Blaeu Atlas of Scotland, 1654

A Vision of Scotland: Joan Blaeu and the Atlas novus

by Charles W J Withers, Professor of Historical Geography, University of Edinburgh

'Continue now, look at Scotland, and enjoy a feast for the eyes'. So writes Joan Blaeu in his 'Greetings to the Reader', part of the preliminary material to his 1654 Atlas novus. He is right to so enjoin us. To modern readers, the maps present a window on Scotland's past: here is a country before large-scale urbanisation and industrialisation, a small and old country of ferm touns and nobles' seats. To Blaeu's contemporaries, the vision of Scotland presented in his Atlas would have been even more striking. Here was their present geography laid out as never before. With such an Atlas, travel and seeing for one's self was no longer always necessary, for here, in maps - now so commonplace but then relatively unfamiliar objects of status and of wonder - lay a visual prospect of the nation.

Yet feasting the eyes, then and now, depends upon making sense of what one sees. That is why the maps in Blaeu's Atlas novus are accompanied by textual descriptions of Scotland and its regions. Strictly, the descriptive passages that here accompany the mapped images are chorographical rather than geographical. Chorography, the practice of regional description, was widely employed in this period. In chorography, map and text were integrated parts of a whole. The maps in Blaeu's Atlas novus are principally the work of Timothy Pont with additional material provided by Robert Gordon of Straloch and others, all saved for posterity and put into the hands of Blaeu by Sir John Scot of Scotstarvit. The history and content of these maps, particularly Pont's contribution, has been the subject of considerable study (Cunningham 2001; Stone 1989, 1991; and see the Pont Maps of Scotland). This introduction focuses on the textual descriptions relating to Scotland in the Scotland and Ireland volume (Volume V) of the 1654 Atlas novus and on additional descriptive material in the Atlas's 1662 edition, namely Robert Gordon's description of Aberdeen and Banff. Who wrote these chorographical texts? How did they go about it? Why? What purpose did such textual descriptions serve? Indeed, what, more exactly, was chorography?

Chorography and Early Modern Geographical Description

Geography in the age of Pont and Blaeu was not as we would now understand the term. Early modern geographical knowledge drew upon natural history, astrology, even natural magic and was apparent in various forms: descriptive geography, mathematical geography - of importance to navigators and in mapmaking - and, notably, chorography. Chorography as understood and practised in the late 16th and 17th centuries drew upon the work of the classical authority Claudius Ptolemaeus (known as Ptolemy). In Book I of his eight-book Geographia, Ptolemy distinguished between geography and chorography: 'The purpose of Geography is to represent the unity and continuity of the known world in its true nature and location ... The aim of Chorography is to represent only a part'. Crucially, chorography was a qualitative art: 'Chorography therefore concentrates more on the quality of places than on their quantity or scale, aware that it should use all means to sketch the true form or likeness of places and not so much their correspondence, measure or disposition amongst themselves or with the heavens or with the whole of the world' (cited in Withers 2001a, 140-1).

The intellectual worlds of the late 16th and 17th centuries recognised and used this crucial distinction between geography, the accurate representation of the whole known world, and chorography, the pictorial and written 'impression' of local areas and places, without regard to what we moderns would take to be quantitative accuracy. Chorography appealed to late Renaissance intellectual ideas of order. But it did more than that. For three reasons, 'The chorographic/geographic distinction was perhaps the most important classifying scheme for maps in 16th-century Europe' (Mundy 1996, 5). It was a means to classify existing maps. It created a standard dual model of how space should in future be mapped. It corresponded to models of the political state: 'indeed, its contours followed the fault lines between regionalism and nationalism' (Mundy 1996, 5-6). The distinction was widely employed throughout the late 16th and 17th centuries in Europe, Japan, Russia and the Portuguese and Spanish colonies of the New World (Withers 2001a). In England in this period - and, after 1603, in the newly created geographical entity that was 'Great Britain' - chorography was 'the most wide-ranging of the geographical arts, in that it provided the specific detail to make concrete the other general branches of geography' (Cormack 1997, 163).

Chorography's textual features took several forms. Description of places and regions very commonly incorporated topographical poetry: 'self-fashioning' through versifying was a commonplace in Elizabethan accounts of land and nation (Greenblatt 1980; Helgerson 1986, 1992; Klein 2001). Chorography emphasised the local and did so historically and geographically: with reference, for example, to the genealogies of families of note, and to the remarkable features in a place. This attention to place had political significance in that matters of a local nature - notable families, distinctive natural features, historical antiquities and such like - were made to appear part of that place, fixed over time as well as in space. Because of this, chorography - with geography one of what the late Renaissance and early modern worlds understood as the 'eyes of history' - was closely associated with chronology (the other 'eye'), with antiquarianism and with emerging ideas of public utility and of national identity (Cormack 1991a, 1997; Mayhew 2001).

In sum, chorography was a particular form of geographical knowledge, rooted in certain intellectual traditions and apparent in words and maps, that was concerned to capture the 'impression' of a region or place. It was, textually, an essentially conservative form of regional description in as much as it assumed the continued authority of the monarchy and nobility. That fact in turn is why chorographical writing often lauds leading families and prominent individuals of note: patronage, patriotism and the political well-being of the realm revealed through its regional portrayal were closely associated elements in Blaeu's world.

The Atlas novus: Its Background and Authors

Joan Blaeu's Atlas novus did not spring fully borne from the head of that single Dutchman. It is a work of compilation as, to varying extents, are the works it relies upon. Joan Blaeu was a leading Amsterdam mapmaker. His prowess was recognised in the civil offices he held: from 1638, mapmaker to the Dutch East India Company and, between 1651 and 1672, a member of Amsterdam City Council. The maps of Scotland that form part of the Atlas novus are part of a scheme for a multi-volume world atlas, a scheme hatched by Joan's father, Willem Janszoon Blaeu.

Recognising the long-run intellectual tradition and particular publishing project in which it stood is helpful to making sense of Blaeu's Atlas novus. But it is not sufficient for a full understanding. Timothy Pont's chorographic endeavours at the end of the 16th and beginning of the 17th centuries are crucial. The maps and verses he left provide for Scotland - and for Europe - a hugely-important map of the realm and a key moment in early modern mapping (Cunningham, 2001; Stone 1989, 1991; see especially the Pont maps website). Three further related elements explain how the work came about and why it took the form it did. The first is the impetus afforded by the Antwerp-born mapmaker, Abraham Ortelius. The second, and the most important, is the influence of that pioneering work of British chorography, William Camden's Britannia, first published in 1586. Finally, Blaeu drew upon geographical descriptions from a variety of Scots, none a geographer in any formal sense, but each of whom provided chorographical accounts of parts of the nation.

In 1570, Abraham Ortelius published as a single folio volume his Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, a comprehensive collection of maps of the world's countries. With its publication the idea of the modern atlas as a bound collection of maps of uniform size was born. Ortelius's means of working was as a compiler of others' works: a pioneering feature of his Theatrum was his Catalogus Cartographorum, in which the authorities for his work - 87 in all - are listed. The Theatrum was immediately successful. From 1625, Willem Blaeu acquired the copyright for the work. In 1631, the elder Blaeu produced an appendix to the work, and, in 1634, published the first volume of his own intended world atlas entitled Theatrum orbis terrarum sive Atlas novus. This 'new Atlas' was the endeavour to which Joan was contributing in his 1654 work.

Like his contemporaries, Ortelius was interested in regional description, in historical origins and in subjecting ancients' geographical accounts to scholarly scrutiny. These interests were reflected in other works, such as his Synonymia Geographica, published in 1578 (later revised and published as Thesaurus Geographicus in 1587 and 1596), and, importantly, his Parergon (1584). Such works, like others of the period, were part of a 'new beginning' in late Renaissance geography, evident in the emergence of specific geographical genres and methods (Mayhew 2001). Parergon is a collection of maps illustrating ancient history, chiefly mainland Europe's Roman legacy. It does not include Britain. Yet in 1577, Ortelius had met the man who would in his own work provide an historical and geographical account of Britain - or, to use its correct title as a Roman province, Britannia. That man was William Camden.

William Camden was a 35-year-old Oxford-educated schoolmaster when he published Britannia in 1586, a historical and geographical description of the British Isles. He did so at Ortelius's prompting, in order to provide coverage of Britain hitherto lacking. The work was hugely successful. Later and revised editions appeared throughout Camden's lifetime and long after: the descriptive passages relating to Scotland do not appear until the much-expanded 1607 Latin edition. Like Blaeu's Atlas novus in which he is much cited, Camden's Britannia draws upon others' works. In Britain, he knew of John Leland's chorographical work from the 1530s, and William Lambarde's A Perambulation of Kent (1576), the first English county history. Amongst European authors, he was influenced by the Italian chorographer, Flavio Biondo, whose Italia Illustrata was published in 1474. Camden undertook his own 'perambulations' throughout England (but never travelled to mainland Europe). In Oxford especially, and in London, he was part of the overlapping social and intellectual circles of influential men then engaging with the power of geography: John Dee, the alchemist and the first to speak of the 'British Empire' (Dee introduced Ortelius and Camden); John Stow the topographer and author, in 1599, of the Survey of London; Richard Hakluyt the Younger; Richard Carew of Antony in Cornwall, author in 1602 of the Survey of Cornwall; and Sir Philip Sidney, the Elizabethan adventurer. One contact, Daniel Rogers, the Latin poet and diplomatist, was even related to Ortelius (Collinson 1998; Levy 1964).

This context explains much of why Britannia appeared when it did, but not why it was so successful and influential. Britannia's importance and success rests in its method. Camden departed from the uncritical acceptance of classical authorities and subjected their claims to examination. This required the analysis of written documents and other artefacts: coins, built remains and such like. It meant tracing the origins of things: of place names, settlements, historical features, customary beliefs, even of nations (Parry 1995). It demanded, where it was possible to do so, seeing things for one's self. Camden did not agree with his portrayal as a 'historian'. He certainly would not have understood one modern ascription of him as 'one of the first archival positivists' (Collinson 1998, 141). He would have recognised his description as an 'antiquarian' and chorographer - for that is what he was. As has been noted, 'The relating of history to landscape was a permanent achievement of Britannia ... The Land was rich in history, and Camden was for the first time making this richness geographically explicit and available, 'for the honour of his native country', as he announces in his Preface' (Parry 1995, 38).

Britannia is a major monument of British and European history and Camden a key figure amongst the 'authors' cited in the Atlas novus. But his contribution to the Atlas is important because it is, in several respects, added to and even corrected by Scottish commentators describing their country's regional and national geography. Most significant in this respect is the Scottish humanist and historian, George Buchanan, and his 1582 Rerum Scoticarum Historia [History of Scotland]. Buchanan begins his History with a detailed geographical description of Scotland. For one modern historian, 'Buchanan's description of Scotland is, in fact, a remarkable tour de force ... 'a brilliant comprehensive description of the geography of Scotland' (Ferguson 1998, 87). Why did Buchanan have such a 'geography' in a work of history? Because, like others at the time, Buchanan knew that geography, as one of the 'eyes of history' and in the form of chorography, was an essential part of historical understanding of one's nation (Withers 2001b, 41-47). So, too, for Robert Gordon of Straloch, the map maker and chorographer who contributed maps and text to the Atlas (Stone 1981, 1998), his namesake, Sir Robert Gordon, who contributes a description of Sutherland dated at about 1630, and his own son, James Gordon, whose work on Aberdeenshire is included here.

At much the same time, Scottish men of letters and political influence were drawing together geographical writings. Important in this respect are manuscript 'Topographical Descriptions relating to Scotland', compiled by Sir James Balfour of Denmilne, Lord Lyon King of Arms, between c.1632 and c.1654, and a draft 'Geographical Dictionary', chiefly listing the etymology of place names, which Balfour undertook with John Lawder, Lord Fountainhall (Withers 2001b, 49-50). In August 1641, Sir John Scot of Scotstarvit, Director of the Chancery - and the key link between the Blaeu mapmaking firm and Pont's maps - announced his intentions to 'have a description of our Shyredomes'. In 1642, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland instructed its presbyteries 'to sett doun the descriptiouns of there severall paroches according to the alphabet [set of instructions] then given to the several commissioners to deliver to there presbyteries and to report the same to the chancellorie'. Scot was using the Church of Scotland to co-ordinate map and textual descriptions for inclusion in Blaeu's Atlas. The Church did what it could: the Atlas project was discussed six times at its General Assembly between 1641-1649. But these were troubled times - of Civil War, and religious turmoil - and Scot's project was never completed (Stevenson 1982; Withers 2001b, 50-1). Even so, the geographical work of a handful of ministers found its way into the Atlas: John MacLellan, a Newtonards schoolmaster and Kirkcudbright minister, wrote a geographical description of Galloway. William Forbes of Innerwick wrote on the Lothians. William Spang, who although cited in the Atlas as 'Spangius' has no text attributed to him, was classics master at Edinburgh's High School before serving as a minister at Middelburg in Walcheren in Holland from 1630 to 1652 (Scott 1915-1961, 1: 410; 2: 417; 7: 541). William Spang acted as 'desk editor' for the project, incorporating material from varied sources, including his cousin, the Glasgow academic, Robert Baillie (Mann, 2001).

Given this background and its multiple 'authorship', Blaeu's Atlas novus should be understood not as the product of one man's interest in just one country - Scotland - but as part of interrelated European scholarly and political worlds. For monarchs, ministers, mapmakers, merchants and mathematicians alike, geography and cartography were necessary routes to state knowledge, commercial expansion and historical understanding.

'Our Scotland is Put on View': National and Regional Description in the Atlas novus

Given what we now know about their provenance and purpose, it is easier to understand what is written in these textual descriptions in the Atlas, how they are written, and why. They are in several places actually referred to as 'chorographic' descriptions. They contain, in one way or another, the essential features of the form: an interest in genealogy; the etymology of place names; summaries of the local economy; remarks upon natural features; qualitative judgements upon the airs and waters of places; poetic accounts and so on.

In his introductory materials, Blaeu recognises the key roles played by Robert Gordon - who is described as being so taken up with his chorographical and map work that 'The man seemed to me to be in himself Scotland' - and of Sir John Scot of Scotstarvit, the 'contractor and tutor' of Pont and Gordon's maps, through whose role as intermediary 'our Scotland is put on view'. Pont's work is in the backgound, as it were, in much of Robert Gordon's texts. Occasionally Pont is directly cited, as in the 1662 notes on Aberdeenshire where Pont is attributed as the authority for remarks on the purity of the water in Strath Avon. The emphasis afforded to antiquity by Robert Gordon in his 'Notes on the Antiquity of the Scots' and in 'A Very Brief Description of the Kingdom of Scotland' (taken from Buchanan's History) is stylistically consistent with many other works of chorography. The positioning of this in the Atlas makes a political point. Here, in Gordon's terms at least, Scotland's historical identity is being asserted and realised in word and image, an identity historically and geographically different from that of England's and not synonymous either, therefore, with that of Britannia as Great Britain. As Gordon puts it, 'our case must be presented or our recognisance forfeited'.

Camden's remarks upon places and regions are included. For some regions, the description, from Camden or others, is of little value: there is nothing much for Liddesdale, Ewesdale, Annandale, Knapdale and for Lauderdale, for example, and some of the Inner Hebridean islands - Jura, Islay, Rum, Mull - are likewise poorly covered. In the case of Lauderdale, we are told why: the area's description was promised by Lord John, Earl of Lauderdale, but he was captured at the Battle of Worcester [in the Civil War]: 'Enjoy these, Reader, until he has been restored, or some other has provided better'. For Knapdale, too: 'More doubtless could be said about this province, which the harshness of the time prevents'. Here is evidence that political affairs locally undermined attempts at national geographical description.

Other regions and districts have full descriptions and, in their way, provide almost 'models' of the type: Lothian, The Merse, Tweeddale, Galloway, Lennox, Sutherland, Caithness, Orkney and Shetland to name several. For some regions, the Atlas is important in collating descriptions from different authors at different dates. The result is a 'thick description' in which we learn something not just of what Scotland's geography looked like in mid-17th century, but how historians worked in building on one another's works. Occasionally, a word or phrase captures the imagination. For John MacLellan, 'The whole of Galloway has the shape of an elephant: the head is the Rhinns, the trunk the Mull, the feet the promontories stretching into the sea, the shoulders the mountains mentioned above, the spine of the back the rocks and moors, the rest of the body the rest of the region' (page 49). And of the Orkney island of Walls, we are told that 'Its south coast is gnawed at as if by a rabid dog by the Pictish strait [Pentland Firth]; its waves like so many teeth are strongly resisted by the very high and hard cliffs which stretch out before this island, and blunt the bite' (page 138).

The 'New Description of Shetland' (including 'Another Description of the Same Islands') is a fine chorography. The name itself is discussed, the author noting that Buchanan spelt it differently. The natural products are commented upon, so, too, the sorts of fish, the strength of local ales, the manner of the inhabitants. The first of the two descriptions ends with some remarks about notable families, the second in a short discussion of Ptolemaic accounts. This last point is illustrative of the intent not just to subject Scotland's present geography to critical view, but also to review earlier claims in the light of later knowledge. Thus, of 'Ross' [Ross-shire], part of 'The Farthest Shore of Scotland', the author notes the names given in 'the ancient geography' (page 97).

A feature of the descriptions taken from Camden is the poetic depiction of places. Most of this is from the work of the two Aberdeenshire poets, John Johnston, who was born around 1570 and died in 1611, and his namesake, Arthur Johnston (1587-1641). Epigrams on towns - their intrinsic beauty, their historical significance, notable natives and so on - were common in chorography. We are given here verse descriptions of Aberdeen, Ayr, Cupar, Dumfries, Dundee, Forfar, Glasgow, Perth, St Andrews and Stirling. The place of the Johnstons' work in the Atlas again illustrates the social and intellectual networks that lie behind Blaeu's achievement. One of Arthur Johnston's works was edited by William Spang and published at Middelburg, in 1642, and paid for by Sir John Scot of Scotstarvit. John Johnston was Regius Professor of Divinity at St Andrews from 1593 to 1611 and, like his namesake, was an associate of Andrew Melville, the leading Presbyterian theologian. Like the Johnstons, Melville found time to contribute to the poetic depiction of Scotland. His Scotia Topographia which was written sometime between 1603 and 1612 is, essentially, a versification of Buchanan's chorographical description of Scotland, with some additional features, notably lines in praise of Glasgow. It is addressed to Prince Henry who had numerous geographers in his court circles (Cormack 1991b).

The fact that so much of the descriptive language in Blaeu's Atlas novus is qualitative in nature - offering a view or an impression - means that questions like 'Is it true?' are, in a strict sense, irrelevant. There is no reason to suppose that Pabbay was any more infested with robbers or the islands in Loch Lomond more infested with snakes than other parts of Scotland. These descriptions are what the regions and places looked like and were perceived to be. It is not appropriate to judge the geographies we are given here by the later languages of scientific exactitude. It is important, however, that we see the chorography in Blaeu's Atlas novus not as an antiquated account of a Scotland long ago, but in its own terms: as up-to-date and lively vision of the nation. It depicts a nation by describing its places. Certain places - Amsterdam, Oxford, London, St Andrews - are more important to its publishing history than others. And certain people are likewise: an English antiquarian, a Scottish historian, a Scots politician, a handful of Scottish chorographers and churchmen and, not least, a Dutch mapmaker. Blaeu's Atlas novus stands not just as a monument to Scotland's vision of itself but to how geographical enquiry was undertaken and produced in 17th-century Europe.

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