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Timothy Pont's portrayal of towns

by E. Patricia Dennison

Detail of Pont map of Nairn

Pont's depictions of towns tell us a great deal about Scotland's medieval urban settlements. Scottish towns were small; and some have even argued that there was little to distinguish a Scottish town from a village. But there were, in fact, special characteristics that made a town a town; these were immediately recognisable to medieval and early modern men and women - just as they were to Pont.

Towns are highlighted on the landscape by Pont, often with the added notation of their names being inscribed in capital letters. Nairn, Forres, Fraserburgh, Renfrew and Biggar, for example, stand out from the surrounding countryside.

That many of these small towns were still basically of the medieval pattern - a single street settlement - can be seen clearly on a number of the manuscripts. Forfar, Biggar, Rutherglen and Lanark, for example, are all depicted as having one major street.

Detail of Pont map of Rutherglen

Glasgow however, already showing signs of growing economic importance, had developed a cruciform street pattern; and Dundee exhibited the complex lay-out of a long-established burgh (a town with specific legal privileges) of considerable wealth and trading influence.

Closely associated with this street pattern were the burgage plots, or tofts. These were the portions of land which the burgesses were allocated. Here, they built their dwellings, sank their wells, dug their midden pits, reared animals and grew vegetables, and housed their workshops. The tofts can be studied on Pont's maps. Paisley, Rutherglen, Hawick, Forfar and Dumfries, for example, display the classic herringbone pattern of burgage plots running back from the main street frontage.

Detail of Pont map of Elgin

Towns set themselves apart from the countryside by built features; one of the most important, psychologically, being the demarcation of the town limits. Stirling was one of the few Scottish towns to be stone-walled. This Pont depicts clearly and boldly with a double line, a device he uses on his first draft of Perth, another rare stone-walled town. Sanquhar, a town enclosed by only the traditional ditch and wooden palisade is illustrated equally precisely with merely a single encircling line. Tain and Dornoch are likewise set apart from the surrounding countryside, suggesting that they were physically delineated by only a ditch and/or small wooden palisade.

Detail of Pont map of Dumfries

Entrance to the town was through the town gates, or ports. Elgin's ports are delineated accurately and show that they were constructed in the form of an arch. The same is true of Lanark, Hamilton, Dumfries, Glasgow and Hawick. Late sixteenth-century documents give no details of the exact construction of town ports. It is, therefore, interesting to wonder whether Stirling's Barras-Yett, known to have been a massive structure, was, in fact, a double archway, as Pont's delineation seems to suggest.

Pont was acutely aware of the physical dominance of the market place and its associated buildings. The spaces, where booths and stalls were set up, may be seen clearly on his views, for example, of Lanark, Biggar, Rutherglen and Dumfries. Perhaps more precise, although less frequent, are his interpretations of market crosses, as may be noted in Glasgow and Dumfries, marked very clearly, with the symbol of a cross.

Detail of Pont map of Perth

Most burghs had tolbooths. These functioned as the collection point for market tolls, as the repository of the market weights, as the town jail and as the home of the burgh council. That of Dumfries is shown close by the market cross and the view of Glasgow from the south delineates clearly its tolbooth. Nairn's tolbooth features prominently on the townscape, as befitted a building which also functioned as the meeting place for the sheriff court.

It was, perhaps, inevitable that Pont, as the son of a minister, would see parish churches as an integral part of the urban scene. Nairn's St. Ninian's Church and Perth's St. John's Church, for example, are drawn with great clarity, as is the parish church of Dundee, dedicated to St. Mary.

Detail of Pont map of Dundee

The sheer dominance of the latter on the townscape confirms the impressiveness of the old medieval church.

Pont's depictions of towns at the turn of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are essential primary sources for any study of the urban history of the period. They offer a unique insight into Scotland at a specific moment in time.