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Edinburgh Castle governor’s house was the birthplace of the modern map

15 January 2008

The Governor’s House at Edinburgh Castle has been identified by a leading historian as the possible birthplace of the modern map. It was here that William Roy, father of the Ordnance Survey, and Paul Sandby, who was a major influence on British watercolour painting, are now believed to have collaborated on their first great mapmaking enterprise in the 1740s.

From this flowed the surveys that are the essence of the maps, road atlases and street plans that are vital to so many aspects of modern living. Roy was a 22-year-old from Miltonhead, near Carluke, when he and Sandby were employed by the army to create the first comprehensive scale maps of Scotland.

Chris Tabraham, Historic Scotland principal historian, said: “Roy and Sandby helped transform the way we see and understand the world.

“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.

“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.

“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.”

Dr Tabraham took the opportunity to research the issue after being invited to contribute a chapter for The Great Map a recently published volume bringing together all the maps Roy and Sandby produced at the castle for the first time. He has now put together a series of clues which point to the Governor’s House, which incorporated the lodgings of the storekeeper and the master gunner, as the most likely location.

“There are a series of intriguing clues to follow, and the Governor’s House is where they lead you.

“Roy and Sandby were civilians at the time and it’s unlikely they would have been based in the military core of the complex around what is now 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,” said Dr Tabraham.

Rooms in the basement would have provided exactly the kind of space needed by the two men and their small team of draughtsmen. A further clue is that by 1805 the entire storekeeper’s lodgings had been turned into the ordnance office.

Roy’s boss, Colonel David Watson, was so impressed by the young man’s work he is known to have paid some of his wages from his own pocket. Each spring Watson would gather up the latest batch of completed maps and head to court where they would be displayed before royalty. Watson had got royal backing for the scheme, which lasted from 1748-55, following Bonnie Prince Charlie’s uprising of 1745.

It was swiftly recognised that accurate maps would help prevent, or bring the early defeat, of further Jacobite attempts on the throne by allowing troops to reach trouble spots at top speed. Yet the legacy of the maps goes far beyond their military interest.

Chris Fleet, deputy curator of the National Library of Scotland map library, said: “The maps were created at a fascinating moment in our history and show what the country was like before the huge expansion of our cities and towns.

“They are a chance to look back at what Scotland was like before the agricultural improvements and the clearances that changed our countryside forever.”

The rooms where Dr Tabraham believes the maps were created are now shared between Historic Scotland and the army.

Martine McNee, army spokesman, said: “It is great to think that the governor’s quarters were being used by the military all those years ago, to produce something as important as the maps that soldiers needed in order to do their job.

“The military link is still there today, as the building is still used by the governor, the General Officer Commanding 2nd Division, who is Scotland's most senior soldier.'

And Roy is acknowledged as having a continuing influence on mapmaking today.

Paula Good of Ordnance Survey, said: "William Roy is a key figure in the history of OS.

“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.”

Professor Charles Withers, Professor of Historical Geography, University of Edinburgh, who was closely involved with the Birlinn project to create a new book of the maps, said: “The Military Survey is a magnificent achievement, 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, published by Birlinn Ltd by permission of the British Library Board and with the assistance of the National Library of Scotland. All images should be credited to the British Library unless otherwise stated.

Notes for editors
  • Edinburgh Castle is open seven days a week. Admission: Adult £11.00, Child £5.50, Concession £9.00.
  • William Roy eventually joined the army and rose to the rank of Major General. He championed the idea of a military survey of the who of Britain and even created a baseline on Hounslow Heath from which the national triangulation could take place. Sadly his vision was only realised after his death in 1790. This followed the government’s realisation in 1791 that maps needed to be created of the entire south coast to fend off any French invasion.
  • Nowadays the Ordnance Survey is a £100 million a year civilian organisation. Its head office is in Southampton and William Roy’s name is engraved on its glass entrance doors.
  • Roy (1726-90) was just 18 when he started working for the army, initially doing survey work for Fort Augustus. His skills as an engineer were very much in demand – there were only four available in Scotland at the time.
  • The National Library of Scotland website has information about Roy and other military mapmakers, plus many examples of their work, at
  • The new book The Great Map: The Military Survey of Scotland 1748-55 is published by Birlinn at £200. For information about the book contact Fiona Morrison Graham on 07748 782058.

For further information

Matthew Shelley

Historic Scotland
Marketing & Media

0131 668 8734