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Pont Maps of Scotland, ca. 1583-1614 - Biographies

Sir James Balfour of Denmilne by Ian C. Cunningham

Portrait of James Balfour

Sir James Balfour, Bart., of Denmilne, Lord Lyon King of Arms, is an important, but strangely shadowy, figure in the Scotland of the first half of the seventeenth century. Typically, his part in the story of the Pont maps was crucial but obscure.

Balfour's family was long established in north-east Fife. His father, Sir Michael, was Comptroller of the Household to Charles I. James was the eldest son, born probably in the mid 1590s - a deduction (exactly parallel to the case of Timothy Pont) from his matriculation at St Andrews in 1610. After graduation he apparently spent some time in Europe and in London, where he studied heraldry. In 1630 he was knighted and appointed Lyon; in 1633 he was created a baronet. He died in 1657.

Ex officio Balfour was present at many significant ceremonial events, which gives added interest to his historical, genealogical and heraldic writings. But his main significance was not as a player in or recorder of the happenings of his day, but as a collector of manuscripts. In this he followed such English collectors as Sir Robert Cotton, on a proportionately smaller scale. He acquired texts of classical and later writers (of European, English and Scottish provenance), of heraldic works of various countries, of Scottish historians of various periods (Fordun, Wyntoun, Pitscottie), of the old Scottish laws (the Regiam Majestatem), of Scottish monastic cartularies, and of modern Scottish state papers (from James IV to Charles I). The main period of his collecting activity seems to have been the late 1620s and the 1630s.

Some of the manuscripts which he collected were destroyed in the Cromwellian siege of Dundee in 1651; others were presented to friends. What remained in family possession were purchased by the Advocates Library in 1698; more came to the same institution in 1723 in the collection of Sir Robert Sibbald, one of the friends just mentioned. All are now in the National Library of Scotland.

Time now to turn to his connection with the Pont maps. Timothy Pont appears to have died about 1614, without children. His heirs would be his brother Zachary, who died himself about five years later, and the latter's children. Robert Gordon of Straloch, writing in 1648, says that these heirs sadly neglected their heritage. It was Balfour who rescued the maps, as we learn from an instruction of Charles I, dated 28 February 1629, to pay him 100 in recompense of his expenses in purchasing them from the heirs with a view to their publication; this presumably had taken place shortly before. Slightly earlier still, in 1626, the Dutch map-publisher Willem Blaeu had begun to seek maps of Scotland (for his Atlas novus) from Sir John Scot of Scotstarvit, the Director of Chancery. In 1630 Scot informed him that he was trying to obtain these from a friend - who must be Balfour. In 1631 Blaeu says that he had received a letter and a map of the Merse from Balfour. We have to infer that the remaining maps, and also Pont's textual materials, were also sent to Amsterdam either directly or through Scot or were retained by Scot (the exact circumstances belong to another chapter of the tale!).

From this it would appear that Balfour acted honourably, in rescuing the maps and making them available to Willem and Joan Blaeu. However, it must be noted that Robert Gordon, after decrying Pont's heirs, goes on to state that the (unnamed) purchaser was even worse than the heirs, intending to keep the maps secret, and that finally they were retrieved by Scot. Gordon's letter is actually to Scot, and can be seen as an attempt to increase the importance of his role in the affair; his slighting reference to Balfour should be interpreted in this context.

Along with Robert Gordon of Straloch, Balfour also deserves credit for preserving a part of Pont's textual descriptions of Scotland. His Collections on the Shires (Adv.MS.33.2.27 in the National Library of Scotland) is a detailed geographical description, by county, of the whole of Scotland, and includes the topographical account of Cunningham that is specifically credited to Timothy Pont. This was transcribed and published in the 19th century by Fullarton (1853) and Dobie (1876). According to Sibbald, this volume was also sent to Joan Blaeu, who was so pleased with it that he dedicated his map of Lorne to Balfour in the 1654 Atlas novus, and displayed an engraving of Balfour's coat of arms.

Almost a century later, the surviving maps, having passed through the hands of Robert and James Gordon and Sir Robert Sibbald, fittingly joined Balfour's collection in the Advocates Library, transferring to the National Library of Scotland when it was formally created in 1925.