Timothy Pont

The Great Surveyer

Among the greatest treasures of the National Library of Scotland are the seventy-seven manuscript maps drawn by our earliest map maker, Timothy Pont. This young graduate of St Andrews carried out a remarkably detailed survey of all of Scotland in about 1583-96, the basis of our first atlas, which was produced in 1654 by Blaue. ‘Project Pont’ – of which this volume is one of the outcomes – was established in 1996 after wider access to the Pont collection had been made possible through digital technology. The maps in this medium were first exploited by the architectural historian, Charles McKean, whose findings on the accuracy of the depictions of buildings portrayed – perhaps the most delightful feature of the maps – sparked the idea of bringing together other specialists to examine Pont’s life and works.

Pont was probably born in 1565 or 1566 at Shiresmill, Culross; a son of Robert Pont, an eminent clergyman and lawyer. Little is known of his early career and he is assumed to have been off map making in the 1580s and 1590s when his name is absent from family documents. He was minister of Dunnet, Caithness, 1601-10.

In 1611 he was in Edinburgh, possibly collating his material for publication, but met an untimely death soon after, by 1614 it seems, when still under fifty years old. Pont had no immediate family; his nephews are accused of neglecting their inheritance of his maps and written manuscripts, the best known which is his description of the district of Cunningham.

Although many of Pont’s texts are still known in the form of later transcripts, much of the original total has been lost and only a fraction of the maps are extant. The maps and manuscripts passed through various hands, including John Scot of Scotstarvit (who may have despatched the maps to Blaue), down to Robert Gordon of Straloch, who transcribed many texts and, with his son James Gordon of Rothiemay, made some maps ready for engraving in Amsterdam.

Pont originals ‘went missing after they were used as sources by Gordon’, says Jeffrey Stone, in a detailed résumé of Pont research, which provides the overall context for these contributions. The bulk of Pont’s finished map work, Stone reckons, is lost: ‘What we have are mostly field documents, first draft compilations, unfinished compilations or abandoned compilations’. These are all the more remarkable for being drawn in pestilential, post-Reformation Scotland, where travel was sometimes downright dangerous. Were Pont’s peregrinations part of a process whereby church and state were attempting to penetrate the ‘no go’ areas of the Highlands and Borders, as Michael Lynch suggests?

The maps are not scaled topographical studies achieved through instrumentation. They are sketches, choreographical in their form of regional study, ‘part of a larger concern with the attribute of a people and their past’ – and are not intended to be studied as isolated artefacts: cartography had not yet caught the changing wind of the Renaissance and become the measured science soon to be begun in France.

The various other contributors present detailed examinations of specific aspects: the form and content of Pont’s writing; his settlement signs; place-names; distribution of woodland; portrayal of towns, buildings and mountains. The intellectual context of Pont’s work within the broader framework of early- modern geographical knowledge and the establishment of national identity is provided by Charles Withers. The Nation Survey’d is altogether a most impressive study.

The Nation Survey’d: Timothy Pont’s Maps of Scotland edited by Ian C Cunningham. Tuckwell Press PBK +£20.00 ISBN 1 86232 198 1.

Copyright Neil Macara Brown 2005.