The Pont manuscript maps of Scotland: sixteenth century origins of a Blaeu atlas (Tring, 1989)

Stone, J. C., 'The Blaeu atlas of Scotland', The Map Collector, 10 (1980), 25-29

Stone, J. C., 'Robert Gordon of Straloch: cartographer or chorographer', Northern Scotland, 4 (1981), 7-22

Stone, J. C., 'Robert Gordon and the making of the first atlas of Scotland', Northern Scotland, 18 (1998), 15-29

Stone, J. C., 'Timothy Pont: three centuries of research, speculation and plagiarism' in The Nation Survey'd: essays on late sixteenth-century Scotland as depicted by Timothy Pont, edited by Ian C. Cunningham (East Linton, 2001), 1-26

Van der Krogt, P., Koeman's Atlantes Neerlandici, vol. II, New ed. ('t Goy-Houten, 2000)

Withers, C. W. J., Geography, science and national identity: Scotland since 1520 (Cambridge, 2001)