Can you take a blank sheet of paper and a pencil then draw a map of Scotland? This is what Professor Charles Withers asked the 250 members of the audience to do, at the Royal Philosophical Society of Glasgow lecture ‘Mapping the Nation: Scotland’s Cartographic History’.

We were permitted to ask our neighbour, or just take a peek at what they were drawing, and there was no rule against searching for a map on our smartphones. However, we were not allowed to leave the room to take a look at the world outside the Strathclyde University lecture theatre.

Professor Withers treated the audience to a superb hour of historic learning, during which time we were taught that maps are much more than simply a visualisation of our world. They can be powerful political tools.

Maps as documents of power

The first time Scotland appeared on a map was back in the 11th century, although it is a marginal inclusion. In those days Jerusalem always appeared in the north – hence expressions like “getting orientated” – so Scotland was off to the bottom left corner. Then in 1714 Herman Moll made a map, building on earlier work by Gerard Mercator, called ‘The North Part of Britain Called Scotland’. This was the first time that Scotland had a map of its own.

Why map?

The best question to ask is not “what is a map anyway?” but rather to ask “what does a map do?”

A town map can be a device of civic enquiry, a social document or more utilitarian. We were treated to a visual of the once again not-so-snappily titled ‘New Plan of Glasgow with Suburbs’, produced by the temperance movement with mapper John Bartholomew in 1884. This map shows all the public houses and licensed grocers across the city of Glasgow at that time. The purpose was not to make it easier to pub-crawl, but instead to mark out hot-spots of debauchery. It allowed those of the temperance movement to plan their efforts to ‘save’ the city.

Cities became ravenous and insatiable consumers of maps, with maps being funded and produced by town councils. The poor sanitary conditions in fast growing towns led to more comprehensive mapping. Whereas before it had been about mapping the boundary edges or the location of urban areas in relation to other urban areas, showing roads and routes, now there were maps showing the detail within towns and cities.

Access to maps

The increased use of maps within towns and cities, alongside the development of the publishing industry, meant that maps – once only for the chosen few – became accessible to many. And so began the spread in the use of cartographic tools by any and everyone. So, what next? Comment below and tell us what you want from OPEN’s map portal!