April 2021

Maps for Scottish local history

Excerpt from Thomas Winter's plan of the estates of Kethick and Benochie  (1751)
Detail from Thomas Winter's Plan of the estates of Kethick and Benochie (1751)

This guide explains some of the key kinds of maps that are useful for local history research. Maps can reveal detailed information about the local area over time, including buildings, gardens, industries, railways, roads, woodland and agricultural land. The topics below are divided by the subject and purpose of maps, including a breakdown of Ordnance Survey maps by scale (level of detail).

If you would like to use our map collections to research your own local history, you can search for digitised maps on our website, watch help videos, contact us or ask a question. You can also visit us by making an appointment to visit our Maps Reading Room in Edinburgh.

County maps

Maps that show the whole of a county or region are often called county maps. They present an overview of the physical or man-made landscape of a wider region, province or shire.


Excerpt from Blaeu's map of Carrick (1654)
Detail from Blaeu's map of Carrick (1654)


Excerpt from Charles Ross' A map of Stirling Shire from an actual survey (1780)
Detail from Charles Ross's A map of Stirling Shire from an actual survey (1780)
showing roads, rivers and woodland, as well as boggy ground or moss to the north.

Estate maps

Estate maps often show the detailed grounds or territories owned by landowners. These maps can be a useful source of detailed mapping, particularly of rural areas, but they do vary. A large number of estate maps are very clear and detailed maps but some can be a simple working outline of a field.


Part of the Estate of Pitmurthly
Detail from Duncan McLeish's Part of the Estate of Pitmurthly... (1769).
This map shows the landscape before agricultural improvements.
The red lines show the outlines of new planned field boundaries.


Part of the Estate of Pitmurthly
A detail from a later map of the same area: Plan of Lynedoch and adjoining estates. (1840)


Miltary maps

Military maps are usually associated with warfare, showing subjects like attack and defence, for military purposes. They can include battle plans, plans of enemy positions, wartime land surveys, maps showing military roads and building plans of castles and forts.


Example of a military map showing Fort George

Town plans

Town plans are usually detailed maps of urban areas. Town plans can refer to any built up settlement including cities and burghs.


A 18th century plan of New Montrose (now called Inchbraoch)
Detail from H. Ross Plan for New Montrose, proposed to be built upon the Island of South Esk (1793).
This impressive proposal was never implemented.


Town plan of Nairn. The owners of several properties are named
John Wood's Town plan of Nairn (1821). The owners of several properties are also named.


A post officee directory map of Dundee
Post office directory map for Dundee (1882).
This plan can be found by searching the Town Plans listing.


Goad's detailed plan of Paisley
This Charles Goad Fire insurance plan of Paisley (1940),
shows a corner of George Place with garages, a joiners shop and yarn warehouse labelled.


Transport maps

Transport maps include more specific maps such as sea charts, road maps, canal plans, railway maps, or aeronautical charts. Engineering drawings and plans, for new routes tend to be more detailed than maps created to promote a route or to receive offical approval. Actual routes can differ from planned routes as plans often changed; where disputed or were simply not practical. Some transport maps show details of towns and other local information such as nearby industries.


Extract of a plan of Annan showing town and river
Extract from a plan of Annan (1824) showing proposals for a new bridge.

Admiralty Chart showing Wick
An Admiralty Chart of Wick (1857), which pre-dates the earliest Ordnance Survey maps of the area by two decades.


Ordnance Survey maps - a brief history

Ordnance Survey (OS) maps are a treasure trove of useful information to any local history researcher. As a government institution, the Ordnance Survey was able to produce hundreds of thousands of maps. These maps have been published in a wide range of scales from large scale (covering a smaller area in more detail) such as the OS Town Plans (1:500 / 1:1,056) to small scale (covering a large area in less detail) such as the OS Quarter-Inch to the mile series (1:253,440).


OS 25 inch to the mile map of Kirkwall
An OS 25 inch to the mile, map of Kirkwall (1881) shows the vibrant red (carmine),
yellow (burnt sienna) and blue colouring used in some early OS maps.

Examples of symbols used on 25 inch maps
Detail from a characteristic sheet for 25 inch Ordnance Survey maps.

Ordnance Survey large-scale town plans

The OS town plans are highly detailed at scales of 1:500 and 1:1,056. The internal room layout of public buildings is shown, such as the Dundee poorhouse; each room has been labelled and each window and door carefully drawn. Even the layout of the Hamilton Infantry Barracks can be seen.


Extract of a large scale town plan of Elgin
Many of the large-scale town plans show the internal layout of buildings, such as this OS Town Plan of Elgin (1868).

Ordnance Survey 25 inch to the mile maps

The 25 inch maps cover every inhabited areas of Britain. They are a smaller scale than the Town Plans but a larger area is covered. These maps are particularly useful for looking at changes in smaller settlements including changes to buildings and streets.