Friday, October 9, 2009

Map as narrative as journey as map

I suppose it’s inevitable that a walker will develop an obsession with maps. I spend hours looking at maps of places I know, or places I plan to go. The imaginative gap between what I read from the configurations of line, shade, and word, and what I meet and feel once in the actual landscape, is always intriguing. Google Earth has never worked the same magic on me, although it can be a useful way of anticipating what to expect, and I was fascinated by Kamila Shamsie’s account of using it to research places for her novel ‘Burnt Shadows’.

I discovered the Roy military maps of the mid 18th century some time ago - gorgeously figurative depictions of Scotland incorporating volcanic bursts of bold shade for hills with the fine detail of settlements. They can be viewed online at the National Library of Scotland, who can also provide copies from the incredibly helpful, and good value map library.

But I’ve only quite recently discovered Timothy Pont’s sketch maps of Scotland made in the late 16th century. He seems to be something of an unsung hero, a young scholar from St Andrew’s University who walked vast tracts of Scotland in what must have been quite hostile conditions to sketch topographies and human settlements as far apart as Dumfries and Durness, including many lands between. He was the earliest known Scottish map-maker, and his sketches were the basis for the first printed maps that appeared in Joan Blaeu’s world atlas of 1654. But his originals remained unprinted until Jeffrey C Stone’s collection appeared in 1989.

To walk a river valley today, or climb onto a hilltop on the dividing ridge of a watershed, and sketch what we can see without the aid of mapping or surveying tools, would put us on an equal footing with him. (I must try this as an experiment.) His combination of aerial representation and elevation often mean that buildings and hill shapes are recognisable when seen from a particular angle. Some slightly odd representations have fuelled speculation that he sometimes used verbal sources and descriptions to fill gaps in his own observations. He shows us chapels, mines, bridges, islands, antiquities, and placenames, and annotates with field notes. For the far north west corner of the country he wrote: ‘extream wilderness’, and ‘verie great plenty of wolfes doo haunt in this desert places’. He also commented on the lack of trees in Caithness, where he later became Minister of Dunnet Church (pictured below) between 1600 and 1610, where he is now celebrated by a plaque. I am fascinated by what motivated Pont. Is this a general human urge? Are we all driven to map our environment to some extent? I think back to Hamish’s wonderful map, the eight year old son of a friend who continues to pore over maps and make his own with extraordinary skill. And I think of the rock art pictured below that forms part of an amphitheatre of engravings just to the north of the river and west of Weem Castle on Pont’s sketch of the Tay valley above. Could these mysterious engravings have been maps showing the relationship of key places to each other as people conceptualised them in their own minds and tried to show others? The diversity of this act of conceptualisation is demonstrated on a brilliant blog, ‘Strange Maps’.

And now I’ve begun to wander into the relationship between texts, stories and maps. In trying to help students structure essays as part of my Royal Literary Fund (RLF) fellowship at Stirling University, I was struck by this advice which appears on the RLF website: ‘Another way of thinking about the introduction is that it should draw a map for the reader. Imagine you are taking the reader on a journey. Your introduction tells the reader not only the intended final destination but the route you are going to take, the method of transport, the places you are going to visit on the way, the people you are going to meet and even some of the things they are going to say.’ Leslie Stephen described a walk as ‘a little drama itself, with a definite plot with episodes and catastrophes’. In ‘Wanderlust’, Rebecca Solnit says: ‘the long distance walk is an easy way to find narrative continuity. If a path is like a story …then a continuous walk must make a coherent story, and a very long walk makes a full-length book.’

There’s something here I want to pursue. Map as narrative as journey as map. And those ‘haunting wolfes’ must surely be part of the story…