Coasts of Scotland on marine charts, 1580-1850


Whilst marine charts of this period obviously focus on nautical information for mariners, they also play an important part in establishing the coastline and shape of Scotland, as well as providing often unique information on coastal settlements and ports.

What is undoubtedly the major 16th-century chart of Scotland was created by the Frenchman Nicolas de Nicolay. It was based on the notes of Alexander Lyndsay, who prepared a pilot guide or rutter for King James V's voyage around the north of Scotland in 1540 to quell the Lords of the Isles. The map was substantially more accurate than most charts of the 17th and 18th centuries, particularly for the Western Isles.

The first printed sea-atlas was produced by the Dutchman Lucas Waghenaer in 1584. His name, once anglicised to 'waggoner', came to refer to any volume of sea-charts. Due to the Dutch dominance in map- and chart-making, and the lack of fresh surveys and new information, these maps by Waghenaer were to form the basis of charts of Scotland for much of the 17th century, including those by Blaeu from the 1630s and even the van Keulen charts from the 1680s. The nautical problems caused by such poor charts were an important factor behind King Charles II's encouragement of Greenvile Collins to make a proper survey of the British coasts in the 1680s. This resulted in eight detailed charts of Scottish coasts published in his Great Britain's Coasting Pilot of 1693. The Scottish surveyor John Adair was also active in marine surveying, and several of his charts were published during the early 18th century. Partly in response to the growing needs of trade and fisheries, there were also a number of specific surveys made of particular coasts, such as the area around Peterhead (Jaffray, 1739), the Solway Firth (Winter, 1742) and Shetland (Preston, 1744).

In the later 18th century, Dutch and French charts which reflected much earlier surveys were still published, but Scottish and English mariners and chart-makers who based their work on original surveys began to dominate. From the 1740s, new and more accurate charts, based on a trigonometrical land survey, were published by the famous Scottish marine surveyor Murdoch Mackenzie. Beginning with the publication of his survey of Orkney in 1750 (which was largely privately financed), and going on to the whole western coast of Scotland, including the Hebrides in the 1750s (published by 1776 and commissioned by the Admiralty), Mackenzie's charts were a great improvement on earlier charts. Other surveyors further improved on Mackenzie's charts, including John Ainslie (1785), Thomas Preston (Shetland, 1781), James Huddart (West Coast, 1794), George Eunson (Orkney, 1795), William Heather (Hebrides, 1804), E H Columbine (Orkney and Shetland, 1807), and George Thomas (Firth of Forth, 1815). While in the 18th century these surveys were often financed by private chart publishers, such as Robert Sayer and John Bennett, during the 19th century, they were increasingly sponsored by the Hydrographic Office of the Admiralty.

These charts were required for expanding merchant shipping and fisheries, but naval interests were never far away. For example, during the Napoleonic Wars, with real but unrealised plans for a French invasion of Scotland, the Dépôt Général de la Marine in Paris produced attractive and accurate maps of the entire Scottish coast. The growth of the Admiralty led to comprehensive and more detailed mapping of the whole British coast during the early to mid-19th century. There were also some interesting hybrid maps, combining county map information with marine surveys, such as James Knox's Basins of the Forth and Tay (1828-31).