Peter May, the Commissioners, NOSAS and the National Library of Scotland – a story of discovery

by Roland Spencer-Jones (NOSAS)

“Coigach is a very large country”

In 1756 a young man was sent by his employers to Coigach, the rough open wild country west of Ullapool. His job was to measure and survey the land. But he wasn’t altogether happy in his task. He wrote to his employers on 21st July:

The estate of Coigach is a very large country, and the subject difficult and tedious to measure, being little else but high mountains with scattered woods, steep rocky places, and a number of lochs in the valleys, which with the great distance there is between houses makes me obliged to sleep in the open fields for several nights together, which is dangerous in a climate where so much rain falls. I wish (you) would condescend to allow me a tent or otherwise I’ll have great difficulty to go through. There is no such thing as sleeping in their houses in the summer time, they are so full of vermin. Everything is scarce and dear, my living costs me more here than it does in Aberdeen although I can scarcely get bear bannocks.

(Adams, 1979, pp10-11).

The man was Peter May, his employers were the Commissioners of the Board for the Forfeited Annexed Estates.

The battlefield of Culloden saw the demise of more than the men who fought there. The clan chiefs who “came out” had their land appropriated by the Crown. Much of it was then ravaged, particularly those estates nearest Culloden. The Lovat estate at that time centred on the seat of the Fraser clan, Castle Dounie, at the head of the Beauly Firth. Castle Dounie was burnt following the battle. The estate comprised the parishes of Kiltarlity, Kirkhill and Kilmorack, near Beauly, the lands of Stratherrick on the south side of Loch Ness and a small section of land on the north side of that Loch at Dalcattick and Portclair. The Mackenzie estate of Cromartie consisted of land around Cromarty on the Black Isle, New Tarbat on the north side of the Cromarty Firth, parcels of land on the Tarbat peninsula, Castle Leod (near Strathpeffer), and the lands of Coigach on the west coast. Castle Leod was the ancestral seat, New Tarbat became the seat in the late 17th century, and the lands of Coigach were obtained in the dowry of Margaret Macleod of Lewis in 1606 (Clough, 1990, p3).

New Tarbat House in the late 17th century ©Canmore

It took some years after Culloden for the Hanoverian government in London to begin to manage the lands that had been forfeited. The Annexing Act was passed only in 1752, and the Commissioners of the Board met for the first time three years later, on 23rd June 1755. They were responsible for managing the thirteen largest of the 53 estates originally forfeited to the crown. Their remit was established by the 1752 Act, namely: “’to the purpose of civilising the Inhabitants upon the said estates, and other Parts of the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, the promoting amongst them the Protestant Religion, good Government, Industry and Manufactures and the Principles of Duty and Loyalty to His Majesty, his heirs and Successors and to no other Use and Purpose whatsoever‘ (Smith, 1975, p5). In principle, the work of the Commissioners was not only to manage but to improve the estates they were now responsible for. In addition, the 1752 Act “expressly empowered the commissioners to have the lands surveyed and plans made ‘setting forth the extent and different qualities of the grounds, the several advantages and disadvantages arising from their situation and what improvements may be made upon the same’” (Adams, 1979, pxxii).

Amongst the Commissioners on the Board were two remarkable individuals who together would provide the energy for the mapping of the forfeited estates, thereby setting the standards for Scottish surveying and cartography for the second half of the 18th century. James Ogilvie, Lord Deskford (later 6th Earl of Findlater and 3rd Earl of Seafield) was an energetic reformer and land improver based in Moray. Lieutenant-Colonel David Watson “grew up in the early decades of the Scottish Enlightenment among a family who were enthusiastic sponsors of its values” (Hewitt, 2010, p4). His sister’s husband, Robert Dundas, Lord Advocate and Lord President of the Court of Sessions, with whom he lived in Lanarkshire and who became his patron, found him a commission in the Army. Active on the government side in the 1745 rebellion, he was frustrated at the lack of decent maps of Scotland and enthusiastically espoused the new opportunities provided by the annexation of such a large tract of the central Highlands to redress this.

Portrait of David Watson by Andrea Soldi

There was little tradition of accurate surveying and map-making before the mid-18th century, as David Watson found to his cost during his military campaigns. William Roy, the 21-year-old son of Robert Dundas’s neighbour’s Lanarkshire land-agent, was appointed by David Watson to the task of constructing maps of military value in 1747. After six years he had managed to complete his task. Interestingly, when the Commissioners looked for a surveyor for the Forfeited Estates, they did not choose William Roy. Instead David Watson recommended to the commissioners a young Aberdeenshire surveyor known to Lord Deskford. Thus began the remarkable clan of north-east land surveyors who together, over successive generations, provided so much of the cartography of northern Scotland.

Peter May was aged somewhere between 22 and 31 years when he was appointed in 1755. His previous experience had been limited to Aberdeenshire. However, despite his youth, like William Roy when first appointed, he worked tirelessly over the next three years to survey the vast estates of Lovat and Cromartie. He was constrained in this task by the weather, the rough bounds he found himself in, the obduracy and penny-pinching of the Commissioners, and the requirement to make maps in one sheet rather than in a book. His tools were simple – a chain, a circumferentor and a cross-pole. He produced maps that are still a joy to look at – works of art, accurate, clean lines, consistent cartographic conventions, immensely detailed. He set a standard that others emulated and a tradition of north east cartographers followed.

Painting by Paul Sandby of surveying near Loch Rannoch

From humble beginnings he developed not only cartographic and surveying skills but the ability to manage both land and people. This included the great lords of Scotland.

Peter May rose to command the greatest respect from men in very high places. This is clearly borne out by the words of James Stuart Mackenzie, Lord Privy Seal of Scotland, to his brother the Earl of Bute, former Prime Minister of Britain: ‘I more and more approve of Mr May’s method of going to work. He has great temper in treating with the many absurd heads he has to deal with. He shows great judgement in forming his plans of future improvements. He is most active and assiduous in whatever he undertakes, and it is surprising to see what insight he has already acquired, not only into the land in Bute, but likewise into the turn and genius of the people there; to this I may add that he has a liberal way of thinking’.

(Adams, 1979, pxxii).

An example of Peter May’s cartography from his 1757 map of Kilmorack

I first came across Peter May and his maps when I discovered, and then started researching and surveying, the multi-period deserted settlement of Urchany in the Breakachy glen west of Beauly. The township and lands had been described in a book – Urchany, Farley, Leanassie & Breakachy – just one of an extraordinarily detailed set of books compiled by the Kilmorack Heritage Society from 1998-2003 (Harrison, 1998). Within the book was a map of Urchany copied from an original Peter May map kept in the Lovat Estate office in Beauly. I got to see that original map in the estate office, courtesy of the immensely helpful estate manager Iain Shepherd. That meeting gave me the opportunity to look at the other maps held in cupboards and drawers in the office. There were four other original Peter May maps there, some of which had not been looked at for decades. Iain Adams, in his book about Peter May (Adams, 1979), found some of these maps “wanting”, ie missing. Well, they are “wanting” no more. After cataloguing the entire map archive, I worked with other NOSAS members to digitise all the maps in the archive during a frenetic scanning week in April 2018. The estate provided the scanner, NOSAS provided the labour! (NOSAS, 2018)

The Lovat Estate office in Beauly

During the preparation for the scanning, I met another remarkable man, Chris Fleet, senior map curator at the National Library of Scotland. He enthusiastically provided support and guidance for the scanning process, and then uploaded the digital map images onto the NLS website. From a situation where maps were “wanting” and hidden in shelves and cupboards, this magnificent collection of over 300 maps is now freely available to view in high quality from anywhere in the world. The scanning process also allowed a handful of maps from other estates to be uploaded too. Of the seven maps that Peter May drew up of the Lovat lands, five are now online, although two (Stratherrick 1757 and the glebe of Kirkhill 1756) are still “wanting”.

Chris Fleet, curator at the National Library of Scotland

If the Lovat maps are now online, what about the maps that Peter May produced of the Cromartie estate? Until now these have been unavailable for public viewing. The maps were however scanned in 2004 by the National Archives of Scotland. As the maps are large, some of them huge, they were scanned in sections. Although the scanning quality is not perfect these are nonetheless a valuable resource. With the owner’s permission, I approached Chris Fleet to see if NLS could stitch the sections of the maps together digitally, and then upload to the NLS website. His colleague Jenny Parkerson did a superb job of the stitching and….. the maps are now online.

Island Martin, from the 1757 Peter May map of Coigach

Details of all the maps are listed in the table that follows:

Maps produced by Peter May for the Commissioners of the Board for the Forfeited Annexed Estates

of the estates of Lovat and Cromartie (Adams, 1979, pp267-268)

Date & Title of the Map NLS Website Location
1755 (Aug.) Plan of part of the lands of Lovat lying in the parish of Kirkhill
1755 (Aug.) Plan of the parish of Kiltarlity
1756 (May) Plan of the Barony of Castle Leod  [A copy was made of this plan by John Ainslie, land surveyor in Edinburgh, in 1796
1756 (May) Plan of the Barony of New Tarbet
1756 (Aug.) A survey and design for a village at Ullapool (RHP 3400). Register House, plans
[1756] A survey of Little Gruinard (RHP3478). Register House, plans (a copy)
[1756] A survey of Achtaskayle (RHP3401). Register House, plans (a copy)
[1756] A plan of Island Martin (RHP3399 – a copy by another hand). Register House, plans (a copy)
1756 Plan of the glebe of Kirkhill (still wanting)
1756 Survey of the Hill of Weaves and other barren ground con­tiguous, being part of the Barony of Castle Leod, drawn by James Turnbull, 1762, from a survey by Peter May, 1756
1757 Plan of the lands in Glenstrathferrar
1757 Plan of the Barony of Stratherrick (still wanting).
1757 Plan of the parish of Kilmorack
1757 Plan of the Barony of Lovat (wanting). (still wanting)
[1757] A plan of that part of the Annexed Estate lying in the parish of Kilmorack (RHP6586 – a later lithographed copy). Register House, plans (a copy)
1757 Plan of the farms of Dalcattick, Easter and Wester Portclair
1758 Plan of the Barony of Coigach
1765 (Jan.) Plan of the Barony of Bewlie on annexed estate of Lovate (still wanting).
Other recently uploaded maps from the Cromartie Estate (not involving Peter May)
1805 A Survey of the Barony of Castle Leod, one of his Majesties Annexed Estates, in the parish of Foddarty and County of Ross North Britain  delineate John Lesslie, (ie a copy of P May)
1784  Plan of the Summer Isles Copied from the Original by Wm Forrest Ltd Surveyor
1784 Plan of the Island of Tauneray, a part of the annexed estate of Coigach, made out from an accurate survey by David Aitken


Adams, I.H. ed., 1979. Papers on Peter May Land Surveyor 1749-1793. Edinburgh: T & A Constable Ltd for Scottish History Society, 1979, pp10-11.

Clough, M. 1990. Two Houses, Aberdeen University Press.

Harrison, HW. ed. 1998. Urchany, Farley, Leanassie and Breakachy. Kilmorack Heritage Association. (now obtainable from Highland Archive).

Hewitt, R. 2010. Map of a Nation: A Biography of the Ordnance Survey. London: Granta

NOSAS, 2018. Lovat Estate Map Archive – a collaboration between Lovat Highland Estates and NOSAS. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 25th March 2020].

Smith, A.M., 1975. The Forfeited Estates Papers, 1745: A Study of the Work of the Commissioners for the Forfeited Annexed Estates 1755-1784. PhD. University of St Andrews. [online] Available at: <> [Accessed 25th March 2020]

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