Who goes there? Mapping ‘Extreem Wildernes’

On the summit of Ben Hee, with a cloud bank surfing over rock-swell and waves of snow-sharpened ridges and summits heaving up close by, I saw the three coasts of Scotland. Hills revealed themselves to the west; Ben Stack, Quinag, Ben More Assynt, baring unfamiliar sides to me in a complex fresh architecture backed by a blue line of Atlantic. To the north, Ben Loyal and Ben Hope guarded watery ingresses from the Pentland Firth. And to the east the twin cones of Morven and Scaraben rose above low bog near Dunbeath and the North Sea. Climbing Ben Hee, perhaps unpromising in itself, gave me a dramatic North-Scottish geography lesson and reminded me of the revelations that occur when we climb.

The satisfaction many will recognise on reaching such a viewpoint was sharpened that day by the bitter south-easterly we’d fought into once leaving the track from Loch Merkland, and the snow-cover which started at 1000 feet and was sometimes knee-deep on the final climb from the bealach. ‘It’s only a Corbett,’ our B & B host had said as we left, laughing at my winter armament for late October. We set off into a morning of hard frost and a keen yellow sky which sun-up soon switched to blue heavens, flaming birch, raw-gold grassland. But I’d seen the MWIS forecast: ‘due to wind chill feeling close to -15C’. I didn’t regret all those clothes. Or the security of carrying an ice-axe.

Turning through 360° on the summit, I drew in my focus, feeling for the four bounding edges of the Explorer 440 Ordnance Survey map I carried, ‘Glen Cassley and Glen Oykel’ (1:25,000) which charts an inland part of Easter Ross and Sutherland. We were standing at the centre of its northern edge. Its western boundary pitched away through unfamiliar uplands crossed by only one road, the A837 to Elphin and drew its eastern border down the rolling bog between us and Ben Klibreck, enclosing the majority of Loch Shin’s long, diagonal slash and the east-west traverse of Strath Oykel. Despite an abundance of hill, plantation, burn and loch, this map manages to omit any centres of population and encloses few roads with a place to go, signing out in the south-eastern corner with a dead end at Strathcarron, marking a broch, a telephone box, and ‘Croick Mission Hall’.

From our Bird’s-Eye viewpoint, it was hard to find homes for the 200 residents calculated to reside within the map’s perimeters. The immediate land stretching between us and Loch Shin was strewn with small glinting pools of water, and the map-wide vegetation symbols showed we were in scrub, rough grassland and marsh territory. Signs of life in the unfolding expanse of dark russet bog and white hill we traversed were a kickstarted snipe zigzagging away from us, an unseen stag roaring, the whirring flight of an already-white ptarmigan, and the prints of mountain hare and fox. None from humans. Coming to this part of Scotland connected me with that ancient pulse of remote and unpeopled land.

I’d felt this slightly unnerving thrill as we arrived the previous evening along a valley stretching ahead to suggest vast distance. Loch Shin’s reflection ran a luminous sky below us as well as above; a sky which, with whispers of cloud combed above white peaks, seemed to invite arrows of clanking geese to highlight the transitional season. A lonely hotel was already closed up for the winter. It numbed my fingers and made my Perthshire valley seem cosy.

According to an Ordnance Survey announcement in September, we were on Great Britain’s least popular and least-purchased map. The most popular – Explorer OL17 of Snowdonia and Conwy Valley – sells 180 times more. Although I’ve previously cycled and driven across 440, I’m one of those who have never walked within its boundaries and was here to rectify this, and to deliver at least one sale this year for the OS. It’s tempting to think that its unpopularity may be because, for walkers, Map 440 holds no Munros and therefore no perceived challenge; perhaps it’s too far from the centres of Scotland’s population. Or does its double-sided statement of human absence suggest inhospitable, even hostile, land? Despite the peatlands around Loch Shin being recognised nationally and internationally for ecological and habitat reasons, the grand landscape revealed from Ben Hee’s summit isn’t celebrated for its scenery.

The map frames what some might call a ‘wilderness’, but it isn’t beyond the human sphere if we take into account that such lands are usually managed for commercial timber, grouse moor, hydro or wind power. Our sense of wildness relates more to the remoteness from roads, lack of residents, and the power of weather and season to transform our experience as well as, perhaps, that the underlying structure of the landscape seems bared here. In the late 16th century, Timothy Pont wrote ‘Extreem wildernes’ in large letters across his sketch map of northern Sutherland, almost as if he’d given up trying to find features, or at least human ones, to fill the space as he walked its hills and river valleys. Further annotations on this map reflect his distaste for uncultivated mountain environment and sparse human habitation: ‘many wolfs in this cuntry’ and ‘black flies … seene souking men’s blood’.

Pont needed to climb to viewpoints, the dividing ridges of watersheds, in order to fully understand and sketch the topography without the aid of mapping or surveying tools. As a result, according to Ian R Mitchell writing in ‘The Nation Surveyed: Timothy Pont’s Maps of Scotland‘, his knowledge of the Scottish mountains was second to none until 300 years’ later when Sir Hugh Munro completed a round of the 3000-foot peaks.

A young scholar from St Andrew’s University, Pont mapped vast tracts of Scotland in what must have been hostile conditions and at a time of few roads, sketching topographies and human settlements as far apart as Dumfries and Durness, including many in-between. Although some slightly odd representations suggest he sometimes used verbal sources and descriptions to fill gaps in his own observations, he seems to have covered much of it himself, on foot. He was the earliest known Scottish map-maker, and although overlooked in his own lifetime, 35 of his maps of Scotland were copied as engravings for Joan Blaeu’s world atlas of 1654, including those of ‘Southerlandia’. His originals remained unprinted until Jeffrey C Stone’s collection appeared in 1989. They are now at the National Library of Scotland, and viewable online – highly recommended for their fascinating archive of place and their great visual charm.

The combination of ‘birds-eye’ representation and elevations mean that his drawings of buildings and hill-shapes are still recognisable when seen from a particular angle. Suilven (named ‘Skormynag’ by Pont) appears to have been drawn from Elphin, so that its eastern summit looks higher, and almost hooks towards the western top. He charted chapels, mines, bridges, islands, antiquities, and placenames whilst his field notes refer to significant families, historical stories, local produce or commerce, thus building a pictorial and verbal impression of surprising depth. His mapping has been described as an act of ‘chorography’ as opposed to cartography. This word referred to capturing qualities of places, describing the attributes of people and their past as well as the topography, in order to gain knowledge of a region or nation at a particular period.

It was the ‘empty quarter’ on another kind of map, a road atlas of the far reaches of sparsely-populated Caithness, that led me to write the novel Call of The Undertow. It’s about a contemporary cartographer drawn away from southern England, where maps are densely-packed with roads and buildings. She’s lured instead into self-exile in the far Northeast. Once there, however, she begins to fill in the blank spaces, learning the intricacy of the local land through her own explorations and encouraging a local nine-year-old boy who creates a Pont-like map in lines, pictures and words. His own act of local ‘chorography’, represents not only the geographical surface but what is hidden in the land by time or by community subterfuge. It was a curious coincidence that after starting to write this novel, I found that Timothy Pont had himself been church minister in my setting at Dunnet for at least 10 years from 1601. It seems incredible that he managed two such careers in his shortish life.

About a week before my own walk in Sutherland, a mountain rescue team were called out to find two people attempting to climb Ben Macdui using only Google maps on their phones; a guide with scant detail of the non-human world. The Cairngorm plateau, as the mountain rescue team pointed out, would have appeared as a huge blank expanse. The pair, with no other navigational equipment, were 17 miles off route when found in 100mph winds. I’m a traditionalist when it comes to navigation and prefer a paper map and compass, resorting to digital props as a backup. I know that many walkers do it successfully the other way around. It’s partly that I love to see what’s around me on the map and enjoy its physical substance but it also gives me a sense of security; the battery can’t fail.

If I’m inclined to be self-righteous about this, I got my come-uppance as we descended from the bealach below Ben Hee towards Alt Coir a’ Chruiteir, the burn which provides a steady guide back to the track above Loch Merkland. I took the map from its case. Snatched from my hands by wind, it took flight, soaring and then dipping to crash its paper wings from distant rock to snow tussock until my wild downhill sprint caught me up with it. I admit I’d chastised the map for being clumsily double-sided, for not being 1:50,000; a scale I still prefer. But I didn’t wish to be without it: my guide, my means of picturing the land.

And, after all, I’ll need map 440 again. As a map fanatic, the hours I’ve now spent ‘reading’ it have suggested hidden treasure, tantalising me with dense representations of contour, vegetation patterning, bridges, dotted paths and features bearing Gaelic names. I’ve seen marvellously remote through-routes to explore in multi-day walks as well as fastnesses of complex hill and valley. It’s enticed me to go beyond the road end at Glen Cassley for a long approach to Ben More Assynt and to explore a steep series of hills and crags pitching along its western edge from Meall an Aonaich. It’s also made me curious about the history of ‘The Schoolhouse’ marked beside the remote Duag Bridge, an intersection of tracks and burns surrounded by deciduous woodland. As well as making this place and its map feel more loved, I want to add detail to my own mental map, to fill in this gap in my own foot-worked knowledge of Scotland’s regions.

Map 440, I think I love you. And I’m coming back.

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You should always carry a backup means of navigation and not rely on a single phone, app or map. Walking can be dangerous and is done entirely at your own risk. Information is provided free of charge; it is every walker's responsibility to check it and to navigate safely.