Chris Fleet studied Geography at the University of Durham. Since 1994 he has worked at the Map Library at the National Library of Scotland, with particular responsibilities relating to digital mapping. He’ll be speaking as part of Over land on Sat 28 October at Faclan on the new book Scotland: Mapping the Islands, which has just been shortlisted for the Saltire Literary Award for best Non-fiction book of the year.
This Year’s Faclan Theme is Ultima Thule: a place beyond the borders of the known world or the “unknown”, Tell us a little about how your work relates to this year’s theme.
My day job as a map curator is all about maps, and I will be talking at Faclan on our book about mapping the Scottish islands over time. Many of the earliest maps of Scottish islands blend myth and uncertainty, especially at their borders, showing imaginary and far away islands. The first true map of Scotland from the 1560s shows the enormous island of Hirta or St Kilda, dwarfing most of the Hebrides in size. Even when shapes and detail become more accurate over time, all maps carry blank spaces, and pondering what is missing or unknown is often as revealing as reading the main content. Every map has is own centre and periphery, and the peripheries often excite interest, discovery and exploration.
What are you most looking forward to about visiting Lewis?
Arriving in Stornoway on the ferry. I love boats and harbours, and there is always a thrill of arriving on an island by boat.
Where do you go when you want to go “off the Map”?
As a self-confessed mapaholic, I never really like to feel I’m “off the Map”, but as a keen walker, I am especially fond of sparsely populated countryside, with miles of little else but perhaps a few contour lines.
What was the last book you read?
George MacDonald Fraser’s The Steel Bonnets – a masterfully told story of the Anglo-Scottish border and reiving era.
Who is your favourite writer?
I have several favourites, depending on mood, place and time.
What for you is the easiest and/or the most difficult part of writing?
I am very much a part-time writer – my main job is as a map curator. I find reading and researching the background to maps is the really enjoyable and easy part. The first sentence of the day is always the hardest.
Do you have any new projects coming up?
I am co-writing a book on the Military Mapping of Scotland, due to be published by Birlinn in the autumn of 2018
Scotland: Mapping the Islands. As miniature worlds, beautiful locations and homes to communities seemingly distant from the stresses of modern life, Scotland’s many islands have an extraordinary fascination on countless people, not least on the hundreds of thousands of visitors who visit them each year. Maps too fascinate, as objects of visual delight and historical importance, and as a means to represent and understand landscapes.
This stimulating and informative book reproduces some of the most beautiful and historically significant maps from the National Library of Scotland’s magnificent collection in order to explore the many dimensions of island life and how this has changed over time. Arranged thematically and covering topics such as population, place-names, defence, civic improvement, natural resources, navigation, and leisure and tourism, Scotland: Mapping the Islands presents the rich and diverse story of Scottish islands from the earliest maps to the most up-to date techniques of digital mapping in a unique and imaginative way.