Shetland Islanders Refuse to Let Mapmakers Box Them In

The Shetlands are often consigned to a box on maps of the British Isles. Serban Bogdan/Shutterstock

For centuries, mapmakers have labored to reproduce every physical nuance of our planet, from oceans to islands to those crusty cold poles.

But there's one cartographical caveat: If an island is particularly remote, it's exiled to a box in the corner of the map. And the box is typically placed wherever there's space for it — with nary a nod to accuracy.

Consider poor Alaska or perennially misplaced Hawaii on maps of the United States.

But one proud archipelago has had it with that geographical shortcut — and it's nae gonna take it any more.

The Shetlands, comprising about 100 small islands at the most northerly tip of the British Isles, has just made it illegal for their home be depicted in a box. Specifically, government bodies will no longer be allowed to fall back on the trusted box to suggest the Shetlands as some vague, faraway place.

The legislation, which falls under the Islands (Scotland) Act, stipulates "the Shetland Islands must be displayed in a manner that accurately and proportionately represents their geographical location in relation to the rest of Scotland."

There is, however, a provision for bypassing the rule, if the mapmaker provides a sufficient explanation for it.

"Many islanders, if not all of the islanders, feel pretty upset by that and were fed up with the irritation of being in the wrong place," Tavish Scott, a member of Scottish Parliament representing Shetland, told CBC News.

A Prehistoric village Jarlshof, Shetland Islands
The islands, long-occupied by humans, boast 5,000 archaeological sites. Stefan Ml/Shutterstock

Certainly Shetlanders need no reminder of their isolation.

There's a lot of water between the Shetlands and the rest of the world. Occupying the same latitude as Norway and Sweden, the islands are at least 150 miles from the Scottish mainland.

If mapmakers don't put them in a box, they'll need a lot of blue ink. And the result, they claim, would seriously undermine the usefulness of a map.

"It would be virtually impossible to print a paper map, with any usable detail, of this vast geography,” a spokesperson for the Ordnance Survey mapping agency told the BBC.

A map showing the Shetland Islands
The Shetlands' northerly latitude puts it in line with Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Norway. sevenMaps7/Shutterstock

But maybe it's time mapmakers began to broaden their horizons — and make room for the deep blue sea in every glorious detail. For the Shetlands especially, that sea has vital significance and needs to be accurately conveyed.

"We depend on boats, we have a huge fishing industry that depends on a pristine marine environment, we have the oil industry all around us as well," Scott told CBC News. "It seems to me a bit strange not to have the sea as part of the geography of Scotland. It's the reality of where we are."