Historians Say Edinburgh Castle Was Birthplace Of Ordnance Survey Maps

By Caroline Lewis | 16 January 2008
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watercolour illustration of mapmaking fieldwork being carried out by men in 18th century dress

A painting by Sandby of the Scottish cartography team at work - could that be William Roy with the theodolite? © British Library

Think of a map of the highways, byways and contours of anywhere in the UK and you won’t be able to keep the words Ordnance Survey out of your head. Moreover, the company so synonymous with British cartography is considered one of the best mapmakers in the world, managing to cram all sorts of details into their atlases and indispensable fold-out walking maps.

So loved is the OS (which gets its name from the late 18th century military initiative to well and truly map the south coast of England for defence purposes), that it has been nominated as an English Icon on Icons.org.uk. However, the groundwork for this institution seems to have been carried out north of the border, according to Historic Scotland.

Research undertaken by Historic Scotland for a new book has revealed that Edinburgh Castle is in fact the birthplace of the mapping institution. It was here, at the Governor’s House, that William Roy, father of the OS, and artist Paul Sandby, are believed to have collaborated on their first great mapmaking enterprise.

Roy (1726-1790), from Miltonhead near Carluke, started working for the army in Scotland when he was 18, doing survey work for Fort Augustus. He was one of a mere four skilled engineers in the country at the time, meaning he was in great demand. It was in the 1740s that he and Sandby – a lasting influence on watercolour painting – were employed to make the first comprehensive scale maps of Scotland.

“Roy and Sandby helped transform the way we see and understand the world,” said Chris Tabraham, Historic Scotland principal historian. “Their project to systematically map the entire Scottish mainland was such a success that Roy was able to lay the foundations for the Ordnance Survey.”

part of an 18th century map showing Glasgow

Part of the 18th century maps showing a diminutive Glasgow. © British Library

The mapmaking scheme, which ran from 1748-1755, was spurred by the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion. It was recognised that accurate maps would be a great aid in the case of any further attempts on the throne, allowing troops to reach uprisings at top speed. The scheme was therefore given royal backing, and Roy’s employer, Colonel David Watson, would take the completed batch of maps each spring to display them at court.

Watson was so impressed with Roy’s work that he is known to have paid some of his wages from his own pocket.

“We know that Roy spent his summers in the field with the survey teams then headed back to Edinburgh Castle where the maps were made in the winter,” continued Dr Tabraham. “But that begged the question of where exactly in the castle they worked. Find that and you find the spiritual home of OS and all that has resulted from the remarkable work it has done for more than 200 years.”

Tabraham began his research when he was asked to write a chapter for the new book, The Great Map: The Military Survey of Scotland 1748-55, and found that all clues to where the heart of operations was led to the Governor’s House.

“Roy and Sandby were civilians at the time,” he explained, “and it’s unlikely they would have been based in the military core of the complex around what is now the Crown Square. But the Governor’s House, which had only been built in 1742, was outside this area. And it is probable that their direct boss, who was deputy quartermaster-general, had the storekeeper’s lodgings.”

A further clue adding weight to the idea that this building is where Roy, Sandby and their small team of draughtsmen made their maps, is that by 1805, the entire storekeeper’s lodgings had been turned into the ordnance office.

part of an 18th century map shwoing a river and farmland

The undeveloped land upriver from Aberdeen in the 18th century. © British Library

Roy eventually joined the army and rose to the rank of Major General, championing the idea of a military survey of the whole of Britain. He created a baseline on Hounslow Heath from which the national triangulation could take place (a surveying method for determining co-ordinates).

“William Roy is a key figure in the history of OS,” said Paula Good of Ordnance Survey. “Unfortunately, he never got to see his vision become reality as he died the year before Ordnance Survey was finally set up.”

“But it is Roy, and those who followed him, we have to thank for our current position at the heart of the technological revolution in which e-business and computer mapping are transforming business and public services.”

Roy’s vision was only realised after his death in 1790, when the government decided maps were needed of the entire south coast to fend off French invasion. The work was done by the equivalent of the Ministry of Defence, the ‘Board of Ordnance’, hence ‘Ordnance Survey’.

The OS is now a £100m a year civilian organisation, bearing the name of William Roy engraved above the door to its headquarters in Southampton.

Professor Charles Withers, Professor of Historical Geography at the University of Edinburgh, was closely involved with the project to public a new book fo the maps. “The Military Survey is a magnificent achievement,” he said, “a formative influence upon the Ordnance Survey and provides an important view of a country in the throes of agrarian improvement and Enlightenment.”

The Great Map is published by Birlinn Ltd by permission of the British library Board and with the assistance of the National Library of Scotland.

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