Map gazing

In this time of physical constraint and uncertainty, when we cannot head off on adventures as we once did, exploring a chart can take us on a rich journey of story and imagination. Join Merryn Glover, then, in a little Map Gazing.

‘Here Be Dragons,’ does not appear on OS maps. Sadly. Just imagine! You are running your finger along the route for the Speyside Way planning where to camp and have just got past Grantown when you see a warning about mythical beasts! (Perhaps you can tell I write fiction, and sometimes for children.) But even though our maps no longer reference the magical realm, they are still teeming with wonder.

Some of us love maps and pin them to walls. A world map has long been the centrepiece of our kitchen noticeboard and it’s what several folks used to stare at in their toilets before smart phones. So what is it about maps for me?

I love their artistry, particularly in old maps drawn by hand and tinted in fading inks. But even modern OS maps have a textural beauty as the contour lines ripple out in sand patterns and streams fork across the landscape like veins under skin. The map in front of me is OS Landranger 36 and shows the Cairngorm Mountains as a savage scramble of rocks, cliffs, ridges, corries and ravines that capture well the demands of the landscape. Here Be Danger, it says, for those who can read the signs. But Here Be Beauty, it also says, for those who know mountains. Among the steep orange slopes with their pile-up of black squiggles are a handful of pale blue shapes – uneven tear drops, blobs and ovals – which are lochs, looking as still and serene as windows into the sky. In reality, they are more often dark and ridged by wind, or frozen to an unearthly green or completely lost under snow.

And that is the most important thing about maps. They are not the real thing. They are an image of it. On one flat piece of paper with a handful of colours and a set of markings, cartographers are attempting to show us a landscape that might rise over 8000 metres, that teems with life and changes constantly with the weather, the seasons and the longer passages of time. So it is just one way of seeing the land, one way of explaining what is there.

For a start, it is a ‘bird’s eye view’ and we are not birds. We do not normally see a landscape from above, so maps demand a process of translating that vertical perspective into our horizontal experience of the environment. It challenges us to see a bigger picture from a higher vantage point, recognizing the relationships between everything in ways that may surprise us. Just as a map is only one impression of ‘the real thing’, so is our perception of it.

Feithe Buidhe on the plateau above Loch Avon

But a map is not just an image of the land, either, it is a story about it. In the drawing and naming of places, the mapmaker is telling us something of who has been here and why. Some of the stories go back thousands of years, as in the intriguing words Ring Cairn or Standing Stones that can date back as far as the Neolithic period. Others reference the Roman occupation, and I recently discovered that the OS uses a different font for Roman and Non-Roman sites of antiquity. Such golden nuggets are all in the side panel.

Another of a map’s stories is about language. The place names where I live in the Cairngorms National Park reflect successive waves of settlement, culture and politics. The oldest and least certain in meaning are of Pictish origin, though words like Aber for river mouth probably date from then. Most of the names are Gaelic, reflecting its primacy here well into the 18th century (and beyond in some parts), when Scots and English increasingly dominated. Several place names are a blend of languages: Braes of Abernethy, Coylumbridge, or an alteration of the Gaelic, as in Cairngorms. The suppression of Gaelic after the Jacobite rebellions is one of the great tragedies of Scottish history, but there are strong moves to restore it, including on OS maps. Use the ‘Listen to pronunciation’ button on Walkhighlands listings to learn how to say these beautiful words.

Place names themselves tell stories, revealing events and environments that may now be lost. Clach nan Tàillear, The Stone of the Tailors, is named for men who died in a Hogmanay blizzard while crossing the Làirig Ghrù. Beinn a’ Bhuirich – Ben Vuirich – means Mountain of the Roaring from a time when wolves roamed there. The many Gaelic names featuring trees in places that are now barren are another sobering reminder of how much human activity has changed the land. To discover more about the stories behind place names and to add your own contributions, see the new Literary Landscapes resource from the Cairngorms National Park.

Looking down the Lairig Ghru

Of course, the stories of the contour lines are the oldest of all, representing the work of rock, fire, water and wind over billions of years. That is what most fascinates me about maps. They are a script, a coded visual language that depicts a living three-dimensional reality. Once you learn the meanings of all the symbols, lines, dots and colours, you begin to ‘read’ the landscape. The trained eye interprets the pale squiggles as height and depth and discerns the difference between marks that appear on the land – like tracks – and those that are invisible, but no less real, like boundaries or compass points.

But Here Be Warning. Maps and their symbols can only capture certain stories of the land, usually reflecting the language, culture and priorities of a particular group. A mining company’s map will be very different to that of an ecologist tracing bird migrations. Consider the maps drawn and labelled by colonisers in contrast to those who were already there. The British possession of Australia and subsequent denial of indigenous land rights was based on the explorers’ false map label ‘terra nullius’, meaning ‘land belonging to no one’. By contrast, indigenous Australians have an ancient and highly complex system of mapping which is more about spirituality and relationships, than technical measurements and ownership, though no less particular. They maintain an image of the land and their routes across it via song-lines, and record events on map paintings whose interpretation may only be clear to the initiated. John Berger famously said, “Never again shall a single story be told as though it were the only one.” The same is true of maps.

The longer I gaze at a modern OS map the more I see how many stories it is telling, and for how many people. It traces the many ways we might traverse that landscape, by all kinds of path, track, road and rail, from old drover’s routes to modern cycle ways. It shows the places we might want to go, from marshes to watch heron, to ruined castles for exploring, to shopping and it speaks of the homes, work, recreation and travel of residents and visitors alike. What’s especially interesting to me is how a map not only captures history, but by depicting how to find your way, it offers the future. Whenever we use a map to plan a journey, we are reaching ahead, dreaming, creating something new. Although a map’s information is fixed by the date of publication, its interpretation, like a book or painting, goes on. Rich with possibility and promise, a map is a silent guide telling us a thousand things – and what better time to draw up a chair and listen?

Finally, over the years, a familiar map of a familiar territory becomes layered with our own story. Some of us add personal lines and symbols, showing journeys or significant places. But even if we make no physical mark, the more we look at a map, the more we are seeing our passage through it. Walkers will be remembering routes taken or plotting the next one. Swimmers will be noting the blue blobs, paddlers the wide veins. Whatever your own priorities across a landscape, take time to look at all the other stories told there, and ponder the ones more hidden, like those of wildlife. Look deep into ancient time, hear the voices of languages lost and threatened, discover nearby worlds you never knew, learn to read the script.

An OS map will not point you to dragons near Grantown, but I have just spotted the words Symbol Stones near a curve in the Spey and feel a rush of excitement. Here Be Stories! Soon as I’m allowed, I’m off to discover them.

Merryn Glover has both a novel and a non-fiction book set in the Cairngorms due out next year. More news to follow: www.merrynglover.com

Enjoyed this article or find Walkhighlands useful?

Please consider setting up a direct debit donation to support the continued maintenance and updates to Walkhighlands.

Share on 

Walking can be dangerous and is done entirely at your own risk. Information is provided free of charge; it is each walker's responsibility to check it and navigate using a map and compass.