Scotland: Defending The Nation – Mapping The Military Landscape

by Carolyn Anderson & Christopher Fleet

Birlinn/National Library of Scotland, £30

Review by Brian Morton

So invested is a modern military nation in secrecy that the enemy almost always has the better maps. It’s faintly disturbing to discover here that the most detailed versions of our northern shores and hinterland bear Cyrillic legends, and that the fullest and most accurate rendering of the land and waters round our capital should be headed “Blick von Queensferry über die Forthbrücke . . . zum Nordufer des Firth of Forth”. Thorough as the Germany military command always was, there is also a beautifully coloured geological map of the Fife/Lothian region, presumably to inform the invading force where he might be pitching his Feldgrau tents in “Lehm” or on “Kristalline Gesteine”. As maps go, this latter one has all the colouristic finesse you might find in the detail of a Secession painting; quite beautiful.

Inevitably, there has to be a corollary to this. Definitions of “secret” and of “censorship” change during periods of crisis and anxiety, but one wonders what the Kaiser’s agents – and reading Buchan and Erskine Childers allows me to picture them with insulting clarity – would have made of pre-First World War Ordnance Survey six-inch-to-the-mile maps of Ross and Cromatry which show the Ardersier peninsula as essentially empty space. Would Admiral von Knorr (he was a real person, not a literary character or a stock cube) really have been fooled by this, given that Fort George, probably the most impressive military building in the British Isles, occupied forty two acres and could house two infantry regiments? Would he have noticed that the OS had failed to remove a reference to “Rifle Ranges” nearby? Would he have wondered about the large road that seemed to lead nowhere? Or would be have screwed in his monocle, traced the dotted line that crosses the Moray Firth narrows from Chanonry Point and read, quite clearly, “Fort George Ferry”.

It was, of course, under the auspices of a series of Georges that much of the militarisation of the Highlands was undertaken. The groundplans of a morning’s work at Drummossie Moor are among the most poignant items included in this beautiful and almost compulsively readable book. It tells the story of how our nation’s defences were represented, as often with demonstrative pride as with secrecy, from the time of the Rough Wooing in 1543 to the Cold War. It starts a little earlier than that, even, with James V’s epic sail round the northern reaches of his kingdom, a year-long voyage that required the services of a “rutter” or “routier” to map a safe progress. The tension between utility and aesthetics was early in evidence. A “platt” of Leith, showing the location of mines and artillery on the day the French defenders capitulated on July 7 1560 is part-map, part-diagram, part-landscape painting. Overhead scaled plans were not yet the norm. John Ramsay’s scroll commemorating the Battle of Pinkie in 1547 is reminiscent in style of Ethiopian paintings of the victory over Italy at Adwa in 1896; they can still be bought at stalls in Addis Ababa today. Even later in the story, with aerial surveying dominant, there is still art-historical interest. A detailed plan of Inchmickery in the Firth of Forth is both fantasy island and Vorticist drawing.

The strategic mapping of glens and waterways after Culloden changed the Highlands forever, though not always in the ways usually perceived. Similarly, the construction of great forts, barracks and defensive placements gave fresh energy and subject matter to architectural draughtsmen. There is an air of Masonic mystery and guild-secrecy to many of the images of Fort George, those that admit its existence, that is. William Skinner and Charles Tarrant in 1748 find a halfway place between presence and absence in a beautiful, ghostly plan of Ardersier “with the Design’s Fort as Trac’d Thereon”, “staind in Yellow” as was the custom among cartographers for an as yet unbuilt structure.

I have a certain obsession with what is called “cartographic silence”. It is often what maps fail to show that is most interesting. Close to where I grew up there was a feature marked on the OS map in some versions as “Bodach Bodh” and in others as “Long Man’s Grave”. Nothing whatever was visible until after the OS removed all reference, when a tumulus and a rusty chalybeate spring mysteriously appeared. I was told that the area was “militarily sensitive”. For all the occlusions, omissions and plain errors, these maps speak volumes, and not just to the military historian. Groucho Marx used to say that military justice was to justice what military music was to music, but maps were, let’s face it, not originally intended for doughty bearded men in North Face anoraks or for the gaggles of young Dutch women who wander past here in the summer carrying Landrangers (I invariably send them along the circular path, so that they’ll pass the house again from the other direction. allowing me to pretend I’m my own brother: tradecraft!). For good or ill, maps were first made for soldiers and for statesmen. They are our history, or the record of our thwarted plans, “staind in Yellow”.