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Blaeu's Orkneys and Schetland


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A reproduction of Johann Blaeu's Atlas Novus with translated decriptions of Orkney and Shetland.

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Edited by James M. Irvine.

The fifth volume of Joanne Blaeu's Atlas Novus was the first comprehensive atlas of Scotland. Published in 1654. it contains the well-known map of Orkney and Shetland by Timothy Pont that includes more place-names than any subsequent map until the Ordnance Survey of the 19th century.

It also contains eight descriptive texts of these islands in Latin.

These texts were first translated into English in 2004 and are available, with a facsimile of the original Atlas, on the National Library of Scotland website, but without local editorial comment.

This volume reproduces the map and the translated descriptions of Orkney and Shetland with editorial footnotes, and explores their provenance, reliability and local significance.

It dates Ponts survey for his map to 1592, the 12,000 word 'New Description of the Orkneys' to about 1644. and the shorter "New Description of Schetland' to about 1646. The author of both these descriptions, at that time the longest to have been written on these islands, is identified as Walter Stewart. Minister of South Ronaldsay.

Stewart's 'New Description of the Orkneys' gives us an insight into the awe in which the Pentland Firth was held by some 17th century travellers, the speaking of Gaelic in South Ronaldsay, and contemporary views on the high status buildings of the time. It includes perceptive observations on rural life and the health and character of 'the common people', and adds fascinating glimpses of social life in Kirkwall in the relatively affluent period between the disastrous famines of the 1630s and the Cromwellian austerity of the 1650s.

Stewart's 'New Description of Schetland' is shorter but describes the Shetlanders" ponies, weaving, fishing, pets, drinks, dress, trade, customs, manners and health. It identifies the leading families of the time, and even the remarkable Lawrence of Gernigo in the island of Walls who married in his hundredth year and went fishing forty years later!


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