Today, we revisit the NRS Conservation studio with conservator Jackie Thorburn, who tells us about the unique challenges that her team deal with – including conservation of gigantic maps of Scotland and historic plans …

I’ve worked in the NRS Conservation department since 1992 and am no stranger to working on maps and plans. They come in all shapes and sizes but this one I shall never forget. Here is my tale of the “biggest plan I have worked on”.

When it arrived in the studio, such was its size and condition that it was difficult to unroll. I had to use the catalogue to find out what it was.

Laid before me was: ‘A map of Scotland from the latest surveys’, published in London in 1806 by John Stockdale.

Made up of twelve individual engravings, overlapped to form one cohesive map, it was lined with linen and mounted onto a wooden roller. It was coloured to show county boundaries within Scotland, the counties of Northumberland, parts of Cumberland and Durham and also part of Ulster, Northern Ireland.

It had come to the NRS amongst the GD46 Papers of the Mackenzie Family, Earls of Seaforth (Seaforth Papers). Unrolled, it measured 1982mm (wide) x 2430mm (long)

It was obvious from the damage that it had been stood on end for some time in unfavourable conditions. There was ‘heavy surface dirt’; a phrase used so often by conservations in their condition reports. But this wasn’t simply a thick layer of grime – this time there were feathers and faeces, it had clearly spent its twilight years amongst pigeons. There had been rodents too – their teeth-marks were visible. As suitable nesting material they had chewed their way through a sizeable portion of it.

Its last home had also been damp. There was mould, which had not only caused staining but had broken down the paper itself resulting in fragmentation and delaminated from linen backing. Even the nails holding the linen to the pole had rusted.

Having removed the wooden pole, I surface cleaned the front and back with brushes. I then removed the linen backing manually. It came away easily, the mould leaving behind a myriad of colours in the adhesive layer.

I then surface cleaned front and back with erasers. Having tested the inks and paper for solubility in warm water, I separated the twelve paper sheets using damp blotter packs. I then washed each sheet and fragment in warm water bath to reduce soluble discolouration.

While the paper was damp, I removed the adhesive residue from the back of the paper, using a bamboo spatula. This was a hugely satisfying part of the treatment as much of the mould in the adhesive layer was also removed during the process.

I then lined and repaired each sheet using Japanese tissues and wheat starch paste adhesive. I decided not to reassemble the overlapping sheets, as the re-assembled plan would be too large to be viewed within the search room and would be vulnerable to physical damage. Each sheet was therefore rehoused in an individual archival polyester sleeve and a custom made archival four-flap enclosure was created to house all twelve sheets together.

Now ready for archiving, the map was stored safely with our huge collection of historic maps and plans, to be consulted by current and future generations of people in Scotland.

The plan, before treatment
The plan, after treatment

Some of our maps and plans can be accessed online via ScotlandsPeople and others are ordered from our archive ahead of visiting our Historical Search Room, which recently began welcoming back a small number of visitors on a limited basis.

You can find out more about the services NRS is currently providing at our buildings on the NRS website.

The NRS Conservation team is a regular contributor to Open Book and you can find more wonderful examples of their highly-skilled work here, along with articles by our archivists.

All images Crown copyright, National Records of Scotland.

11 thoughts on “Best laid plans: why I don’t work at a desk

  1. One can only be impressed with the dedication to take the original mess and create a working document . Such skill


  2. It’s a little sad the map is no longer the size of a large rug (I love the idea crawling over it to peer at the details)…but I realize that is not the sensible option 🙂 Better to keep it in manageable pieces


    1. As a conservator I could never recommend ‘crawling’ over a map, and I can say that you certainly wouldn’t have wanted to crawl over that particular one.


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