Scotland: Defending the Nation - Mapping the Military Landscape

Scotland: Defending the Nation cover

This book is a collaborative publication between Birlinn and the National Library of Scotland, with maps drawn principally from the Library's rich map collections. It explores Scotland's unique and fascinating military history, using six centuries of military maps of Scotland. The maps begin in the 1450s and come through to the latest digital mapping.



Warfare has been a primary driving force behind mapping for centuries; military needs were responsible for the creation of many important maps of Scotland. By adopting a military perspective, this Scottish mapping can be better understood.

Scotland has a unique and significant military history, which these maps clearly show. They can be explained through specific Scottish geographical and historical contexts, but a broader perspective is also useful, as the main driving forces behind the military concerns were international, and the military engineers who produced many of the maps were from overseas.

The book celebrates the achievements of military forces, engineers and personnel in Scotland, whilst also considering the damage caused by warfare, such as loss of life, appropriation of land for military purposes, prisoners of war, and wrecks at sea. It also looks at practical subjects such as water supply for garrisons, the planning and construction of barracks, and dealing with bomb damage for rebuilding purposes.

The sections below illustrate some of the themes and maps:

Battle Plans

The book includes details of many Scottish battles, including the Battle of Pinkie (1547, the Battle of Glenshiel (1719, the Battle of Falkirk (1745, and the Battle of Culloden (1746. This manuscript map (right, drawn up around 1748 by a French officer who was present on the day, gives a rare Jacobite view of the battle. The plan also gives a good impression of the main movements of the armies during the battle – how Cumberland wheeled his third line around to the right to counter new troops on the Jacobite left near Culloden Park, and how the Hanoverians took over the Culwhiniac Enclosure to the south. It also shows how the central Jacobite advance veered to the right so that they obstructed the following regiments, squashing the Jacobite charge and bringing it to a halt. Excellent details of the armies, commanders and the various regiments and clans are also given. The map was handed down through family lines in French military circles, before being taken to the United States and then donated to the National Library of Scotland in 1996.

Castles and forts

Military maps also graphically illustrate the complete transformation in defences and weaponry over time. From the late 17th century, traditional castles in the larger cities witnessed major upgrades to cope with more powerful and mobile artillery. New external perimeter defences were constructed for castles such as Stirling and Edinburgh, whilst during the 18th century, completely new forts, such as Fort Augustus and Fort George at Ardersier, were built with thick low walls and projecting angled bastions to better withstand heavy guns. From the 1720s, smaller defensible barracks were placed strategically across the Highlands to counter the growing threat of Jacobite insurgency. With new threats of American privateers in the 1770s and then of a suspected French invasion in the 1790s, coastal batteries and martello towers were built, primarily near harbours along the east coast, such as Arbroath. Most of Scotland’s major castles were largely superseded by the 20th century, with greater concerns over coastal and then airborne attacks.

Paul Sandby’s masterful depiction of Dumbarton Castle (right is one of the most artistically accomplished of all the Board of Ordnance’s graphic representations of Scotland’s forts. From the time of Leonardo da Vinci (1452–1519, both planimetric (overhead and ground level views of the same place had proved their value, particularly for military engineering. Sandby, however, goes a stage further in setting his planimetric view inside a subtle bird’s-eye front and rear view of the castle. Dumbarton’s rugged and craggy mass of rock, with its prominent central gully, is brought to life, with the views from the west and east forming an aesthetically pleasing and informative whole.


Many military sites have been censored over time, and the book includes both military and civilian mapping of selected places, to show how much was "missing" on the latter civilian maps. For example, the public would have struggled to find Fort George at Ardersier on any pre-1920 Ordnance Survey map:

Split-screen viewer showing Fort George, Ardersier censorship
See Fort George "erased" from the map (left and in reality (right

These two ‘air photo mosaics’ below show changing attitudes to censorship in the post-War world, as well as the doctoring of air photos. These air photos were originally intended for official use only, but were offered for sale to the public between 1945-47. The left-hand photo shows good detail of a military installation in an uncensored manner — the Anti-Aircraft Battery at Limekilnburn, around 3 miles south of Hamilton on the A723 Strathaven road. The Battery formed part of the Clyde Anti-Aircraft Defences, and included a ‘Gun Laying’ radar platform (the central rectangular structure shown here, surrounded by four large gun emplacements.

Limekilnburn on 1946 photo
OS Air Photo Mosaic of Limekilnburn, 1946
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Limekilnburn on 1950 photo
OS Air Photo Mosaic of Limekilnburn, 1950
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By the late 1940s, however, there were growing concerns that some air photos showed military installations all too clearly, and many, including the 1946 one, were withdrawn from public sale. From 1950, newly doctored air photos were re-issued for these selected locations, with a false landscape of empty fields and suitably erased military infrastructure (right. Limekilnburn’s gun platforms were re-used after the War in the 1950s as a Cold War Battery, and although the site doesn’t appear on many standard Ordnance Survey maps, the structures are clearly visible on satellite imagery today.

The book shows how maps illustrate both more and less than the real world - they embellish and censor, present and misrepresent - and through doing so, illustrate the many different perspectives on military activity in Scotland over time.

German military maps

Following the successful German invasions of Poland (September 1939, Norway (April-June 1940 and France (May-June 1940, Hitler’s attentions turned to Britain, particularly from July 1940. On 16 July 1940, Hitler issued Fuhrer Directive No 16 for preparations for a landing operation against Britain, known as ‘Operation Sealion’. Significant resources were devoted to the project, particularly in research and documentation, with maps, photographs and detailed written reconnaissance.

The German army gathered photographs, sometimes from aerial reconnaissance, and others from pre-War picture postcards, which collectively give an excellent impression of the landscape and terrain that the army might find itself in. For example, the air photo of the Forth Bridge above gives details of the distance between the bridges and height above the water of this key infrastructure target.

The Germans also compiled a useful map showing land cover (right. This map classified land characteristics, showing its suitability for different types of army vehicles, aircraft landings and building materials, with the main lines of roads and railways shown with black continuous and dashed lines. Most of the eastern parts of Scotland was yellow Lehm/Clay, interspersed with red Kristalline Gesteine/Igneous Crystalline rocks and dark green Sandstein/Sandstone or light green Kreide/Chalk. The invasions of Norway, Belgium and France had already proved how vital this ground information was, particularly for tanks, and at a glance the map allows an army commander to assess this.

The German army was excellently briefed on the military geography of Britain and on coastal defences. Although the further they might have advanced inland, the more sparse their knowledge became, it was arguably still comparable to that of the British army.

Military roads

Maps offer key insights too into the major phases of military road building in Scotland, first under George Wade from the late 1720s, and second under his successor, William Caulfeild, from the late 1740s.

This map (right records the different regiments responsible for the miitary road under construction between Fort William and Kinlochleven in 1750. Through his striking use of hachured lines or ‘centipedes’ to show relief, John Archer’s map shows the dramatic, and often difficult, landscape, and clearly distinguishes the sections of road made by Colonel Rich’s Regiment (in red and the section made by General Guise’s Regiment (in yellow. Rich’s men worked from the north, building the road through Blar a’ Chaorainn along the north bank of the River Kiachnish. Guise’s men took over to construct a section of the road passing the north end of Lochan Lunn Da-Bhra, before Rich’s men continued the build through Lairigmor towards Kinlochleven. Several bridges were built along the route, ranging from 10- to 24-foot spans. Without a bridge, crossing rivers could be treacherous in the Highlands, and waiting for water levels to drop could severely hamper the quick and easy passage of troops.

Soviet Military Maps

Soviet military maps have a distinguished pedigree, and in the twentieth century they were the most extensive, detailed military mapping ever produced across the globe. Military concerns were integral to their development. It is only following the disintegration of the Soviet Union in the 1990s that many of these formerly secret maps of parts of Britain and Scotland became generally available in Western, non-military circles, allowing something of their history and content to be studied.

The Soviet military map of Aberdeen, dating from 1981 (right was no ordinary street map, but a very detailed repository of topographic intelligence. Precise measurements were included of many features such as widths and lengths of the Victoria Bridge and Wellington Suspension Bridge over the Dee, whilst between these, the width of the Dee was also measured. Unlike other maps of the city, buildings were colour-coded by their function – brown for residential, black for industrial, green for military and purple for civil administration. Green contour lines curve across the map at very regular 5 metre intervals, with frequent spot heights on the land and depths in the harbour.

The military purpose behind the map is also clear from its accompanying ‘spravka’, a detailed geographical description of the city. Amongst other things, we learn from this that the landscape around Aberdeen is ‘dissected by deep river valleys that are the major obstacles for non-road mobile machinery’, that ‘the coastal area north from Aberdeen is suitable for amphibious landing’ and that the impressive harbour ‘dockage facilities can provide complete overhaul of vessels, including destroyers’.

Town Plans

The earliest town plans of Fort William, Inverness, Perth and Stirling were made by military engineers.

A Plan of the Town and Castle of Sterling, 1725View zoomable image of Stirling, 1725

This clear and striking military plan above is our earliest surviving detailed map of Stirling. It allows us to see the town with a military eye, picking out many details of the castle fortifications and its surrounding topography, whilst also giving good information on the town, including the church, hospital, major market places and the earliest clear depiction of the sixteenth-century walls.



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