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Revealing Scotland's Mountains

by Ian R. Mitchell

Timothy Pont is the pioneer of our knowledge of Scotland's mountains. Earlier writers may make brief scattered references to them, but Timothy Pont is the first person to record a significant amount of information about Scotland's hills and mountains in written form. Above all, he is the first to produce graphic depictions of them - a total of over 350. Given that a large part of the physical space of Pont's surviving maps is occupied by drawings of hills and mountains, it is surprising that they have so far received little attention compared to other physical features shown on them.

Detail of Pont map of Stuc a Chroin

The names of mountains on Pont's maps, though often corrupted phonetic Gaelic, in most cases correspond to today's usage, and therefore show that Scotland's mountains had achieved their names well before 1600.

The form of a mountain name given in Pont can sometimes shed light on a mountain's name today. In Pont, Bidean nam Bian, a rather indeterminate Gaelic name sometimes translated as 'The pinnacle of the hills', appears as Pottendeun and Pittindeaun. This is probably Pont's rendering of 'Bod an Deamhain', meaning, literally, 'the Devil's penis'.

Sometime, however, Pont will give a mountain a different name from today, showing that some names do change: for example, he calls Schiehallion, rising above Loch Rannoch, 'Kraich'.

Detail of Pont map of Ben Lawers

I have been able to identify around 90 of the hills and mountains that appear on Pont's surviving maps, and these are listed in an appendix to my chapter on the subject in The Nation Survey'd, edited by Ian Cunningham. But many mountains and hills still await positive identification. I would appreciate comments on my list, or suggested additions to it. (Comments should be sent to me c/o The National Library of Scotland's Map Library at maps@nls.uk)

The function of the mountains on Pont's manuscripts I believe to be directional. Significant mountains such as Stùc a' Chroin, above Loch Earn, are often drawn enlarged, and with prominent features exaggerated for ease of identification in navigation, often in conjunction with passes and river courses. Some of the drawings would seem to be done from a specific spot, while others, such as Ben Lawers above Loch Tay, are more likely to be a 'composition', an information/navigation file rather than an especial view. There is evidence from the drawings, and from other sources, such as the manuscripts in Macfarlane's Geographical Collections (Mitchell, 1907), often attributed to Pont, that some of the map information was gained from high elevation points. In fact either Pont, or someone possibly associated with him, definitely climbed Ben Lawers.

Detail of Pont map of Ben Nevis

The fact that Pont visited the Highlands in troubled times indicates that he probably had protection (he did have local contacts), and some of the remote and difficult places he visited, as well as his being informed of the Gaelic mountain names, would incline one to think that he in all likelihood had guides as well. It is possible, on the basis of the papers attributed to Pont in Macfarlane, that he also had helpers. These factors would tend to reinforce the assumption that Pont was engaged in some undertaking of possibly national significance, rather than any private project.