Rare 17th century map found stuffed up an Aberdeen chimney is saved for the nation

A restored section of the 17th century map.
A restored section of the 17th century map.
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It was scrunched up into a ball and stuffed up a chimney as a makeshift draught excluder.

Encrusted in dirt, and severely damaged by vermin and insects, it was destined for a skip after being discovered during the renovation of a house in Aberdeen.

But acting on a hunch that it might be of some value, the finder handed it into the National Library of Scotland in Edinburgh and suggested it may be worth a look at.

What appeared on first inspection by staff to be “a bundle of rags” has instead turned out to be a rare 17th century map of the world - and one of only three in existence.

Now the map, handed in anonymously inside a plastic carrier bag, has been given pride of place in the national collection after undergoing a six-month restoration.

It is thought that the map, 7 ft wide and 5 ft tall, would have been displayed as “a symbol of power” by a wealth family. It has been dated to around 1690 and features depictions of William III and his wife Mary, who were crowned joint monarch of England, Scotland and Ireland after James II was ousted from the throne in the “Glorious Revolution.”

Experts begin work to salvage the rare map by Dutch engraver Gerald Valck.

Experts begin work to salvage the rare map by Dutch engraver Gerald Valck.

Curator Paula Williams said: “A gentleman turned up one afternoon with a poly bag kind of balled up. Apparently he had found the map during some renovations and was keen that we have a further look at.

“All we know is that it was stuffed up a chimney. We assume from the ball shape that it had been used probably to stop a draught. There is a more fun theory it had perhaps been stowed away because it showed William and Mary, but in reality it was probably to stop very cold wind coming through.”

Experts were charged with one of its most complex ever conservation tasks to try to save the map, which was designed by the celebrated Dutch engraver Gerald Valck and published by London map-maker George Wildey.

It underwent five stages of treatment, including opening up and flattening, separating out into its original eight sections, removing its linen backing, dry cleaning and washing, and re-assembling each section onto paper lining.

Each section was placed in a humidifying chamber to make it it easier to flatten them out, while the final stage of cleaning involved suspending them in water at 40C for 40 minutes.

Paper conservator Claire Thomson said: “Once the map was unfurled I was able to assess its condition, which filled me with dread. Much of the paper had been lost, and the remainder was hard and brittle in places, and soft and thin in others. We needed to stabilise it to prevent further deterioration, and make it robust and easier to handle to get to a point where it could be studied.

“I’ve worked on a lot of really special projects, but I think they’ve all been leading up to this one. I just had to be so careful because it was so delicate and there were so many pieces to it. It was so fragmented it was just like confetti.”

Ms Williams said: “At that period maps were largely symbols of power. They were very expensive to make and they were even more expensive relatively for people to buy and something like this that was an eight sheet map and would have needed a lot of space to be stored so it was clearly originally purchased by somebody who wanted to demonstrate that power in some way.

“The map was originally made, we think, probably in London. George Wildey, a London map-maker, regularly reused, would be the polite term, other people’s mapping and we think that this particular map was based on an eight sheet wall map made by Schenk and Valck in Amsterdam, but Wildey took the map and enhanced it by putting views of various towns down the side."

Dr John Scally, Scotland’s national librarian, said: “This is one of the most challenging tasks our conservation team has faced and they have done a terrific job. Although significant sections of the map have been lost, the remainder has been cleaned and stabilised for future study and enjoyment.

“It would have been very easy for this map to end up at the bottom of a skip but thankfully it can now take its place among the magnificent maps held within our collection.”