Shape of a Mountain

A photo of Schiehallion is an impressive thing, with great hunk with spine aloft, the mountain rises magnificently out of its surroundings. But before photography – and prior to contours – depicting a mountain and suggesting its elevation had quite a history. According to Ainslie’s map of 1783 Schiehallion was but a heap of absently poured salt on a flat, flat table top. Each Scottish peak appears as a little salt pile drawn in profile, each the same size. Rivers are dispensed with so ‘Tumel Bridge’ is simply a mile marker. As the ‘road atlas’ of its day this can be forgiven. shape of mountain copy What I find harder to understand is his revised map just 6 years later. Although rivers are now present – a useful guide to travellers – and mountains are no longer in relief, it’s painful to behold; the hachuring gives the whole land surface the appearance of angry teenage acne.shape of mountain 1A lot depends on who you are drawing a map for; Lempriere’s from 1731 has a more contemporary feel, probably due to its function which was to describe: “…the situation of the several clans and the number of men able to bear arms, as also ye forts lately erected and roads of communication and military ways carried on by his majesty’s commands…” Here, if the map was a table-cloth it is un-ironed, the highlands of Scotland appear foreboding; ‘Chechalian’ dominates surrounding hills.shape of mountain 2I’m on the splendid NLS online map service darting across a century of map making, comparing depictions of Schiehallion. This quest has led to a series of drawings that will be on show (alongside the 4ft map, models and other materials) in the exhibition later this week.

After Lempriere comes Roys’ Military map, this is incredible, detailed, exquisite  map-making for its day, not least because it looks so modern, ‘google earth’ rendered in pen and ink. All these maps are pre Maskelyne’s experiment, pre Hutton; none gives an indication of altitude. The first post Hutton map I find is Arrowsmith’s in 1807, here the hachuring is more refined, like the whorls of a thumb print, rivers run like veins, all very expressive compared to his perfunctory treatment of roads and place names. And there is a ‘spot height’, only one: Schiehallion. He has sheared off the whole mountain top, almost as though creating a plinth for his magnificent text:

‘Schiehallion, 2000Ft. above the Valley, 3550 above the Level of the Sea’

The text curves slightly and ‘sea’ is beginning to slip down the mountainside. Not until Carrington’s map in 1846 is another ‘spot height’ added, (he includes Ben Lawers at 4015ft and has also raised ‘Schichallion’ to 3564).shape of mountain 3As the need for military maps receded so those giving the geology grew, some like MacCulloch in 1840 simply added colours to pre-existing maps. Others started again, flattening the land as though the mountains have lost all importance. Necker in 1808 squeezes in as many place names as he can, and in between slots chains of hills, unlike Ainslie’s little salt heaps 25 years earlier, Necker’s at least are ‘hill shape’… though Schiehallion is not shown at all.

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