Timothy Pont's Map of Scotland Map Man


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Timothy Pont's Map of Scotland

Nicholas Crane travels across eight British historical maps. He uses Timothy Pont's 16th-century maps of Scotland to locate unidentified mountains.


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This is Sutherland in north-west Scotland.

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It's a bleak landscape -

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towering mountains,

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scarcely a tree, unforgiving tracts of untamed wilderness.

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Not a comfortable destination for a mapmaker.

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But one young man in the late 1500s thought it was spectacular.

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When Timothy Pont set out to survey his homeland, he was in his 20s, and Scotland was in trouble.

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Witch burning, rebellious clans, cattle rustling, banditry, wolves - the Scots had the lot.

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Only a particularly brave, or perhaps foolhardy, map maker would tackle a country like this.

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I'm going to take an incredible journey in Pont's footsteps

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across the last remaining wilderness in Britain.

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I want to discover what Pont charted on these, the very first detailed maps of Scotland.

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Were they accurate? And, most importantly,

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what drove one man to attempt to map such a vast and inhospitable land?

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Timothy Pont's maps of the north-west of Scotland may be rough sketches.

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But they are the field work of an exceptional mapmaker.

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Never before had the rivers and towns, the forests and mountains been set down in such detail.

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This was clan territory.

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It was dangerous, and what Pont provided for the first time was a way through the Highlands.

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The Highlands were the most rebellious and lawless part of the country.

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And that's what fascinates me.

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Round here, even royal messengers didn't dare deliver the King's letters to clan chiefs.

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So, how did Pont do his survey without losing himself or his head?

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My route will take me from the shores of Loch Maree

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to the far north-west of Sutherland, deep in the heart of Britain's last true wilderness.

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I'll be crossing a holy loch, tracking a bandit's highway, and my goal is the mysterious

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and frighteningly named Way of the Wolves. It's gonna be quite some journey.

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They're not the easiest maps to follow,

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and that's because Pont's sketches depict individual geographical scenes.

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They don't give you the big picture.

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Certain things stand out very clearly, though -

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particularly the lochs.

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This is Loch Maree.

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We know Pont came here because he was no armchair cartographer.

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He visited places that were scarcely known,

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like these islands.

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He mapped all 24 of them and he gave names to 16.

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The trouble is that he didn't show us where on the loch the islands are,

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and I can't see a single one of them from here.

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I've a suspicion that he can only have mapped those islands by looking down on them from above.

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So I need to get across that loch and up a mountain.

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Pont was not commissioned to do his survey.

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It's possible that it was his father's idea.

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Robert Pont was a key figure in Scottish religious and political circles

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and he may have hoped that, by mapping Scotland, his son could win the favour of the King.

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The King of Scotland was James VI.

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His mother, Mary Queen of Scots, had been a cousin to Elizabeth I.

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Now that Mary was dead, James became heir to the English throne as well.

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And that gave Scotland a bit of an inferiority complex.

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Compared to well mapped England, Scotland was still a blank on the map.

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The King knew next to nothing about his hills, his rivers, his boundaries

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and especially where his loyal and rebellious subjects were.

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Timothy Pont set out to change all that.

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The place on the far side of the loch is known as Letterewe. It means "middle of the loch".

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And it took a very brave man to come here as a visitor in the 16th century.

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The locals were not exactly renowned for their hospitality.

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Part of the problem was religion.

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Some of the clans hung on to the old faith, Catholicism,

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and they didn't care much for the Protestant King and the tide of Protestantism sweeping the nation.

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Today, things are a bit quieter,

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although, according to one of the local estate workers, Bill Hart,

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memories of those violent days still linger.

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When our mapmaker, Timothy Pont, came here 400 years ago,

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would he have been made welcome by the people living on the loch?

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He'd have been welcomed as long he wasn't preaching religion.

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Religion got the people's backs up in them days.

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There was a story in 1711 of a minister came to Letterewe

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called John Morrison,

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and he came to preach his form of religion to the islanders and they took offence.

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And they took him out to a place called Fool's Rock, which is a small island as you cross the loch.

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On there, they staked him out, stripped him naked and left him to the midges.

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And it was only because there was a lady on the estate that sort of took a soft spot

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for this John Morris, that she sailed out after dark and rescued him from his plight on the island.

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And he managed to escape from it.

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But there was others that didn't.

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Where do you think Timothy Pont was standing when he sketched the islands of Loch Maree?

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He seems to be above the islands looking down on them.

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Is there a mountain around here that he might have been using as a viewpoint?

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Yes, I think, if you look at the islands...

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If you came across to Letterewe to start with,

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he'd have taken this path that runs up along a ridge

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that we call Spy Point, which looks down over Isle Maree, you can see all the islands from that point.

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How would I get there from Letterewe?

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From Letterewe, you would follow the path round past the river to the cairn, then you would

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bear left at the cairn, down over a bridge which crosses a very, very fast-flowing stream.

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And you cross that and follow the path out till you arrive at the Spy Point.

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Spy Point is around 1,000ft above the loch and the islands.

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So that's quite a climb.

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I always get really excited walking ancient trackways.

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This trackway has been excavated from the mountain side by countless hooves and feet.

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It's probably been in use for at least 1,000 years - possibly twice that long.

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Bill told me to look out for a fork in the path, marked by a cairn.

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I've got to the fork and the cairn, but the cairn's one of the smallest I've ever seen -

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it's absolutely tiny, and in thick mist you could walk straight past this without even seeing it.

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These mountains would be very dangerous,

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and this is one of the problems that Pont faced when he was up here mapping.

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Much like me, Pont must have relied hugely on local knowledge and he may have made some use of guides.

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They'd know where to get the best views, the names of hills and rivers,

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the distances he'd have to cover and - very important -

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the landmarks to help you stay out of danger

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from the bogs and the bandits and the wolves.

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77 of Pont's maps survive,

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and he must have made many more.

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All of them entailed long walks, fast-flowing mountain streams and ferocious weather.

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This is it! The exact spot that Timothy Pont stood.

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I can see the entire loch, all the islands - what a fantastic place.

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What strikes you about these maps is that they glorify Scotland.

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They're a remarkable picture of the history,

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the geography and the architecture of the 16th century.

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In fact, they're not maps at all,

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but collections of working notes,

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miraculously preserved for 400 years.

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Did Pont really hope that the King would eventually see them?

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Nobody really knows.

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What we do know is that the King and his ministers were becoming aware

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that Scotland's Highlands were rich in untapped resources.

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Just look how carefully he's marked this forest and the river running through it.

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Over here, he's shown a slate quarry.

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But if you're an army on the march, or you're collecting taxes,

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you might want to know what food the land can provide.

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Down here beside the loch,

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he's shown an area that's very good for hunting deer.

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And beside it, a river that's full of salmon.

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The maps are covered with thousands of place-names.

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All the important towns are here, of course, like Forres up here,

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but also individual buildings.

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Mills, a church here and a castle up here.

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But what about transport?

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How did people get around in the 16th century using a map like this? Pont provided some of the answers.

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His coastline has all the harbours marked.

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There's even a ship here to show you where you can drop anchor.

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Inland, there are no roads on the map, but what he does do

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is mark mountain passes to help you find your way between one remote part of the Highlands and another.

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But some places on this map are so remote that you

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really have to wonder how on earth anybody ever got there.

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This area on Pont's map is called Extreme Wilderness.

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And at one end of this extreme wilderness is Wolf's Way -

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my eventual destination - and I don't yet know how I'm going to get there.

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Well, tomorrow I'll be heading up the windswept glens and passes

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Pont himself travelled through, trying to find remains of what Pont actually saw.

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But the chances of getting lost in this colossal landscape

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are just as likely today as they were in the 16th century.

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Pont's maps had better be reliable.

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So how did Pont create his maps of Scotland?

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No evidence of him using any surveying equipment.

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The maps themselves suggest he followed rivers up valleys, sketching as he went.

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The rivers provided a grid, which enabled him to fix the positions of everything else.

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This is Glen Gruinard,

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the River Gruinard tumbling along the bottom here.

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It's one of the key rivers on Pont's grid.

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He marks trees along both sides of the river, and along the shores of Loch Na Sealga,

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further up the glen.

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No trees here, though.

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Trees do disappear,

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but it's rare for them to vanish without leaving any trace at all.

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So I'm on the lookout.

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I've found one.

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Half a metre down in that black peat on the other river bank

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is a tree-trunk sticking out horizontally.

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It's been exposed by the water rushing down the glen. And there's another one right beside it.

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Two trees - and there's another one over there.

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And another one. In fact, it goes all the way up the glen.

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There's a whole row of tree-trunks and tree roots sticking out,

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just as Timothy Pont mapped them!

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This Glen may look empty and untouched, but a quick look at

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Pont's map and you realise that this was once a busy and populated place.

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There are settlements marked right up the glen, like this one here.

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But how on earth did the inhabitants survive?

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I've arranged to meet Bill Whyte, the gamekeeper on the Gruinard estate,

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to see if he knows what the glen was like in Pont's time, and why it's changed.

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One of the things I'm very curious about is some notes that Pont wrote beside his map of Glen Gruinard.

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He writes that the rivers have plentiful salmon,

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there are fir trees growing down beside the river banks, and that it's an excellent place for hunting.

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Red deer are to be found all year round, it's an almighty park of nature.

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Doesn't look like that now.

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There's still quite a few salmon come into the river.

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There's not as many as there was in his time,

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but there's still a few coming in.

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The deer - we've still got about 900 deer on the place.

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Nine deer per square kilometre.

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It's plenty for our needs.

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And the trees - trees haven't been round here for a long time.

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What happened to them?

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A lot of them would've been used for fuel and building,

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and some would have been lost naturally, just with the course of the river.

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I think, probably, as well, at one time Gruinard was a very big sheep farm,

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and any of the natural regen that was trying to come through,

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the sheep would just nibble at them.

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What's happened to all the crofts and settlements that Pont's marked

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on his map of Glen Gruinard - where did they go?

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I think Gruinard was cleared in the early 1800s.

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Most of the people were moved out.

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-Just cleared off the land?

-Just cleared off the land for sheep and deer.

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Well, the other question I've got for you, Bill, because I'm a bit stumped,

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is where and how did Pont travel up the glen,

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because this is a new track, the one up the valley bottom.

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Yep. There is...

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If you look over to the side here, there's an old drove road which comes up through that gully.

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It's a bit overgrown. There's grass and heather all over it

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but there's definitely two ridges with the flat down through it.

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You'll find it OK.

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There's no doubt that if there was a drove road through this valley, Pont would have used it.

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Drove roads were routes used to drive cattle across country to the markets where they were to be sold.

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They were usually higher up, above the flood plain and the boggy ground.

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I've reached a shoulder, a leveller part of the mountain,

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and there's something rather odd happening here, because the stream I've been following

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is crossed by another stream at right angles.

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And streams don't cross each other at right angles,

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so I'm just wondering whether this other stream I've just found isn't a stream at all but the drove road.

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I'll have to follow it to find out.

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In the 16th century, you took your life in your hands, travelling these roads.

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Cattle markets didn't really exist then,

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and the people who herded cattle along here could be ugly sorts -

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cattle rustlers or cut-throat bandits.

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According to a friend, Pont himself was often attacked and robbed of his money and his precious maps.

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Well, it's nearly dark now, and I've been following this stream of boulders for several hundred metres.

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It's also hailing and snowing, but I know I'm on the drove road now.

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Coming up here, they've pushed boulders to the side

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to stop the animals falling down the mountainside.

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Also, as I've been walking up, I've been noticing the peat has been getting harder and harder underfoot.

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It's been compressed by hundreds and thousands of hooves into a clay-like hardness.

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And this is where Timothy Pont came to make his map.

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I'm walking in the footsteps of my hero.

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For Pont, mountains and hills were every bit as important as rivers.

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They defined his landscape and he drew over 300 of them on his maps.

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One of the most distinctive is the one he calls Skormyvar, with this wicked-looking pair of fangs.

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It should be the next mountain on my route north, at the head of Glen Sguaib.

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I'm intrigued to know whether Pont's peaks stand out as much in reality as they do on his map.

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Question - why did Pont go to all this trouble?

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After all, he could have depicted a mountain as a simple pointed triangle.

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Why did he think the King and his armies needed to now the exact shape of things?

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I'm nearing the head of the glen now

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and I think I've solved the puzzle about the mountain.

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English maps of the time showed mountains all looking the same - small, rounded molehills.

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But Pont's mountains all have personalities, very distinct shapes.

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As I've been walking, I've been looking at the two fangs,

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thinking that's what he meant me to head for. But that's not what he intended.

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He's trying to draw my eye towards the gap between the fangs.

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This is a mountain pass.

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It's also the shortest route between the Atlantic that way and the North Sea over there.

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It's the old high road between the two coasts.

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Clever man.

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Like so many maps, Pont's makes most sense when you're using it on the ground.

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Down from the mountains now, and I'm heading north.

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On the way is Ardvreck Castle - one of the major buildings on Pont's map.

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What's significant about this place is the date it was built - 1590.

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There's some doubt about when Pont did his survey, but we know

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he'd finished it by 1601, when he became a minister in Caithness.

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The castle confirms that Pont's map of this area must belong to the decade before.

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Ardvreck was brand-new when Pont passed by here in the 1590s on his way towards the Extreme Wilderness.

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Nothing could be wetter and riskier than where I'm about to go next.

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On the last leg of my journey,

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I'm going to try and reach the wildest region Pont ever mapped.

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All I've got to go on is the Gaelic on Pont - "Bhellach Maddy", the Way of the Wolf.

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So far, nobody who's tried has managed to find it on the ground.

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It appears to be somewhere between two mountains - Beinn Dearg and Farrmheall.

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But where exactly is it?

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I think I need some help understanding Gaelic.

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That means finding a native speaker.

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Pont was travelling at a time when Gaelic was dying out

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as the official administrative language of the Highlands.

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Pont's maps provide a wonderful record

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of the Gaelic he heard spoken, but his Gaelic place-names are also important for another reason.

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They come out of a very practical way of viewing landscape.

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They're not romanticised.

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They have a job to do, as route markers or as warnings.

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This will be my last bit of warmth and shelter before I enter the wilderness.

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I fixed up a meeting with Johnny Morrison, who's lived in this area

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for 40 years and knows all about the local Gaelic place-names.

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Johnny, what does "Bhellach Maddy" mean?

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I believe it refers to a wolf.

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It could also refer

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to a fox.

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A fox is madadh, madadh ruadh.

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-In old Gaelic, are the words for dogs, wolves, foxes interchangeable?

-Yes, they are.

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In most places, and particularly in more modern times,

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it's cu or coin - coin the plural, which are dogs. But cu is a dog.

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So if I was going looking for a Gaelic place-name from 400 or 500 years ago,

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maybe I should look at places on the modern Ordnance Survey map that are called after foxes or dogs.

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Well, here we have it here.

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Down here is Alltan a' Choin Duibhe.

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-What does that mean?

-That's a black dog.

-Ah!

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Allt is a burn. Alltan is a small burn and duibhe is black.

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Alltan a' Choin Duibhe.

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-The Stream of the Black Dogs?

-Yes. A small burn of the black dogs.

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That's right between Farrmheall and Beinn Dearg, the two mountains.

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I think I'm going to find the place I'm looking for.

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So it's roughly in the right place.

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The question is will the Stream of the Black Dogs lead me to the Wolf's Way.

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Last day, and all I have to do is find a mountain pass

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in a wilderness which used to be populated by wolves. Er... yes.

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Well, I've got my clue. Now I've just got to find the Stream of the Black Dogs.

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A very forbidding wilderness calls.

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I'm now entering the northernmost territory on Pont's Highland map.

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Nothing but rough moorland and bog and mountains...

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..oh, and a few deer and sheep.

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You won't find a single soul living out here

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and I'm ten miles or so from the nearest village.

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A simple trip, a sprained ankle, and you could die out here.

0:24:200:24:24

Conclusion - tread carefully.

0:24:240:24:27

I just don't know how he did it.

0:24:320:24:35

My feet are wet, my fingers are freezing,

0:24:350:24:38

and I'm picking my way through yet another sucking bog.

0:24:380:24:43

Even when you know you're in the right glen,

0:24:450:24:48

it's incredibly difficult to find a route...

0:24:480:24:53

Oof!

0:24:530:24:54

..along the base of that glen,

0:24:540:24:58

because it's flooded.

0:24:580:25:00

There's so much standing water that, when you do reach something that looks green and solid,

0:25:000:25:07

it just sinks under your feet and you can go in up to your knees.

0:25:070:25:11

I've checked the Ordnance Survey map and I've reached the Stream of the Black Dogs, Alltan a' Choin Duibhe.

0:25:150:25:20

So I'm on the right track or, at least, I'm in the right bog.

0:25:200:25:24

If the name "Black Dogs" does hark back to a time when wolves roamed here, it would make sense.

0:25:300:25:36

This terrain is pretty convincing wolf country.

0:25:360:25:39

And according to the Ordnance Survey, there should be a mountain pass somewhere up ahead -

0:25:390:25:44

Bealach Coir' a' Choin - "the pass of the corrie of the dogs".

0:25:440:25:48

Or perhaps, in the past, "of the wolves".

0:25:480:25:51

Pont was mapping during the Little Ice Age, when the weather was much colder than it is now

0:26:060:26:11

and the storms were a lot more dangerous.

0:26:110:26:14

The natural landscape he was trying to map was also trying to kill him.

0:26:140:26:19

Snow's one thing, rain's another, but hail just strips the skin off your face. It's horrible!

0:26:220:26:28

I'm getting seriously worried now.

0:26:320:26:34

Keen as I am to find the pass, I'm running out of light.

0:26:340:26:39

I do not want to get stuck out here in the freezing dark.

0:26:390:26:44

But it looks like I'm in luck.

0:26:560:26:58

This is it -

0:27:110:27:13

Bealach Coir' a' Choin - the Pass of the Corrie of the Dogs - or wolves. That's it down there.

0:27:130:27:18

You might wonder why Timothy Pont came to this very bleak and inhospitable place.

0:27:230:27:28

The answer is that this is the route between the two most northerly settlements on his map.

0:27:280:27:34

Wolf's Way, believe it or not, is the only way between Durness, all the way over there,

0:27:340:27:38

and Sandwood, all the way over there.

0:27:380:27:40

Looking back on this journey, at what Pont achieved, I can see his thinking.

0:27:450:27:50

How could the King turn his back on this country

0:27:500:27:53

when it could be laid out like this before his eyes?

0:27:530:27:57

Sadly, Pont died before any of his Highland map could be published,

0:27:590:28:04

but the story does have a happy ending.

0:28:040:28:07

40 years on, Pont's maps became the main source for the first atlas of Scotland,

0:28:070:28:13

printed in 1654 by a Dutchman named Blaeu.

0:28:130:28:17

At last, Scotland was no longer a blank on the page, but one of the best-mapped countries in the world.

0:28:170:28:24

After the years of hazardous surveying, Pont's vision was finally realised,

0:28:240:28:29

and Timothy Pont confirmed as the bravest mapmaker Scotland had ever known.

0:28:290:28:35

Subtitles by BBC Broadcast - 2005

0:28:460:28:49

E-mail us at [email protected]

0:28:490:28:54

Can Nick find a missing mountain pass where the last wolves in Scotland roamed? Timothy Pont graduated from St Andrew's in 1583 and set off to survey Scotland. It was a major undertaking at a time when wolves still roamed the Highlands and it was difficult and dangerous to travel in rival clan territory. Over 18 years he made 77 maps - the first survey of Scotland - with exceptional detail and unsurpassed information. His maps include 350 mountains - some of which still remain to be identified - can Nick track any of them down?

Pont's notes talk about Sutherland as an 'extreme wilderness' with 'many wolves' and 'clouds of black biting flies that souked mens blood.' Quite a place to go map-making!