We sat talking and reading, and swimming out from a rock that juts from the sand at the base of the granite slipway running down from the gig-shed at Old Quay. The water on this side of the island is always warmer than on the other at Great Bay, which faces the open sea. As a child, the Old Quay on St Martin's is where I first swam.
Diary of Robin Wilson (Book LVI)
Thursday 28th June 2018

The Isles of Scilly Map Project

For those who don’t know, I should start by saying that the Isles of Scilly are an archipelago of five inhabited islands and hundreds of uninhabited and formerly inhabited islands off the Cornish coast, in southwest England. I have been visiting one of these – the island of St. Martin’s all of my life.

St Martin's Isles of Scilly 40cm x 30 cm linocut and metalblock, by Robin Wilson (2019)


When I started to think about making maps with linocut and engraved metal block using our letterpress presses at the workshop and studio in Oxford, I was surprised by the huge positive reaction and the number of people who still seem to love maps.  


Thinking about why people were so interested, I began to wonder about why I like making maps myself. Making maps is something I’ve always done.  I used to draw maps of the house, the village, the places I played. Some of the maps were entirely made up and went along with stories, others were of real places. I remember being taught at a fairly early age – in cub scouts at around 10 or 11 years old – how to make a simple map by triangulation, which is the process used in surveying of determining the location of a point by measuring the angles to it from known points at either end of a fixed measured baseline.  We plotted the stream, the church, and the corners of the fields surrounding the village hall where the cub pack met. 

Later on in life, and scrolling forward several decades via a geography degree and others, and I’ve worked as a researcher all over the world.  First I was out and about as a geographer, later on as a specialist geochemist, and later still as an anthropologist.  Fieldwork is in my blood. It’s what I’ve always done.  It’s what I still thrive on. 

Looking along one of my book shelves...............

Just as I pick things up and keep them to remind me later of my travels, I also like to have maps on the walls to remind me of the places I’ve been.  In my head I think far more spatially and pictorially rather than numerically.  A map to me is like the visual equivalent of a portmanteau-word (a term coined by Lewis Carroll in 1871, eg. miserable and flimsy is “mimsy”) – it’s a conception of spatial relationships between things.  The line of titles of books on my bookshelf do the same.  Having read the books themselves, all I have to do is to run my eyes along the spines, taking in the titles, just to recall the contents, arguments and stories the books contain.  Looking at a map of New Guinea for example, I immediately recall the people, places, and events of the many years I spent there in the Highlands near Porgera, Goroka, Hagen… or out on various volcanoes, Savo, Tavurvur, Lihir… or in the cloud forest above Tabubil, Bolangon, Migalsim, or at sea in the banana boats in The Slot – Iron Bottom Sound….. The maps recall the images, the images form stories, and the people and places live again in my mind.

Map of Turkish Lycia in Fellows, C. (1839) of A Journal written during an Excursion in Asia Minor

Spatial relations are conceptual relations in a semiotic system that helps me to string stories together and make sense of things. Mostly it’s a personal sense rather than a scientific sense.  We’re all prone to constructing implausibly comforting and coherent stories with hindsight. Maps help events to hang together in relation to one another, and it is always with great pleasure that I see a map in a book.  Think how much richer the reader’s conception of Tolkein’s notional Middle Earth for the inclusion of maps in the Lord of the Rings. By contrast, how much poorer is Ursula Le Guin’s Earthseafor the want of better maps. Will Gompertz assists his readers to understand modern art with a map inspired by the London Underground –  the mapping of which by Harry Beck in 1933 helped its users to see at a glance the connections that would allow them to travel from A to B along replotted stations plotted as equidistant points along colour-coded straight lines.

Harry Beck (1933) London Underground Map

Maps aid our perception of the environment. Cartography is in many ways haptic, because the viewer is provided with three-dimensional sensations of an extended, imagined touch and location within space. There is an implied kinaesthesia about maps – the body’s movement through and contact with space. I am transported back to the places I see represented by the maps I make and have.  In the contemporary world of pervasive touch-screen mapping, satellite imagery and digital cartography I use maps on hand-help devices more than ever. Rather than finding as a result that I am dismissing traditional cartographic objects, I find that I have no particular sense of repletion.  I want maps on my walls.  I have maps of the Lake District where I have walked and camped so often, of Turkish Lycia ditto, the Maramures of Romania, the island of New Guinea, and so on.

Close up of a badly registered first proof copy of the St. Martin's Map - in need of adjustment

I wanted map of Scilly. I grew up there really.  All my long summers were spent there.  It is THE SEA.  The boat that goes there from Penzance – the Scillonian III – is the boat to which I compare all others (usually unfavourably).  Old Quay is the seaside, and Great Bay is the perfect beach. All in all, I’ve spend well over two years on the islands – all of it in a happy state of relaxation.  I don’t go there to work.  I spend more time relaxing on St Martin’s than the people who live there.  The same of course is true of my two cats who have spent far more time reclined on my sofas than I ever will.  I want to be reminded of St. Martin’s in summer when it’s winter at home.  When I’m sat at home with rain lashing the windows and a long commute behind me, or a series of miserable and frustrating meetings ahead of me, I want to think of Scilly. I want to be back there.  And I know I will be back there. The maps help to remind me of that. Just as the map of New guinea reminds me of my friends and family in the tropical Highlands.  So that’s why I decided to make them.

Sunset from St Martin's, Scilly - looking towards Round Island Lighthouse across Tean Sound

I have gone on for more than long enough for one day.  Now that I’ve started to talk about why I’ve made the Scillies maps, in the next article I’ll talk about how I’ve made them.

Tresco, Isles of Scilly 30cm x 40 cm linocut & metalblock by Robin Wilson (2019)
Bread & Cheese Cove, St Martin's
Bladderwrack at Old Quay
Me reading on the end of the Old Quay as the tide comes in - 2018