MSP Wants to Outlaw the Practice of Sticking the Shetland Isles in a Box on Maps

By Tom Pritchard on at

It the world of cartography there are often shortcuts and sacrifices that need to be made in order to put maps together properly. One of them involves 'boxing up' geographically remote locations to avoid having to print a map that's mostly empty sea. It's the kind of thing that's done with Alaska, Hawaii, the Shetland Isles, and more. That last one is causing a bit of a stir, though, because one Member of Scottish Parliament wants that practice outlawed.

Tavish Scott, the Liberal Democrat MSP for Shetland, is sick and tired of maps of Scotland boxing up the Northern Isles and plonking next to Moray Firth - rather than showing where they actually are. He's urging lawmakers to add a Shetland mapping requirement to be added to the Islands (Scotland) Bill, which would force public authorities to ditch the boxed up option when creating new maps. Specifically the amendment states:

 “The Shetland mapping requirement is that in any map of Scotland the Shetland Islands must be displayed in a manner that accurately and proportionately represents their geographical location in relation to the rest of Scotland.”

It's a pretty bizarre thing to get upset about, and it's not clear whether Scott himself is the one upset about this or if his constituents have been complaining en masse. Either way it sounds as though they aren't facing many serious issues in the Shetlands, if the local MSPs have time to spare campaigning for something so inoffensive as this.

He did explain his reasoning at Holyrood’s Rural Economy and Connectivity Committee, however, saying:

“My contention is the islands should be in the right place on the map. If I was closer to the Moray Firth or indeed in the Moray Firth I wouldn’t need to spend 12 hours going home on the boat from Aberdeen overnight.

This is simply to ensure that in future that government publications and documents do reflect the reality of Scotland in terms of its geography, and not something that fits neatly on an A4 sheet of paper.”

Apparently he received some sympathy from other MSPs, including Orkney Lib Dem MSP Liam McArthur who pointed out his constituency often received the same treatment by mapmakers. He said the concern is more than just “presentational or superficial”, since it supposedly gives off the impression that the islands are a lot closer to the mainland than they really are.

Meanwhile Conservative MSP Peter Chapman (representing North East Scotland) voiced his opposition, pointing out that mapmakers would end up reducing the scale of Scottish maps by 40 per cent and that the loss of size isn't a worthwhile trade off to include a “whole chunk of sea”. And he has a point. Islands Minister Humza Yousaf also sympathised, claiming he'd be pretty miffed if someone did that  to his constituency (Glasgow Pollock), but noted that a change in law would be basically unenforceable - encouraging Scott to remove the amendment in favour of government agreements.

Scott did remove the amendment but insisted the war was not over, and that he would work with the government to ensure the change became law. I can only guess that there isn't a lot for him to do in the office, and he isn't really in the mood for the standard mid-life crisis management technique of buying a flashy sports car and dating a much younger woman.

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