New Law Puts Shetland on the Map—and Outside of a Box

Cartographers had previously been in the habit of representing the Scottish islands inside a box because they are located so far from the mainland

A 1736 map of Scotland—with Shetland in a box. Norman B. Leventhal Map Center/Flickr

Shetland, a cluster of more than 100 islands far north of the Scottish mainland, has long presented cartographers with a problem. Because the area is so vast and so remote—it takes up to 13 hours to travel there by ferry from Aberdeen—mapmakers have taken to popping Shetland in a box and sticking it somewhere near the mainland. But now, as Laurel Wamsley reports for NPR, newly enacted legislation requires Scottish government bodies to free Shetland from its box and more accurately situate the islands on official maps.

The new statute is part of the Islands (Scotland) Act, which seeks to foster economic development and empower the communities of the Scottish islands. According to Shetland News, the act was passed in May, and certain provisions came into effect last week, including an amendment stipulating that “the Shetland Islands must … be displayed in a way that accurately and proportionately represents their geographical location in relation to the rest of Scotland."

Shetland’s relegation to a box on Scotland’s map has long irked inhabitants of the area. Tavish Scott, a member of Scottish parliament who represents Shetland and spearheaded the new mapping requirement, tells CBC Radio that “[m]any islanders, if not all of the islanders, feel pretty upset by that and were fed up with the irritation of being in the wrong place.” He also notes that residents have taken to selling T-shirts that depict Shetland in the center and the rest of Great Britain in a box.

All documents produced by Scottish public authorities must comply with the new mapping rules, unless officials can give a good reason as to why they should be granted an exemption. Some members of parliament and cartographic experts have in fact spoken out against the amendment; the Ordnance Survey mapping agency, for instance, says that tinkering with geographic scale and using inset boxes helps avoid “publishing maps which are mostly sea,” the BBC reports.

"It would be virtually impossible to print a paper map, with any usable detail, of this vast geography," the agency notes.

Scott, however, is not particularly sympathetic to such concerns.

“Well, hey-ho. My heart bleeds for them,” he tells the CBC, adding that more accurate maps may help dispel what he refers to as “the central belt attitude,” or the idea “that Edinburgh and Glasgow are the centre of the universe and everywhere else should just be very lucky to be somewhere in their vicinity.”

Scott also says that the new maps will give tourists a better sense of the journey they have to undertake when they venture out to visit the islands, which many people have been inclined to do of late, prompted by the BBC crime series Shetland. Though Scott does worry that the show might give tourists the wrong idea about Shetland’s murder rate.

“We keep telling people it is just a story,” he tells the CBC. “It's not true.”

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