As It Happens

Stuffed in a Scottish chimney for years, a 17th century map is painstakingly restored

When a man from Aberdeenshire first presented it to The National Museum of Scotland, conservators didn't quite know what to make of the filthy, tattered, scrunched-up ball of cloth. But after giving it a good bath, they realized they had a map that was more than 300 years old.
An untreated section of the 17th-century map, discovered in the chimney of a house in northeast Scotland undergoing renovation (Courtesy of the National Library of Scotland)

Read Segment Transcript

You never quite know what you might find when you're renovating your house. 

The National Library of Scotland was presented with a filthy old rag. It had something on it which researchers thought to be a map. Now they've realized it's an extremely rare find. 

It was a scrunched up ball — maybe about the size of a football. And it just looked like a bundle of old rags — kind of brown, tatty cloth, with nothing really visible to tell you that it was a map.- Isobel Griffin, Collections Care Manager at the National Library of Scotland
Isobel Griffin (Isobel Griffin/LinkedIn)

Isobel Griffin is the Collections Care Manager of the National Library of Scotland. She spoke with As it Happens guest host Dave Seglins from Edinburgh.

Dave Seglins: Miss Griffin, what kind of shape was this map in when you got it at the library? 

Isobel Griffin: It was in a very, very terrible condition. It was a scrunched up ball — maybe about the size of a football. And it just looked like a bundle of old rags — kind of brown, tatty cloth, with nothing really visible to tell you that it was a map. 

Opening up the map (Courtesy of the National Library of Scotland)

DS: And I understand it was discovered inside a house that was undergoing renovations, is that right? 

"It was a house in Aberdeenshire, and was found stuffed up a chimney. The northeast of Scotland is quite cold, so it was presumably there to keep out the draft.- Isobel Griffin

IG: That's right. It was a house in Aberdeenshire, which is in the northeast of Scotland. And the house was undergoing a major program of renovations, and this map was found stuffed up a chimney. The north east of Scotland is quite cold, so it was presumably there to keep out the draft. And the contractors originally just thought that it was a piece of rubbish. They had on that pile of things that were going to be put in the skip outside. But then one of them happened to notice that there seemed to be a bit of a picture on it. And so rather than putting it in the skip, he took it home, kept it in the carrier bag in his garage for many years. And then when he made friends with somebody who was interested in maps, he said, "Oh! You should see what I've got at my garage!" And gave the map to this man, and the man who received it then thought, "Oh, the library might be interested in this." So he made a trip down from Aberdeenshire to Edinburgh with the map and his carrier bag — I mean, by this time I think it actually moved up in the world — it was in a brown cardboard box, and handed it in to the library. 

The map unfurled (Courtesy of the National Library of Scotland)

DS: So it goes from a from a chimney, to a garage for a few years, to a bag, to a box. It arrives in front of you. When you look at this bundle, what did you think? 

IG: Straight away we felt so excited that it might be something interesting. But it was quite difficult to even get a proper look at it, because when we try to unfurl the map, immediately bits started falling off. And it was absolutely filthy. So we just said, "Thank you very much. We'll see what we can do." And then I think it sat on our shelves awhile. Then, at some point, we did have a go at unraveling it. And then we worked out what the image was. 

DS: Before seeing the image, did you have any concept that you could actually restore this crumbling mass? 

A restored section of the map (Courtesy of the National Library of Scotland)

IG: No. And to be, honest even at that point, when it was unraveled the first time and we realized what it was, we were excited, but we didn't hold up much hope that there would be a way of conserving it. So at that point, it was photographed, and then put back in its box — in its scrunched-up ball — where it stayed for a few more years, until there was kind of renewed talk and interest in it. And so one of the conservators got it out to look at it again. And there was some discussion about whether it was a good use of our resources, because obviously we have millions of objects to work on. Was this really what we should be spending our time on? And we decided we'd do some tests and see where that would get us. And when the tests seemed reasonably successful, that was when we took the decision to go ahead with the full conservation job. 

A section of the map before and after restoration (Courtesy of the National Museum of Scotland)

DS: So tell us about that. How do you go about turning crumbling rags into a restored map? 

IG: Well the first difficult decision was whether we would keep the cloth backing or not. So it's eight paper sections, stuck on to a brown linen backing. But in the end, because it was clearly causing so much damage, we decided that the only way to kind of move forward with the conservation was to try and take the linen backing off. And about half of the paper was missing. So the paper was quite complete in some areas, but then very fragmentary in others. 

DS: How old was this? You placed it at what time in history? 

IG: We think because of the pictures of William III and Mary in the middle, that helps very much with the dating — because they only reigned from 1689 to when Mary died in 1694. So we're talking around 1690. 

A restored section of the map (Courtesy of the National Library of Scotland)

DS: So the original linen is no longer holding, and there are pieces missing from the actual images. So what did you do from there? 

"[W]e washed this map in a big bath of water, and tons and tons of dirt and soot came out of it. And then we were able to see much more of what was going on.- Isobel Griffin

IG: We used a humidity chamber to help flatten it out, because it was extremely scrunched up, with these huge folds and tears. We applied a fine tissue paper to the front of the map, because it was so fragmentary that if we'd started taking the back off, without anything holding it together, it would have been like a huge pile of jigsaw pieces. So by facing the front, that kind of held everything in place. And we were then able to use moisture and small hand tools to pry the backing off, leaving us just with the paper pieces all in position, but still extremely dirty. So then the next stage was to wash it, which is something that I think people who don't know about paper conservation always think sounds extremely scary, but it's quite a common thing to do. So we washed this map and in a big bath of water, and tons and tons of dirt and soot came out of it. And then it was then in a much better state, and we were able to see much more of what was going on. 

DS: And so what did you see? 

IG: Well, what it shows is we've got William and Mary in the middle, and then there are two large hemispheres mapping the world. This is a style of maps that came in when people, you know, kind of began to realize that in fact the world wasn't flat. It was round, and so to show this, they showed the map kind of more as a globe shape. And there's decoration in each corner depicting the four seasons. And there's also — down each side — pictures of towns and cities. There's lots of really intriguing detail as well, some things that were going on at the time. So there's images of explorers, and where they're getting — very political and of its time. 

DS: How rare a find is this? 

IG: Well, there are lots of versions of this map by other map makers. But we only know of two other surviving copies of this particular map, that was made by the map maker called Valck. And there's one in the British Library, and there's one in the Maritime Museum in Rotterdam. And they're similar to, but not absolutely identical to the map we have. So you could say it's a complete one-off. So it is rare. Probably not that valuable, given that it's so fragmentary. But in terms of its historical significance it's quite important. 

(Courtesy of the National Library of Scotland)

DS: So what will you do with it now? 

IG: Well we're hoping that early in 2017, we'll have a display of it, because, you know, it would be so nice to have it hanging again, when it probably wasn't on a wall for hundreds of years. 

This interview has been condensed and edited. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with Isobel Griffin.

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