Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Major General William Roy - Who's Who in Scottish Military history

When William Roy became a Major General in 1781 it wasn’t because of his exploits in battle, it was because of his work with paper and ink.

Unlike most of the men we have covered in the who’s who series he wasn’t really a warrior (although he did see action during the Seven Years War), he was chiefly a surveyor, but Roy’s legacy to his country was probably greater than most of his soldier contemporaries.

Calling him a surveyor was actually unfair because he was also a renowned engineer and antiquarian, and his achievements in either of these fields would have made him a great Scot on their own; but it as a surveyor that he is most well known. His greatest work was his Military Survey of Scotland which he worked on between 1747 and 1755 and is known today as Roy’s Map.

Roy was born at Miltonhead near Carluke in Lanarkshire in 1726, the son of an estate factor. Little is known of his youth but the indications are that he was a bright pupil and attended Lanark Grammar School.

No records survive of any further education but by 1747 he was a competent and experienced surveyor and map maker

There is no knowledge of his whereabouts during the Jacobite Rebellion and if he was at his home in Carluke it may have passed him by, however it would have an impact on him the year after the end of the Rebellion.

In 1747 the government were determined there would be no more Jacobite rebellions. The clans would be pacified, and the government would garrison the Highlands from the line of forts across the Great Glen. The government also decided it would conduct a full survey of the country recording roads, settlements, bridges, forests and fields. In short everything an army on the march would need if it was chasing an enemy. It was something they lacked in 1745-46 as they were repeatedly wrong-footed by the Prince’s Highland Army.

Nothing had been done in Britain on this scale before. Lieutenant-Colonel David Watson, the Deputy Quartermaster-General of North Britain, the man who suggested it, was given the job.

It was a big task so Watson took on three assistant surveyors to do the work for him. William Roy, Paul Sandby, and John Manson. Roy worked on the survey between 1747 and 1755 and because of the amount of work he put into it, it is his name, not Watson’s which we use today to refer to the map. In 1755 it was known simply as the Great Map.

It was a Labour of love for Roy who was also an antiquarian and wherever possible he would add little notes of Roman encampments. He also chose to mark certain events from recent history too. In the far north he notes the spot in the Kyle of Tongue where ‘Le prince Charles Edward’ ran aground in 1746.

The surveyors would go out each summer to do their measurements and they would return to Edinburgh each winter to work on the map which was on a scale of 1000 yards to an inch.

After he completed his work the War Office were so impressed they commissioned Roy as a Practitioner-Engineer with the rank of Lieutenant. He continued to work on mapping but was now also a fighting soldier, and he was present at many battles of the Seven Years War including Minden.

His impressive work on the Great Map was also said to have influenced military surveys of Canada, North America, Bengal and Ireland. All areas of concern for the British Army in the late eighteenth century.

Roy rose steadily through the ranks of the British Army becoming a Deputy Quartermaster-General then Surveyor-General of Coasts and then Engineer-Director of military surveys in Great Britain, each position gained him a promotion and by 1781 he was one of Britains most senior engineers and a Major General in the army.

In the mean time he had spent mapping what was left of the Antonine Wall. In fact Roy mapped Scotland in the period when it moved from a mainly agricultural society to the beginnings of the industrial revolution; a time when the central belt of Scotland was transformed by heavy industry. Sites of interest from antiquity which were swept away in nineteenth century industrialisation had been recorded for posterity by Roy.

In his later career Roy concentrated on making land surveying more accurate. He surveyed parts of Southern England but he was determined a full national survey of the whole of the UK at one inch to a mile should be carried out by the army. Unfortunately the cost of that was too prohibitive for the governments of the day and Roy spent many years pleading his case to no avail.

Roy was also convinced triangulation was the way ahead for mapping and in 1787 he commissioned Jesse Ramsden, the foremost scientific instrument maker of his day, to design a theodolite and chain which would hopefully allow his dream of a fully mapped Britain to become a reality.

He was not to see it happen. Roy died in 1790 and was buried in London. In Carluke they erected a monument near where he was born.

Just before he died he had completed a survey of a stretch of Hounslow Heath with Ramsden’s instruments. This short stretch of accurate mapping became the baseline of the Trigonometrical Survey of Great Britain launched in 1791. As before with his Military Survey of Scotland the new survey was to ensure the British Army had accurate maps of their own country. This time in case of a French invasion. As a military mapping exercise the task of the Trigonometrical Survey was given to an army department, the Board of Ordnance.

The Ordnance Survey was eventually published in 1801 when the threat of invasion by Napoleon was at its peak. Luckily the Board of Ordnance’s maps were not needed to repel invasion. Even luckier was that Roy's vision, the Ordnance Survey, continues to be updated and is still with us today.

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