Do you know how to read a map?

Did you know that 86% of British people can’t place Edinburgh correctly on a map? London is better known, although a full 40 percent couldn’t pinpoint it on a map either, according to new research by Ordnance Survey.

Schiehallion's conical form. © Lorne Gill/SNH

Schiehallion’s conical form. © Lorne Gill/SNH

With almost one in ten people also admitting to having never used a paper map – one which isn’t on their phone tablet or Sat Nav – are people moving away from using traditional maps nowadays?

We hope that’s not the case, and for National Map Reading Week, we want to put Scotland’s Schiehallion mountain into the spotlight.

Schiehallion, with its distinctive conical summit, is one of Scotland’s most celebrated mountains. It’s known as “the fairy hill of the Caledonians” in folklore, and was believed to have magical powers.

But that’s not why we’re writing about it today. We’re highlighting it because of how important it is in the history of mapping. In fact, it’s not only important – it’s the origin of all contour maps, and much more.

As Bill Bryson details in A Short History of Nearly Everything, way back in 1774, Charles Hutton was hired to help with some survey work on the striking mountain. The consequences of this affected the future of both mapping and science enormously. Bryson writes:
Hutton noticed that if he used a pencil to connect points of equal height, it all became much more orderly. Indeed, one could instantly get a sense of the overall shape and slope of the mountain. He had invented contour lines.

Not only this, but:
Extrapolating from his Schiehallion measurements, Hutton calculated the mass of the Earth at 5,000 million million tons.

Heading along the ridge towards the summit of Schiehallion. © Jim Jeffrey

Heading along the ridge towards the summit of Schiehallion. © Jim Jeffrey

Then, from this, Hutton and Nevil Maskelyne also figured out, for the first time, the masses of all other major bodies in the solar system, including the Sun, the Moon, the other planets and their moons. So mapping one Scottish mountain was the basis for a significant scientific finding which was surprisingly accurate for the time.

Now, British visual artist, Karen Rann has used Hutton’s centuries-old data to create a four-foot-square map of Schiehallion, as well as an elegant 3-D model. Alongside artifacts from Hutton’s research, both of these works of art are on view at the Literary and Philosophical Society in Newcastle, where Rann lives and Hutton once called home. See more about this project on her blog.

Many of us do still find traditional maps fascinating, and many spend hours pouring over an OS map to plan excursions. If you want to improve your map-reading skills at any level – from beginner to advanced – the Ordance Survey has plenty of advice, leaflets, videos and more to help you. Or why not download one of SNH’s Explore for a Day leaflets, which include maps and suggested itineraries for many areas around Scotland. Or you could take up the challenge of trekking up Schiehallion itself!

Have a look at the surprising results of the new research by Ordnance Survey.

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