Blaeu Atlas of Scotland, 1654

Sources of the Texts

by Ian C Cunningham, translator of the Latin texts

Immediately after the introductory material comes a poem, 'Topography of Scotland', by Andrew Melville (1545-1622), the scholar and reformer. Nominally addressed to Prince Henry, eldest son of James VI and I, it is substantially a versification of the work of George Buchanan (see below), and can be dated to 1603-04 (after the succession of James and while George Gledstanes was bishop of Caithness). The poem is not known from any other source, and the only mention of it appears to be in a letter of Blaeu to Sir John Scot thanking him for 'correcting' it. Whatever that implies, the text is full of misprints and wrong punctuations, which suggests that Blaeu's compositor was struggling with a manuscript in a Scots hand. Sir John's known interest in Scottish Latin poetry further suggests that he may have supplied the manuscript.

There follows a series of prose texts on the antiquity of the Scots, the Roman walls, languages, Thule, and the Ptolemaic map of Scotland, all by and attributed to Robert Gordon of Straloch. These are revisions, 1649, of texts composed some time before; the earlier versions survive in manuscript in the National Library of Scotland, Adv. MS. 34.2.8, and are printed from a later transcript in Macfarlane's Geographical Collections (Mitchell, 1907).

Next is the first of several extracts from book 1 of George Buchanan's Rerum Scoticarum Historia (1582), which deals with the geography of the British Isles and of Scotland in particular. After a long polemic on the origin of the name 'Britain', the regions of the Scottish mainland are surveyed in sequence. Later in the book are the sections on the Western, Orkney and Shetland Islands, remarkable for the detailed naming of islands large and small. Buchanan's continuous text has been divided into sections to correspond to the maps of the islands.

Two papers by Robert Strachan, a Benedictine from Montrose, on 'Scottish' monasteries in Germany (in which he does not distinguish between Scots and Irish), had been sent to Sir John Scot in 1641, and he passed them on to Blaeu.

The last introductory sections are anonymous papers on Scottish government and administration, very likely by Sir John Scot.

We now come to the descriptions of the regions, each linked to a map but very rarely actually related to it. The first part of most of these is formed by the short section on the region from the 1607 edition of William Camden's Britannia; most are headed 'From Camden', except for the first few, which are anonymous. As already noted, frequent corrections and additions in square brackets are due to Sir John Scot. In addition, many are followed by longer, more detailed descriptions. Two of these are the sole known results of the appeal to ministers to provide such descriptions: Galloway by John McClellan, and Lothian by William Forbes of Innerwick. One, of Sutherland, is said to be taken from a manuscript belonging to Sir Robert Gordon (tutor of Sutherland), and may have been provided by Robert Gordon of Straloch. The latter is himself attributed with three (Renfrew, Fife, Moray), further with Aberdeen and Banff which was added to the second edition of the Atlas; in addition internal cross-references and titles on the corresponding maps show that he is the author of those of Ross, Sutherland and Caithness. Again earlier versions of all these are in Adv. MS. 34.2.8.

The remainder are anonymous. The 'other' descriptions of Orkney and Shetland are probably those which Blaeu in his preface mentions as having been provided by a native of Orkney.

A small group consisting of Lothian, Lennox and Stirling are linked by cross-references and by a liking for Hebrew etymologies of place names. They closely resemble the description of Edinburgh by David Buchanan (NLS, Adv. MS. 31.6.19), which was probably written for the Atlas but for unknown reasons not included. That Buchanan, a friend of Straloch, sent Scot descriptions of some southern regions is known from a letter by him to Straloch of 1650: there can be little doubt that these were the three mentioned.

What still remains is also homogeneous, being typified by references to the state registers and by the inclusion of topographical poems by Arthur Johnston, and linked by cross-references. Sir John Scot was Director of Chancery and editor of Johnston's poems, and is vividly portrayed by Blaeu in his preface as sitting in Amsterdam writing and dictating new and additional material for the Atlas. The Merse, Ayrshire, Perthshire, Orkney and Shetland and the many additions must be by him.


Buchanan, G., Rerum Scoticarum Historia, [History of Scotland], (Edimburgi: apud Alexandrum Arbuthnetum typographum regium, anno M.D.LXXXII. [1582]).

Camden, W., Britannia, siue Florentissimorum regnorum Angliae, Scotiae, Hiberniae, et insularum adiacentium ex intima antiquitate chorographica descriptio: : nunc postrem recognita, plurimis locis magna accessione adaucta, & chartis chorographicis illustrata. [Britain, or A chorographicall description of the most flourishing kingdomes, England, Scotland, and Ireland, and the ilands adioyning, out of the depth of antiquitie: : beautified vvith mappes of the severall shires of England], (Londini : [printed by Eliot's Court Press] impensis Georgii Bishop & Ioannis Norton, M.DC.VII. [1607]).

Cunningham, I., ed., The Nation Survey'd: Timothy Pont's Maps of Scotland (East Linton: Tuckwell Press in association with the National Library of Scotland, 2001)

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