MSP Tavish Scott intends to introduce an amendment to the Islands Bill currently before the Scottish Parliament, which would compel public bodies to “accurately and proportionately” depict Shetland in relation to the rest of the country. He point out the cartographic tendency to place the archipelago in a box somewhere off Scotland’s east coast annoys island residents, as they feel like their home is an afterthought on maps. Great for inclusion, exactly what the Islands Bill intends to do, one would think.

But what are the implications? The Shetlands Times describes the placing of Shetland-in-a-box as a geographical error. It is plainly not: it is a cartographic compromise. And there are always implications to a compromise. To include the Northern Isles in their actual geographical location, separated from the mainland by almost 100 miles of water, would reduce the scale at which the country can be displayed by around 40%.

That means Scotland’s smaller Council Areas (e.g. Dundee) effectively disappear, reduced from any kind of area to an insignificant point, or major features such as the Firths of Tay and Forth lost under text-labels for Dundee and Edinburgh. We are left having to put the Central Belt in a zoom-box because of the loss of detail in areas where most people live, or having to use two sheets of paper rather than one for maps of Scotland. Just as well we don’t live in Chile – that narrow but 2,653-mile long country is almost impossible to viably display on a single sheet of paper.

The circumstance of Shetland-in-a-box (and indeed Orkney-in-a-box-too) is a feature of maps intended to display our entire country with a reasonable level of detail. It is neither a feature of Ordnance Survey mapping, which divides Scotland into numerous sheets, nor of modern online maps such as produced by Google or Bing, where detail can be displayed dynamically depending on levels of zoom. Even the BBC weather map is zoomed and panned to display details, so can include all parts of the country. But traditional maps are, and have always been, replete with cartographic compromises, whether it be omitting details unnecessary to what the map is trying to portray; projections which show Greenland as twice the size of Australia; or scale which displays the world’s mega-cities as insignificant dots rather than immense polygons.

We may be uncomfortable with some of these choices, but the professionalism of the cartographer should ensure appropriate use. Maps are by their nature gross simplifications of the real world. Each individual map has a purpose and it is crucial that cartographers are not hampered by political correctness. It is important that Tavish Scott raises this issue, and reminds us of the value of inclusivity in terms of some of our most topographically-stunning and economically important islands, but it is equally important that cartographers are not muzzled in the maps they produce.

Written by Bruce Gittings FRSGS, University of Edinburgh