The media has taken great delight this week in announcing that the Scottish Parliament has passed a law banning public bodies from showing Shetland in an inset box. 

The Islands (Scotland) Bill aims to outlaw the practice (by public authorities at least) of  positioning Shetland just north of the Moray coast and east of Orkney.  In fact, the islands are around 150 miles from the most northerly point of the Scottish mainland.

The two examples, from different Scottish public agencies, both show how Shetland is commonly illustrated.  In fact, a cursory glance at Google Maps shows that more often than not, Shetland is omitted altogether.

Map by Historic Scotland, a public body
SEPA map of areas of high flood risk

While this move may have satisfied many Shetlanders, it’s not gone down particularly well with cartographers.  According to the Ordnance Survey, inset boxes avoid “publishing maps which are mostly sea“.  An OS spokesman said: “The Shetland Islands are approximately 245km (152 miles) from the Scottish mainland, from the most northerly part of the Shetland Islands to John O’ Groats, and 690km (428 miles) from the most southerly point of the Scottish and English border.  It would be virtually impossible to print a paper map, with any useable detail, of this vast geography.”

To illustrate this, the maps below show Scotland with and without Shetland.  Showing Shetland in its actual position reduces the scale of the map by about 40%.  This effectively means that the names of many important places, motorways and national parks are left off completely.

Comparison of map scales with and without Shetland (Source: Quartz 4/10/18)

Maps, by their very nature, are a gross simplification of reality.  We all understand that it’s a cartographic convention to show large cities as circular dots.  We know that on OS maps water is blue, forests are green and mountains are brown.  We’re not confused by the fact that those 1km grid squares on 1:50,000 scale maps don’t really exist on the ground.

Come on, I don’t think anyone really believes that Shetland is floating in some transparent box in the North Sea.

Boxing islands, and re-positioning them to ensure a map can show greater detail, is a common practice in cartography.  You see it the world over.  The Canary and Balearic Islands are insets beside a map of mainland Spain, and the Galapagos Islands sit right next to Ecuador.  Imagine how ridiculous a map of the US would look if Hawaii and Alaska weren’t inset beside the lower 48 states!

In an interview with the BBC, Tavish Scott, local MSP for Shetland, pointed out that this change is needed to combat inaccuracies and misunderstandings about the islands. “Recognising where Shetland is located would go a long way to understanding the challenges we face as an island.”

I’m sure there are other ways to achieve this objective than banning cartographic conventions.

No doubt this headline-grabbing story has benefited the islands in other ways though.  There will now be people who have actually heard of Shetland.  Others will know that islanders are called Shetlanders and not “Shetters” (as I heard on Radio 4 yesterday, admittedly in a comedy show).

But is this whole story merely a storm in an inset box?  Has this flurry of media attention simply been a minor distraction from something that annoys Shetlanders far more than even putting their beloved islands in a box just north of Fraserburgh? 

What am I talking about?  It’s correcting the common mistake that the northern islands are called “Shetland” and not “the Shetlands“.  Now that’s something that might actually have been worth legislating for.

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