“The thing about an island… is that you feel you can know it. You feel your mind can encompass everything in it, everything there is to see and to learn and to comprehend. You feel you can contain it…”
Perhaps this is how the OS men felt on Lewis, and before them, perhaps those early Surveyors of Schiehallion (a mountain which often appears to float – island-like – adrift from surrounding chains). Perhaps also too, in the Inishowen Peninsula, Donegal where the OS first explored using contour lines on maps, a do-ably sized chunk of land: specific, delineated. The plan, come September when I begin PhD studies, is to tackle the Irish Survey, so visiting Lewis last week was a practice run; an opportunity to get a feeling of how the OS went about their work in these far-flung places.I am hugely indebted to Margaret from Stornoway Library for trawling the 1851 census before I arrived. What has emerged (over 29 pages) is a snapshot into the lives of 80 OS men registered as living on Lewis then. In amongst the fishermen and fish-curers, shoe and straw-hat makers, are the chainmen, draftsmen, surveyors, clerks and officers of the Ordnance Survey: stationed in local houses and in Inns (run perhaps by a Proprietrix!) Marrying in, having children, making and living their lives on the Island.Over half of them were Irish (or with Irish wives) suggesting – prior to Lewis – some would have been stationed in Donegal, was one of their number involved in those first forays into drawing contour lines on maps?There’s more to follow regarding other Lewis-based discoveries, but I am sad to report missing a photograph that would have put faces to names. Allegedly Stornoway Masonic Lodge held a photo of the OS men. I was stood a drink, told some tall tales, given time to wander the wood-clad corridors (occasionally hung three deep in pictures of men in aprons), but of the photo I sought was no trace.
Opening quote from: The Valley at the Centre of the World by Malachy Tallack.