Modern Mapping: Born in the Clyde and Avon Valley

William Roy

Filed under History & Archaeology

Carluke native Major-General William Roy, born in 1726, was a military engineer, surveyor, and antiquarian. He applied new scientific techniques and newly emerging technologies to the accurately map the whole of mainland Scotland for the first time.

Born at Milton Head, Roy was the son of an estate factor for the Lockharts of Lee. He studied at Lanark Grammar School, but no subsequent educational records have been found.

The CAVLP Heritage team and Universal Connections, Carluke, visit the William Roy's Monument, Milton Head
The CAVLP Heritage team and Universal Connections, Carluke, visit the William Roy's Monument, Milton Head

He spent much of his life surveying in the military and he kept close ties with his home here in the Clyde Valley, surveying many of the Roman remains in the area, such as Cleghorn’s Roman temporary camp.

Roy’s Military Survey of Scotland (1745-1755) was the first systematic survey of mainland Scotland. Created due to the 1745 Jacobite Rebellion, it's main purpose was to identify settlements, roads and routes across the country. It is significant for our understanding of the character of the landscape of Scotland in the mid-18th century, and helps us identify the changes that have happened since.

Another of his major achievements was laying out the famous baseline on Hounslow Heath, London. Using 18 foot glass rods, he measured a five mile line. From this baseline the triangulation of Britain and France could be achieved, leading to more accurate maps.

It was through his enthusiasm and leadership that the Ordnance Survey was founded, but not until 1791, one year after his death.

Paul Sandby, View Near Loch Rannoch, 1749. Reproduced with permission of The British Library
Paul Sandby, View Near Loch Rannoch, 1749. Reproduced with permission of The British Library

No known portraits of him exist, and the only potential image we have of the father of modern cartography is this watercolour by Paul Sandby (above), now part of the collections of British Library. It was painted sometime between 1746 and 1751.