Unravelling the mystery of the Chimney Map

When the National Library of Scotland acquired the balled up bundle of rags that turned out to be an extremely rare example of a 17th century world map by Dutch cartographer Gerald Valck, their first priority was rescuing what was left of it. It was in terrible condition, with large sections decayed beyond recovery and some of the surviving sections reduced to a shower of confetti on the table. Paper conservator Claire Thomson wasn’t even sure the map could be saved.

It took six months, but the conservation team accomplished the impossible, removed the canvas backing, cleaned the paper and put the cartographic Humpty Dumpty back together again. The restored map went on public display for the first time at the National Library in Edinburgh earlier this year. Due to its fragile condition, it was only exhibited for a month (March 13-April 16).

“Maps were largely symbols of power at this time,” said Paula Williams, map curator at the National Library. “They were very expensive to make and even more expensive, relatively, for people to buy. Whoever owned this map wanted to display their own power.”

As the map is Dutch, it represents a world view as seen from Amsterdam, complete with colonial ambitions. Australia, for example, appears as New Holland and the rivalry with their old enemy Spain is represented by a depiction of atrocities committed by Spanish invaders in South America.

Dr Esther Mijers, a lecturer in history at the University of Edinburgh said: “This map throws up more questions than it can answer. It would be wonderful if people wanted to do more research on the map and its story.”

Thankfully, a lot of people do. With the map, of just three known in the world, salvaged, researching its mysterious origin took on new prominence. When the map was first given to the National Library, it was believed to have been stuffed up the chimney of a house in Aberdeen. The story was it was discovered during the renovation of the house, rescued from the trash and delivered to the library.

It promptly became known as the Chimney Map because of its purported discovery spot, but that now appears to be a misconception. It seems to have been found under a floorboard during renovations in the 1980s. The house was formerly part of the Castle Fraser estate and since the castle is now owned by the National Trust for Scotland, their researchers are in full Nancy Drew mode hoping to discover more about the history of this exceptional map and how it wound up in that house outside of Aberdeen.

The National Library is on the investigation too, and they got a hot lead thanks to their YouTube video of the conservation of the Chimney Map. Les Yule, the original finder of the map 15 years ago, and Aberdeen schoolteacher Brian Crossan, the person who gave it to the National Library in 2016, got in touch with NLS researchers. Because they’re awesome and they show their work to public in the most thorough way possible, National Library of Scotland staff starting filming Les and Brian as they look for the house, its owner and find spot. Their first meeting with conservator Claire Thomson was captured on video, as was their collaboration in sniffing out the real history of this remarkable map whose checkered, obscure past has fired the imagination of so many.

That video has now been uploaded to YouTube and it’s worth every minute of the 14:45 running time.

6 thoughts on “Unravelling the mystery of the Chimney Map

  1. Vermeer included maps in the background of several of his paintings. His setting included at least two: (Maybe GOOGLE will have more info on this.) My loooong ago art teacher said the private ownership of cartography works was a sign (at that time) of great wealth plus it showed the technical ability of the artist to include minute detail in the artwork.

  2. Presumably in some countries one could think of there would be endless legal argument about who owns it. But there was no trace of that in the film. Humans being human, people must have wondered.

    All that seems to be known for sure is that it was found in the mill house that was being repaired. Perhaps it was anciently stolen goods hidden there.

    Well done to the chaps who rescued it and handed it over to the library.

    P.S. I noticed the spelling error “Marr” in a caption. It’s interesting that one, at least, of the earldoms of Mar can pass to a girl: from WKPD –

    Owing to a 19th-century dispute, there are currently two Earls of Mar. Margaret of Mar, 31st Countess of Mar holds the first creation, and James Erskine, 14th Earl of Mar and 16th Earl of Kellie holds the seventh. The Earl of Mar and Kellie is the hereditary Clan Chief of Clan Erskine; the Countess of Mar is the hereditary Clan Chief of Clan Mar. The Earldom of Mar is thought to be the oldest peerage in Great Britain, and even Europe.

    P.P.S. I can recommend Aberdeen and the country around it as a lovely area to visit. At least in summer.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.