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Pont Maps of Scotland - Biographies

James Gordon of Rothiemay (c. 1615 - 1686) by Christopher Fleet
Detail of James Gordon's Map of Edinburgh

James Gordon of Rothiemay has an important part to play in the story of Pont's manuscript maps. First, he assisted his father, Robert Gordon of Straloch, when he undertook work on Pont's maps for Joan Blaeu, who was basing the Scottish volume of his Atlas novus on the work of Pont and needed certain maps clarified or elaborated before they could be engraved. Second, following the death of his father in 1661, James Gordon preserved all of Pont's surviving maps (along with his own and his father's maps and topographical works) and passed them on to Sir Robert Sibbald in the 1680s, thereby ensuring their survival today.

James was the fifth son of Robert Gordon, and from his graduation at King's College, Aberdeen, in 1636, we may infer that he was born about 1615. In 1641 he became pastor of Rothiemay, near Huntly in Banffshire, a position which he occupied for all his working life. In his early years as minister, during the Covenanting Wars, he was admonished more than once for failing to act against persons suspected of anti-Covenanting leanings, but he managed to hold on to his post.

His cartographic activities, for which he is probably most famous, began with his detailed survey and map of Fife in 1642 at the request of Sir John Scot of Scotstarvit. Although this had not been specifically requested by Blaeu, it surpassed Pont's original maps which had already been engraved, and therefore Blaeu added it to his atlas, the only map specifically credited to James Gordon (Stone, 1988). He also produced a sketch map of the county of Kinross in October 1642, and this survives in manuscript form in the National Library of Scotland (Adv.MS.70.2.10, [Gordon] 52).

His next cartographic project took him to Edinburgh in 1646-47, where he drafted the most detailed bird's-eye view of the town in its entire history. This became the standard map or view of Edinburgh for nearly a century, often copied and reprinted, and still popular today. It is not surprising that, in addition to paying him 500 merks for his labours, the Town Council elected him a burgess and guild brother as a token of their appreciation. James also drafted views of Edinburgh from the north and south, as well as architectural drawings of the Castle, Parliament House and George Heriot's Hospital (now George Heriot's School).

In 1647 the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland issued a warrant instructing him to proceed to Stirlingshire 'for drawing the mappe thereof', but there is no evidence that he undertook this project. Similarly, in 1648, he was asked by the nobility of Angus to describe their shire, but no map or evidence of a survey by him survives (Stevenson, 1982). Despite his obvious skills as a surveyor and draughtsman, it was not until 1661 that he received his next and final major commission: to map his home town of Aberdeen. The result was 'ane meekle cairt of paper', a detailed and beautiful map of the Old and New Towns of Aberdeen (not to be superseded until the mid-18th century), along with a detailed and flattering textual description. The Town Council were so impressed they awarded him 'a silver piece or cup of twenty ounces of sliver, ane silk hat for his own use, and ane silk gown for his bedfellow'.

By this time his father had died, passing Pont's maps into his care with instructions 'to be countable therfore to the publique, but because they are all imperfect, that they be weil corrected or [i.e. before] any use [be] made of them' (Gordon, 1841). In fact there is no evidence that James was able to revise any of Pont's maps after this time, but he was a careful custodian and clearly saw their value to a Scotch Atlas project which Sir Robert Sibbald advertised in 1683. Probably sometime between 1683 and his death on 26 September 1686 he therefore passed on to Sir Robert Sibbald the entire manuscript map collection deriving from Pont, and his and his father's own activities, along with textual and topographic descriptions of Scotland.

James Gordon is also credited with being the author of the History of Scots Affairs from 1637 to 1651 (Gordon, 1841), and of a commonplace book on divinity, with illustrations that indicate considerable artistic ability. He was twice married, and had two sons by his second wife, Katherine.