William Roy

Following the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, Major General William Roy mapped Scotland in detail. His maps remain valuable in the present day as they form the basis of our Ancient Woodland Inventory of Scotland. Roy was a superb cartographer and his efforts helped speed the development of the Ordnance Survey in 1791, which remains one of the world’s most famous producers of maps.

Roy's map showing Abernethy

Roy’s map showing Abernethy (Image copyright of The British Library Board)

The Jacobite uprisings in the Highlands encouraged the government to facilitate troop movements by building roads to link strategic army camps such as Fort George and Fort William. However, the road builders such as General Wade and Major Caulfield laboured without detailed and accurate maps.

A year after the Battle of Culloden in 1746, Lieutenant-Colonel David Watson was charged by the Duke of Cumberland to undertake ‘The Military Survey of Scotland’, now popularly referred to as ‘Roy’s Maps’, after his assistant.

William Roy was born in Carluke, Lanarkshire some twenty years earlier. Not much is known about his early life but it seems it was always his dream to map the whole of Great Britain. He developed extraordinary cartographic skills whilst apprenticed as a civilian draughtsman to the Board of Ordnance employed in surveying new roads for the Royal Mail. He then joined Watson’s Military Survey team based at Fort Augustus, but his position as Practitioner Engineer carried no particular military status.

The Board of Ordnance had been lobbying the Duke of Cumberland, as Head of the Army, to rectify this matter and in 1755 Roy was elevated to Ensign rank and commissioned into the 53rd Regiment of Foot.

A Scot himself, Lt-Col Watson received a payment of five shillings a day, his two assistants (Roy and a man named Stewart) got four shillings. Non-Commissioned Officers and men were recruited for the Military Survey for their qualities of ‘carefulness and sobriety’. Each surveying party, under the Engineer Officer, comprised an NCO and six troopers; one carried the theodolite, two measured with the chain, two manned the fore and back stations, and the remaining one acted as batman.

Roy modestly maintained that his maps provided ‘a magnificent military sketch [rather] than a very accurate map of the country’. However they conveyed a clear impression of the landscape in the mid-18th century. At the time Scotland’s population was around one million people, just over half in the northern part, and mostly rural in distribution. Enclosed fields and parks tended to be clustered around the estate houses, but also on the larger tenanted farms and steadings.Settlement clusters comprised mainly single-storey thatched cottages. All these were depicted carefully on Roy’s Maps along with unenclosed cultivated land and meadows, with rough grazing, scrub woodland and plantations which yielded fuel in the form of peat and timber.

Roy’s original field sheets, to a scale of approximately 2 inches to a mile, are preserved in the British Library but they were never to be assembled into a complete atlas of mainland Scotland. They did however provide an essential baseline for many mapmakers to follow, and pre-empted modern land use surveys, alongside which his meticulous attention to detail can stand to this day. After the survey was completed, Roy was then deployed in the south of Britain where in 1764 he undertook a private study of the ‘Military Antiquities of the Romans in Britain’, ultimately published by the Society of Antiquities in 1793.

Roy was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1767 and had gained the rank of Major-General by 1781. By then living in London, his efforts led to the formation of the Ordnance Survey in 1791, a year after Roy died at the age of 64. Recognised as one of the greatest surveyors of all time, his name is engraved for posterity on the glass doors on the Ordnance Survey Headquarters in Southampton.

Did you know ?

The Military Survey of Scotland, compiled by General Roy around 1750, has allowed us to verify the continuity of woodland cover back to that time across the whole of Scotland.

For many Highland areas, Roy’s Military Survey of Scotland, is arguably the only standard topographic map prior to the Ordnance Survey mapping in the 19th century.

Read more on the National Library of Scotland (NLS) website @ http://maps.nls.uk/roy/background.html and view the Roy map on the NLS site @ http://maps.nls.uk/roy/index.html .

Read more on the SNH website @ http://www.snh.gov.uk/land-and-sea/managing-the-land/forestry-and-woodlands/history/

This biography of William Roy was originally produced for SNH’s Highland Naturalists project – part of our contribution to 2007 The Year of Highland Culture.

Image copyright ‘The British Library Board’





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