Comhairle nan Eilean Siar Logo (with tagline Ag Obair Còmhla Airson nan Eilean)
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Important historical map of Lewis preserved and digitised

Photo of map being deinstalled from CnES headquarters
Photo of map being deinstalled from CnES headquarters

A uniquely important estate map of Lewis, from the collections of Western Isles Libraries, has been digitised and made available online for the first time, thanks to funding from the ‘Capturing Memories’ project, and a partnership involving Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s Libraries Service, Heritage Service, the National Library of Scotland and the National Library of Wales.

The estate map, drawn in 1817 by Alexander Gibbs, is titled ‘Plan of the Island of Lewis, The Property of the Rt. Honourable Lady Hood MacKenzie of Seaforth’. It was however based on an earlier survey of the island by James Chapman, dating to 1807-1809, which has not survived so far as is known.

The Gibbs map therefore represents the earliest surviving detailed survey of Lewis. It records features such as moors, woods, farms and farm boundaries, dykes, placenames, settlements, ecclesiastical parish boundaries and ancient chapel sites. Notes written on the map and a Table of Contents provide further important information about land use in Lewis at this time. The map is also uniquely important to the wider study of land surveying in Scotland.

Whole map: James Chapman / Alexander Gibbs, Plan of [the] Island of Lewis, the Property of the Rt. Honorable Lady Hood Mackenzie of Seaforth, Surveyed 1807-9, Copied 1817. Courtesy of Stornoway Public Library
Whole map: James Chapman / Alexander Gibbs, Plan of [the] Island of Lewis, the Property of the Rt. Honorable Lady Hood Mackenzie of Seaforth, Surveyed 1807-9, Copied 1817 – Courtesy of Stornoway Public Library

The large map, measuring 2.1 x 1.9 metres, had been displayed in a stairwell of Comhairle nan Eilean Siar’s headquarters for many years. Its location high up on a wall above a false floor made it impossible to view the map in detail, and was also not conducive to its long-term preservation due to light exposure and environmental conditions.

Due to its size and location, a number of logistical difficulties had to be overcome to remove the map. The operation was made possible by a team consisting of the National Library of Scotland’s conservator and map curator, Museum nan Eilean’s Conservation Officer, specialist art handlers, the Comhairle’s Technical Services department, who arranged the installation of scaffolding, and the Comhairle’s Archivist.

The map was carefully removed and transported to the digitisation service of the National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, which has a suitably large scanner and the expertise to handle such a historically important artefact.

The digital version of the map has been added to a specially created section of the National Library of Scotland’s maps website focussed on historic maps of ‘Stornoway and Environs’. This online resource is a partnership between Western Isles Libraries Service and NLS. It brings together a number of historically significant maps from the collections of both institutions. Inclusion on this site means that the map can be georeferenced, enabling map regression comparison with other cartographic resources. The map is now available for detailed study by anyone with an interest in the land history of Lewis.

Detail of Loch Chàrlabhaigh / Loch Carloway environs - Courtesy of Stornoway Public Library
Detail of Loch Chàrlabhaigh / Loch Carloway environs – Courtesy of Stornoway Public Library

The digital version will also be made available on the Libraries Service’s digital collections website ‘Ar n-àite’ in due course and the original will be stored by Tasglann nan Eilean, the Comhairle’s archive service, which has the correct environmental conditions for its long-term preservation.

Chris Fleet, Map Curator at the National Library of Scotland, stated

‘It is wonderful to be able to view the Chapman/Gibbs map in detail for the first time in decades. This impressive estate map is the earliest detailed survey of Lewis and of immense value for the history of the island. The National Library of Scotland has been very happy to collaborate in this project to make this uniquely important map available to wider audiences.’

Neil Macleod, Service Manager, Western Isles Libraries, stated,

‘The Comhairle is very grateful for the support offered by both National Library of Scotland and the National Library of Wales. This support, along with the funding from the Capturing Memories project, has made it possible for a uniquely important historical resource to be made available to everyone.’  

The map is available to view online.


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