For our Christmas e-blast this year, we decided to look North to Arctic lands, in particular to Lapland, for inspiration and dipped into the Society’s collections to find illustrations from an appropriately Scottish source – Blackie’s The Comprehensive Atlas & Geography of the World.

The images we show are interesting from a historical perspective and counterpoint the Lapland of today which, in our shrinking world, is fairly easily accessible and a popular Christmas time destination for families, not least with this northerly Nordic region stimulating thoughts of Santa Claus and holding the possibility of viewing the Aurora Borealis / Northern Lights.

First published in 1882, this finely illustrated work was, as stated in the atlas itself, “compiled and engraved from the most authentic sources under the supervision of W. G. Blackie”.  This was Walter Graham Blackie, PhD, FSA Scot, FRGS (1816-1906) a Glaswegian and second son of John Blackie (Senior) originally a weaver, who turned to bookselling and thence into printing and publishing in Glasgow.  W G Blackie initially trained as a printer in Glasgow and later joined the family publishing firm there.  But Edinburgh was not left out: some of the maps were prepared in Edinburgh by John Bartholomew.

The illustrations in this splendid atlas – as well as the maps – represent Victorian understanding of the cultures, customs and peoples encountered by explorers and travellers at that time and demonstrate publishers’ responses to the Victorian’s great interest in armchair travel.  Understandably today, our knowledge and interpretation of these – over a century and a quarter later – has developed and changed, but it is always interesting to note how late-19th century publishers and public viewed and interpreted such things.

By the last quarter of the 19th Century, Victorian culture had become profoundly international.  Global travel, imperial politics and scientific thinking all intertwined, producing up-to-date knowledge that was increasingly displayed in maps in one form or another.  Particularly popular for family curiosity and consumption were the large atlases and gazetteers produced by mapmaking companies, like the aforementioned Bartholomew and Son, and publishing houses, including Glasgow’s W. G. Blackie and Son, who at the time of our chosen example were also becoming heavily involved in the production of books for the educational market, particularly for children.