Historical maps of isles go on show at museum for first time

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Five historical maps of Shetland have gone on display for the first time this week at Shetland Museum.

The engravings from the 17th and 18th centuries have been the inspiration for the new range of wooden cut jigsaws produced exclusively for the museum’s gift shop.

The maps are displayed in the foyer corridor where they are available to view until 7th January.

Few people 400 years ago had a clue where Shetland was, let alone what it looked like. The isles were far away somewhere in the north Atlantic, but outsiders from the Netherlands and Britain did come here to trade, and as numbers increased, so did knowledge about Shetland.

One of the first maps of the Northern Isles was drawn by Timothy Pont, a minister from Caithness. He visited the isles around 1610 and drew a splendid map. It was not published until Hendrik Hondius released Atlas Novus in Amsterdam in 1636. Hondius’s atlas was influential, so Pont’s Shetland map was copied for over a century.

Jacques Bellin, an official at the French marine office, produced a chart of Shetland waters in his 1764 atlas, and magazines from the 18th century onwards featured Shetland maps, like one by Thomas Kitchin and John Barber in the London Magazine in 1778.

More ships moved around the Atlantic in the 17th century, and seamen needed charts to guide them on these longer voyages. Dutch mariners had more of an interest in Shetland than British ones, as their fishing and merchant vessels were regularly in these waters.

Dutch mapmaking was the best in the world, so it was natural that most Shetland maps were produced in the Netherlands. The maps have Dutch names for places in Shetland, such as Swijnborgerhooft (Sumburgh Head), Wtscheren (Out Skerries), Blauwebergen (Ronas Hill), Larwyk (Lerwick), Buyse Haven (Bressay Sound).

One of the earliest maps of the islands was drawn by Lucas Waghenaer in 1592. It was very inaccurate, but was often copied. One of these copies was produced by Jan Jansson in his 1620 Licht der Zeevaert.

One of the best maps was drawn by Shetlander John Bruce. He was fluent in Dutch, a skilled surveyor and navigator. His work was published posthumously in Amsterdam in 1745.


Add Your Comment
  • Ted Knight

    • November 25th, 2010 9:47

    This is interesting bearing in mind that while researching a book about Shetland I undertook two visits to the New Museum and Archive in 2007 to enquire about Shetland maps circa 1668 and was reliably informed that “there are none to be had on Shetland”.

    But it gets worse. I am now working on a sequel to my Shetland tale (set on Shetland and Orkney), and have been informed (on Orkney) that “there are no maps here”.

    Strange, is it not?


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