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Archival Stories: What's in a Name? Mapping a Gaelic Landscape

Juliette Desportes is a third-year PhD student undertaking a three-month internship with Urras Oighreachd Ghabhsainn, researching the history of Galson Estate and the lead-up to the 1923 re-settlement of the townships.
In her time with us, Juliette will be writing a series of blog posts, named 'Archival Stories'. Here is the second.


At first glance, maps appear to quite literally unearth the past. Former patterns of land use, changes in settlements and place names seem to provide a window onto past landscapes. In some cases, and as the example of Galson will show, maps can provide a ‘before’ and ‘after’ picture of the effects of the Clearances and stand as a powerful reminder of historical injustice. Maps are however not neutral but rather the outcome of a series of choices: what should be represented (and reversely, what should be left out) and how, and who gets to participate in the process (and reversely, who is excluded from it). Maps reveal the intention of their makers, in other words, the purpose for which they were made. This week’s post takes a look at three different depictions of North Lewis to think about the layers of information and meaning included both in and off the map.


The Atlas of Scotland was published by Joan Blaeu, a mapmaker from Amsterdam, in 1654. The Atlas was for the most part compiled from the earlier work of Scottish cartographer Timothy Pont, creator of the earliest surviving maps of Scotland. Blaeu’s Atlas provided a detailed depiction of the West coast of Lewis and can tell us about the Norse origin of the place names of Northern Lewis. As noted by Frank Rennie in The Changing Outer Hebrides, the name Gabhsann originally came from the Old Norse and was later likely influenced by Gaelic aspiration. On Blaeu’s map, one can see there were already two distinct settlements indicated as ‘Gaest’ (North Galson) and ‘Gaest ille’ (South Galson). (Fig.1)

Figure 1 Joan Blaeu's Atlas of Scotland (Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland)

The Atlas also included written texts in Latin. While maps, the artefact, are often considered separately from their context of production or accompanying texts, the process of mapping undertook by Blaeu in his Atlas sought to capture place by directly juxtaposing the maps with regional depictions. These descriptions have now been translated into English. The text reveals what 17th century contemporaries would have considered worthy of note and the mention of women ‘indiscriminately’ fishing alongside men appeared to strike the observers:

In the part pointed to the north is Lewis, along the coast quite frequently cultivated. It has four churches, one castle, seven largish rivers and twelve smaller ones in addition, all according to their size producing salmon: in very many places the sea penetrates the land and spreads into gulfs, all abundantly supplying herring. There is here great production of sheep, which wander freely on moors and in woods. They are each year driven into a narrow place or fold, and the inhabitants shear them in the old manner. A great part of the flat land consists of moors; in them the earth on top is black from the combination over many centuries of moss and rotting trees, to a depth of about a foot. This upper crust is cut into oblong, thin blocks, and dried in the sun; it is then collected to use for fire, and is burned in place of wood. In the following year the bare soil is manured with seaweed and sewn with barley. In this island such a large number of whales is often caught that sometimes (as older men relate) twenty seven, some very large and some smaller, have been offered to the priests as tithes. There is in this island a large cave, in which when the tide recedes water two fathoms deep remains; when it comes in, the depth is more than four. Sitting there on the rocks, a huge crowd of every class, sex and age indiscriminately take a great amount of fish by hook and line. (…)

Many of the things described here are still relevant today: peat burning, sheep farming and fishing. The Atlas also included one of the earliest tales of Guga hunting on Sula Sgeir,

Sixteen miles from this to the west lies the island of Suila Sgeir [sic] one mile long; it produces no grass, nor even heather. Only black cliffs rise up, of which some are covered with black moss. Sea-birds lay and hatch their eggs everywhere there. The nearest people from the island of Lewis sail here for those not yet mature enough to fly, and devote about a week to collecting them, until they fill their boats with the wind-dried flesh and feathers. On this island is seen rarely a kind of bird which is unknown in other regions: they call it ‘colc’, in size a little smaller than a goose. In spring each year it comes there, and brings up its hatched chicks to the point that they can provide for themselves. At about that time the feathers fall off from its whole body and leave it naked: and then at last it takes itself to the sea, and is nowhere seen again till the following spring. It is also a peculiarity of them, that their feathers do not have a quill, but they clothe their whole body with a smooth feather, which has no further hardness, as if with down.

In the Atlas, text was just as important as the map. The intention of the Atlas was to be a work of chorography, a regional description of place, by including as much detail as possible. This type of endeavour can be directly contrasted with a different type of mapping, estate maps produced by landed estate management a couple of centuries later.


Estate chamberlain James Chapman surveyed the entirety of Lewis in 1807-9 and the map of the island was subsequently published in 1821. Chapman’s survey was principally utilitarian and sought to record land use, boundaries and capture potential future “improvements”. Chapman was not interested in the particularities of place, but rather in the ways land could be maximised for profit. Chapman was a land surveyor and held a considerable extent of land on the estate in his capacity as a sheep farmer. The map was part of a bounded volume, which unfortunately has been lost and would have included detailed information about each farm. While not apparent on the copy reproduced here, Chapman had used colour coding to differentiate between arable, pasture, moor, woods and farm boundaries. Alongside these particulars, Chapman included comments on the quality and type of land, for example, ‘Moorish Pasture extending from the boundary of the Parish of Ness to the road from Stornoway to Barras [sic] Manse Containing Acres 16497.2.76’. (Fig 2.)

Figure 2 Plan of the island of Lewis reduced from Mr Chapman's survey (1821) (Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland)

While some Gaelic place names and objects deemed of interest were recorded such as the ‘old chapel’ on Galson’s shore, the map’s primary function was to be practical and “usable”. Chapman’s Book of Plans captured the drive for production-driven agriculture in Lewis and the proprietor Mackenzie of Seaforth’s desire to so-call ‘improve’ his property. At the same period, Chapman oversaw the creation of some of the earliest crofting townships on the island and these changes may have motivated the creation of the survey. The result is a map empty of people, reflecting the mindset of eighteenth and nineteenth-century land management. Chapman’s drive to measure every inch of the island excluded other ways of knowing, an approach not so different from more modern maps, such as the Ordnance Survey.


The Isle of Lewis was one of the first areas in Scotland to be mapped by the Ordnance Survey from 1847 to 1853. This was principally due to proprietor James Matheson, who sponsored the survey and financed part of it. The first edition of the survey provided evidence of changes in settlement patterns and land use enforced by estate management the previous decades. By the 1850s, South Galson had already been cleared and the emptiness of the township is visible on the 1853 map. (Fig. 3)

Figure 3 Galson in 1853 (Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland)

Ordnance Survey officials used name books recording place names, known spellings in Gaelic and descriptive remarks or general observations that could be of interest. These descriptions were not neutral and revealed the ways the landscape was perceived by survey officials. North Galson was entered in the book in Gaelic as ‘Gàbhsunn O’ Tuath’ and described as ‘A small village of huts near the Sea Shore. They are built of stone and earth and thatched with straw. It is intersected by the Stornoway to Ness road and two other bye ones. It contains two slated houses, has a large tract of good arable, and a considerable portion of moorland attached to it’. New Galson, the settlement created after South Galson was cleared in the 1840s was rendered as ‘Galson’ or ‘Gàbhsunn’ and portrayed as ‘A large and populous village, about a mile and a half in length, by about a mile in breadth, situated on both sides of the road from Stornoway to Ness, at about 20 miles from the former place’. By the time the survey was revised in 1895, both North Galson and New Galson had been cleared and this change can be clearly visualised on the map (Fig. 4).

Figure 4 Galson in 1895-8 (Reproduced with the permission of the National Library of Scotland)

While Ordnance Survey engineers were in charge of measuring space, a wealth of informants contributed to the mapping of place by providing Gaelic place names and information about their local area. These guides and informants were left off the map, yet they were essential to the completion of the mapping process. There were two informants for the Barvas parish, Donald Nicholson, from Melbost, and Donald McFarlane. Thanks to the 1851 census, we know that McFarlane was the 36 years old son of Angus and Margaret McFarlane and that he lived in North Galson. Both McFarlane and Nicholson could speak but not spell Gaelic, leaving Ordnance Survey officials with the final say. These officials had clearly little to no Gaelic and under ‘Ghabhsunn O’Thuath’ can be seen written ‘Signifies North’. (Fig.5) In 1877, Gaelic scholar Alexander Carmichael called the Ordnance Survey’s recording of place names ‘precious nonsense and roundabout work’, as ‘non-Gaelic speaking men go about non-English speaking people to take down Norse-Gaelic names with their English meanings!’ When the maps were revised in the 1890s, comments in red ink were added to the 1850s record books, usually crossing out the Gaelic spellings to replace them with the English. (Fig.5) Similarly, the revised maps contained much less Gaelic place names than the 1853 edition.

Ordnance Survey mapping ultimately erased the everyday experiences and ways of knowing of the local residents. In deciding what should or should not be included, mapmakers established a hierarchy between “local knowledge” and “useful knowledge”. Stories, traditions and beliefs associated with place were reduced to ‘names on a map’. Songs, local memory and ruins in the landscape fill in the gaps on those places which were left off the map. An undated Gaelic song from the Isle of Skye includes a rare allusion to cartography and has luckily benefitted from an audio recording dating 1953.

Thug iad dhachaigh daoine Gallda

A thomhas a’ ghrunna le slabhraidh

’S cha robh sloc na cnoc na gleann

Nach robh fear ann a’ sgrìobhadh ac’.

’S thomhais iad a h-uile h-acair

Le pòlachan dearg is bratach

Bha iad ga chunntas na shlatan

Rud nach fhac’ ar sinnsearan.

They brought back Lowland people

To measure the ground with a chain

And there wasn’t a hollow or hill or glen

Which wasn’t written down by a man.

And they measured every acre

With red poles and a flag

They were counting in yards

Something our predecessors never saw.

As put in Eachdraidh le Càirdeas is Cridhe, ‘we can’t attain even the most basic understanding of a district’s history, culture, and indeed its own world, without a good grasp of the landscape in and out of which people made their lives’.

Figure 5 Ordnance Survey Record Book (Crown copyright, National Records of Scotland, OS1/27/1)


The Atlas and maps referred to here can be freely viewed online on the National Library of Scotland’s website:

The Ordnance Survey Record Book for the Isle of Lewis (OS1/27/1) has been digitised and can be accessed on Scotland’s Places:

The 1851 census is freely accessible online at Free CEN,

Tobar an Dualchais includes thousands of recording in Gaelic, Scots and English. The Skye song mentioned here was recorded by Annie Arnott, ‘An Nighean Bhuidhe Bhàn’ (1953), My most sincere thanks to Eilidh Cormack for transcribing and translating this song.


Comunn Eachdraidh Nis, Eachdraidh le Càirdeas is Cridhe (Acair, 2020)

Frank Rennie, The Changing Outer Hebrides: Galson and the Meaning of Place (Acair, 2020)

Finlay MacLeod, ed, Togail Tìr. Marking Time. The Maps of the Western Isles (Acair and An Lanntair Gallery, 1989)

Juliette Desportes is a third-year PhD student at the University of Glasgow. Her research focuses on the emergence of the so-called ‘improved’ landscape in the Highlands and Islands, characterized by the abolition of runrig farming, the implementation of crofting and production-driven agriculture, and reversely, the ways people resisted these changes by asserting their rights to the land. She is undertaking a three months internship with Urras Oighreachd Ghabhsainn to research the history of the Galson estate and the lead-up to the 1923 re-settlement of the townships.


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