Guest post by Trevor Thomson
Researching ancestors in Scotland throws up all sorts of strange place names – especially in censuses – and they can be a little ‘obscure’. For instance, I was recently researching family in Fife and found the name ‘Castleheggie’ – what on earth is that? Such little-known place names can appear in gazetteers and so on, or in an online resource such as ScotlandsPlaces A-Z list. Sometimes they don’t even appear there.
A useful means of searching for a place name is to refer to old maps – and what is even better is consulting old maps that have been digitised. A significant selection of the National Library of Scotland’s Scottish maps can be found online in the website and provide a rich quantity of information about places throughout Scotland and at different time periods. Some maps are medieval, some are views of towns, such as John Slezer’s engravings, while others are detailed town plans and Ordnance Survey maps.
Pinpointing a locality on an old map can provide an insight into the places that ancestors lived, if they were particularly rural, if they were in villages or towns and so on. The proximity of features such as quarries, mines or manufacturing can reflect why a family may have lived in a specific place if their occupation was relevant to one of the local industries. Comparing the same place on maps of different dates can show the development or changes over time, and very often that means introduction of new buildings, roads, railways and industries.
A great feature of the Library’s digitised maps is that an old map can be superimposed on a contemporary Google Street plan or satellite image, among other options – this means that users can identify features present at a particular place at different times in the past. This is often most useful when viewing city or town maps, where whole streets that once existed have been wiped out by the vagaries of urban planners – or because they represented the worst of inner city life.
Old urban maps can also give reasons why street or neighbourhood names exist. A good example of this is John Ainslie’s Old and New Town of Edinburgh and Leith with the proposed docks dated 1804. This shows owners of property which frequently reflect the yet to be built street names of modern Edinburgh.
Incidentally, I couldn’t find ‘Castleheggie’ in ScotlandsPlaces or in any place name books or gazetteers – but it exists on a ‘Fifeshire’ Ordnance Survey map from the 1890s. And John Thomson’s Atlas of Scotland for 1832. It’s a row of houses, but worthy of record by census takers, and map makers.