It is best to start with current or recent maps and work backwards to earlier ones. This is because recent maps show settlements and landscapes more accurately than earlier ones, and also because settlement's locations and names can change through time. By working backwards, you can pick up on subtle changes between maps of different periods. You will also be much better placed to distinguish real changes from any mapping inaccuracies that might be inherent in earlier maps.
The Ordnance Survey began mapping Scotland in 1843, at a scale of six inches to the mile. Between then and the 1930s, it produced three separate surveys at this scale:
First edition: surveyed 1843-1878
Second edition: surveyed 1892-1909
Third edition: surveyed 1904-1930s
These maps are useful for tracing deserted rural settlements because they span a period when many old townships and farmsteads were abandoned, when new (crofting) settlements were being established in the Highlands, and when lowland farm steadings were developed to accommodate more intensive methods of production.
The six-inch scale is large enough to show individual buildings and the maps distinguish between those which are roofed and those which are not: roofed buildings are shaded in dark ink and unroofed buildings shown in outline only. The unroofed buildings generally indicate houses and outbuildings that were recently deserted at the time of survey. Very decayed buildings were sometimes depicted as 'Ruins', or, not shown at all.
Maps of arable land and urban areas were also produced at the very large scale of twenty-five inches to the mile, and these can provide some useful extra detail for lowland parts of the country.
The RCAHMS has identified over 25,000 unroofed buildings on the first edition OS maps of Scotland and these provide a starting point for settlements that might be investigated by Scotland's Rural Past projects. The results of the RCAHMS survey are published in But the Walls Remained (2002), together with more information about the research value of early OS maps and descriptions of the common types of settlement and landscape features to look out for. The publication is available from RCAHMS at a cost of £6.00.
A comprehensive collection of OS maps of Scotland (historical surveys to modern editions) is held in the Map Library of the National Library of Scotland, which can provide you with good quality copies at a reasonable cost. OS maps are also widely available in local studies libraries and archives, and historical OS maps for most of the country are available online at Old Maps.co.uk www.old-maps.co.uk.
An important accessory to the first edition Ordnance Survey maps is the Object Name Book, in which Ordnance Surveyors recorded the authorities used for the spelling of every name on their maps. A short description of each feature is included (eg 'a small farmhouse with suitable offices, one storey, thatched and in poor repair'), along with the name of the proprietor. In many cases, translations of Scots and Gaelic names are also given - these are not always accurate, but they do provide a very good starting point for place name research and may provide clues to the history of settlements, or their geographical location (e.g. 'Gortan Ban' 'fair meadow or croft')
Most of the Perthshire Name Books were destroyed in the Second World War (as were all those for England and Wales), but the rest of Scotland survives. The originals are held by the National Archives of Scotland and microfilm copies are available in RCAHMS (from which prints can be made).
See Estate Papers.
General Roy's Military Survey of Scotland was the first systematic survey of mainland Scotland and is an excellent source for researching rural landscapes and settlements. The survey was instigated as a direct response to the Jacobite rising of 1745 and its main purpose was to identify the location of settlements, roads and traversable routes across the country.
The maps were produced at a scale of one inch to 1000 yards (1:36,000) and clearly show settlements, cultivation, woodland, parkland, roads and tracks: farming townships are marked in red, and rig systems in yellow.
Although this is an important source, it should be used with caution: the mapping can be inaccurate and inconsistent, the distribution of some settlements is rather approximate and Roy's rendering of Gaelic place names is also unreliable.
Roy's original survey is held by the British Library in London. However, scanned images are available online via both
Scottish Cultural Resources Access Network (SCRAN). N.B. you will need to register with SCRAN in order to view the images at larger than thumbnail size. Alternatively, use the site in your local library, which will already be a subscriber.
Colour slides can also be viewed in the NLS Map Library, and there is a black and white paper copy in RCAHMS library.
Johan Blaeu's Atlas Novus (Amsterdam: 1654) contains some of the earliest printed maps of Scotland. They are not as detailed or precise as General Roy's survey, but they are very useful for establishing the antiquity of places (or, at least, place names). They are based mainly on Timothy Pont's surveys (see below), but also include work by Robert Gordon of Straloch and his son.
Original copies of the Atlas are held in the NLS Map Library and in several of the older Scottish University libraries, but are not generally available for consultation. However, the National Library's copy has been digitised and is available online
Timothy Pont surveyed most of Scotland during the 1580s-1590s and his manuscript maps were used by Blaeu to compile his Atlas of Scotland some seventy years later. They have been digitised by the NLS Map Library and are available online.
A wide variety of other atlases and maps can be found in the NLS Map Library, in local and University libraries. Some of these are available through the internet, the most important sites being:
NLS Digital Map Library
Besides the Pont and Blaeu maps already described above, this site gives access to some of the most important maps of Scotland produced between 1560 and 1928; eighteenth century military maps of Scotland; eighteenth and nineteenth marine map of Scotland; and Ordnance Survey large scale Scottish Town plans, printed between 1847 and 1895.
Edinburgh University's Charting the Nation
This site contains digital copies of early Scottish maps and plans dated before 1740.
Map History/History of Cartography
This is an enormous site, maintained by a retired map librarian at the British Library, which includes a worldwide index to early maps on the web, with comments on their quality.