Ordnance Survey Maps - Six-inch 1st edition, Scotland, 1843-1882

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'The plans are neither cadastral, topographical, or engineering. They remain the national plans' – (Winterbotham, 1934, p.9).

The Ordnance Survey six-inch maps record practically all man-made and natural features in the landscape. Every road, railway, field, fence, wall, stream and building is shown, even including smaller features such as letter boxes, bollards on quaysides, mile posts, and flag-staffs. Uncultivated land is distinguished by over 10 different symbols for types of woodland (e.g., birch, fir, mixed, furze, osier, brushwood), as well as marsh, bog, and rough grassland. The permanent detail of quarries, pits, slag heaps and refuse tips is shown, with the type of mineral extracted named before about 1859. Individual trees in hedgerows and avenues are indicated, and were surveyed to an accuracy of one metre where they were considered important landmarks or boundary markers. Following the Ordnance Survey Act of 1841, the Survey systematically recorded all public boundaries, and apart from certain boundaries within towns, all administrative boundaries (including civil parish, burgh, and county boundaries) are clearly shown. The first edition six-inch maps are therefore the most detailed countrywide record of administrative boundaries prior to the extensive revisions through the Local Government Acts of 1889-1894. Spot heights in feet above mean sea level at Liverpool [see note 3] are shown along roads, railways, etc., and the six-inch maps are the most detailed scale at which contours are shown.

Principal features excluded

The value of the maps for historical purposes is both qualified and enhanced by a realisation of their limitations. For urban areas, the larger scale maps show much greater detail (the 1:1,056 scale maps are 10 times larger, the 1:500 over 20 times larger). For cultivated rural areas, the 25" includes acreages of land parcels, and shows better detail around features such as buildings and railways. The deliberate omission of features (such as prisons from the 1870s, temporary structures or 'insignificant' detail, or the exclusion of property ownership information) is openly stated, but other idiosyncrasies arose from the different interpretation by different surveyors of the importance of features over space and time. What Thomas Larcom (1801-1879) who worked under Colby in Ireland termed of that country 'a full-face portrait of the land' was selective and subjective and the standard, authoritative, encyclopaedic image of 'the national plans' must thus be questioned.

Although archaeological knowledge was more limited than today, and the Ordnance Survey did not employ an Archaeology Officer until 1920, many antiquities are marked, distinguished into pre-Roman (before AD 43), Roman (43-420) and Saxon and Medieval (420-1688). In urban areas, features were generalised, and separate buildings blocked together, but many public buildings are named, including inns, hotels, public houses and industrial premises. In short, although more detailed older maps exist for certain towns and rural estates, many landscape features make their debut on the six-inch maps, including many place names, often in use for centuries, but hitherto not located by maps.

Naming places

The procedures for naming places within the Survey's mapping practices were laid down first in Lincolnshire and, in more detail, in Ireland from 1825 by Thomas Colby. In 'Instructions for the Interior Survey of Ireland', Colby spelled out the guidance for mapping parties on the question of the correct names of places: 'The persons employed on the survey are to endeavour to obtain the correct orthography of the names of places by diligently consulting the best authorities within their reach. The name of each place is to be inserted as it is commonly spelt, in the first column of the name book: and the various modes of spelling it used in books, writings &c. are to be inserted in the second column, with the authority placed in the third column opposite to each'. (Cited in Andrews, 1975, Appendix B, p.311).

Principles and dependence on 'authorities'

Several points are noteworthy here. First, mapping was reliant upon accurate naming: indeed, mapping depended upon such naming since, however accurate maps might be in trigonometrical terms, they were valueless as records of property ownership and guides to taxation without agreed names. Secondly, there is a presumption that there was a 'correct orthography' and that that form would be sufficiently widely understood for it to be 'commonly spelt' and written down. Thirdly, both the names in given localities and thus, in time, the maps of the country as a whole, directly depended both upon the 'best authorities' within reach of the mapping party and, in turn, upon the authorisation of these authorities' views in written form in the Survey's name books. More detailed guidance given in later instructions noted that:

'For the name of a house, farm, park or wood, or other part of an estate the owner is the best authority. For names generally the following are the best individual authorities and should be taken in the order given: Owners of property; estate agents; clergymen, postmasters and schoolmasters, if they have been some time in the district; rate collectors; borough and county surveyors; gentlemen residing in the district; Local Government Board Orders; local histories; good directories. Assistance may also be obtained from local antiquarian and other societies, in connection with places of antiquarian and national interest. Respectable inhabitants of some position should be consulted. Small farmers and cottagers are not to be depended on, even for the names of the places they occupy, especially as to the spelling. But a well-educated and independent occupier is, of course, a good authority' (Seymour, 1980, p. 180).

Object Name Books

This system remained largely unchanged within the work of Ordnance Survey. What by 1850 was regarded as 'a matter of routine' was reiterated by James in his published instructions in 1873, and repeated in 1902 and in 1932. And from examination for Scotland of what were called the 'Original Object Name Books' – the ledgers in which Survey staff recorded the names of places – we can understand how the maps came to carry the names they did.

Ordnance Survey Object Name Book specimen page
Object Name Book specimen page.
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The Original Object Name Books used in Scotland came in two forms, each with a different system of headed columns. The first type, commonly used in surveying and naming the Highlands parishes, was essentially a 'field' version of the Name Book and had five headings: Received Name; Object; Description; Township or Parish; Authority for Spelling [with their name(s) and address(es)]. Thus, under the first heading, names of the given 'object' – natural features, inhabited places and so on – would be given by the indicated informant who spelt the word for the collector, usually an officer in the Ordnance Survey, to write down. The second type, used commonly in the Lowlands, had an additional column: 'Orthography as recommended to be used in the new Plans'. The column of 'Descriptive Remarks, or other General Observations which may be considered of Interest' usually only duplicated the information contained in the 'Description' column, but additional information was sometimes given. This fuller version was completed by Survey officers in the local Ordnance Survey office and it was at this point, removed from the field and from the informant, that other sources, such as maps, texts, or the views of appropriate local scholarly bodies could be added to the column 'Authority for those modes of spelling when known'.

Practical methods of naming in the Outer Hebrides

We can see how this system worked – and see, too, how it had to be locally adapted – by considering the Survey at work in the Outer Hebrides. As we have noted, the Survey's remit was to contact the 'best authorities' and to do so mindful of locals' social standing: owners before others, 'respectable inhabitants' at all times before persons, such as small farmers and cottagers, who were 'not to be depended on, even for the names of the places they occupy'. In the crofting society of Hebridean Scotland, however, this policy faced problems: in the 1850s on Lewis, for example, there was only one landowner (Matheson), and although there were estate factors, Highland society in general effectively had no sizable middle class or occupational diversity outwith the towns. Indeed, the vast proportion of the local population was made up of exactly those persons the Survey considered least reliable as credible sources of authority.

In Harris and in Barra, for example, 'shepherds' and 'boatmen' were often recorded as the 'authority' for the name. On Lewis, the chosen informants were men, mostly aged between 35 and 60, each head of their respective households. Besides minor officials, two teachers from village schools and small businessmen in Stornoway, the majority of informants were crofters or cottars, all tenants of Matheson. For each parish, one man was appointed as interpreter. The interpreter's name, as well as that of the local person for whom he was interpreting, was entered as the 'authority' from whom the name was given. But this intermediary role was not undertaken equally. To judge by the proportion of names provided and unaltered by Survey staff, for example, John Morrison, the interpreter for Barvas parish seems to have had more 'authority' as a final arbiter of agreed versions than his counterpart in Stornoway, Norman Matheson. Of the dozen or so men spoken with as local informants in each parish, a few men provided the majority of names: in Barvas, three informants – Donald Smith of Arnol, Donald Macfarlane of Galston and John McDonald of Shader – together provided 58 per cent of the parish's names with a further 11 men each providing only a small proportion of names.

Difficulties with Gaelic names

Despite their crucial role as intermediaries between the Gaelic population and the English sappers, the interpreters' position was subordinate to a further group of 'authorities', who, unlike the interpreters, did not move with the naming and mapping parties, but were called upon to check and to 'authorise' the names collected in the field. On Lewis, these 'principal authorities' as they were termed, were all either Gaelic teachers, church ministers or employees of Matheson. The most influential by far was John McKay, a bilingual teacher in Stornoway parish school who was hand-picked by Matheson's estate chamberlain, Mr John Munro Mackenzie. McKay had considerable authority in the naming process on Lewis: on each occasion in which different name versions were presented, McKay's version was accepted.

Putting names on the map was thus a far from straightforward process. Naming places is always a complex social process which we may term 'authorising'. The authenticity of names could be 'authorised' (or not) at any of a number of stages. Sappers would move into the field, with interpreters, local 'best authorities' having been identified beforehand. Names were then spelt out, variants included, and written down, even if, as was common, the informants themselves could not always spell. At this point, the spoken word became a written word, the written word a name on the map. Interpreters might then add to the name, correct it or consider it 'authorised'. In the Beinn Eighe area of Wester Ross, for example, names and spellings provided by local stalkers and gamekeepers were 'standardised' by the Survey's field agent, a non-local schoolmaster.

Alexander Carmichael as a Gaelic names authority

Alexander Carmichael, the Gaelic folklorist and compiler of Carmina Gaedelica, a collection of Gaelic tales derived from direct encounter with Highland informants, was involved with the Survey in its work in Harris and in the southern Hebrides. In an unpublished letter (cited in Withers, 2000, p.547), we get some idea of what this authority on the Highlands thought of the Survey's naming practices and of where final 'authority' to name places lay:

'I think Gaelic place-names are very descriptive and self-evident and intelligible to most intelligent Highlanders. There are not a few however which for various and obvious reasons are open to doubt And let me here give my opinion of the O. S. D. [Ordnance Survey Department] which I am not sure is wholly blameless in this matter. When the work of the Barra SU B & U and Harris [Barra, South Uist, Benbecula and North Uist – the Hebridean islands whose names Carmichael was asked to authorise] came out, I found that many of [the] place-names which I was at so much pains and expense in collecting were entire left out that some names on the old maps were left unaltered and that some were altered in form thus lending the meaning different. I took the liberty of drawing the attention of the Dir G of the OS to these alterations and the reply was that names were omitted to save expence that old names were left out as they were obviously incorrect & [so] as to avoid confusion and that the final mode of spelling rested with the Inspector General. Sir C. Wilson repeats that the final mode of spelling rests with the In.G.'

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Note 3:
Due to the inaccuracies of the original Liverpool datum, being both on a tidal river and observed over a limited period of a fortnight in 1844, more accurate measurements were made at Newlyn in Cornwall between 1915-1921, and this new datum began to appear on maps from 1922 onwards. As mean sea level varies in height around the coast by 2-3 feet, differences between the Liverpool and Newlyn datums can only be stated precisely in a particular place, and this difference appears on large-scale maps from 1929 onwards.
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