Monday, October 12, 2015

the Great Polish Map of Scotland

If I told you that you can walk from John O'Groats in the north of Scotland to the Scottish Borders in the south in less than a day and see the islands of Skye and Mull besides, would you believe me?

What if I told you it's possible to walk the entire coastline of the Scottish mainland and view Ben Nevis from all sides in less than an hour?

You'll think I've gone daft, but it is possible - sort of.

Even if you have been to Scotland recently, you may not yet have heard of this unique attraction. The Great Polish Map of Scotland is the largest terrain relief map in the world. It was created between 1974 and 1979, forgotten about, rediscovered in 1996, and is now being lovingly and painstakingly restored by a group of dedicated volunteers. It is located in the town of Eddleston 17 miles from Edinburgh and 12 miles south of Rosslyn Chapel (making for a nice half-day trip from Edinburgh), and well worth a visit.

aerial photo credit: Robbie Macdonald
used with permission

The story of the map is fascinating, and you can read all the details on the restoration group's website as well as watch a BBC show (Secret Britain) featuring the map from April 2015. The map was the creation of Jan Tomasik, a former builder who had served as quartermaster in WWII with the 1st Polish Armoured Division which had been stationed in Scotland for a time before being deployed to Normandy in 1944. The 1st Polish Armoured Division was under the command of General Stanislaw Maczek.

View this 2-minute fly-over video of the map with music and place labels.

In the early 1940s about 17,000 Polish troops had been responsible for defending Scotland's east coast in case of a German invasion. After the war many of these Polish soldiers, including Tomasik and General Maczek, decided not to (or could not!) return home to Communist Poland and made their homes in Scotland and the rest of the UK. Tomasik had married a nurse from Edinburgh and became a successful hotelier in Edinburgh. His hotel bar was frequented by Polish veterans in the area, including Maczek, and they became good friends.

This is my Schwiegermutter's cousin and our dear friend Keith,
who is leading the restoration project. Ben Nevis is just behind him
(the white pole sticks out of it).

In 1968 Tomasik bought the Barony Castle Hotel located in Eddleston, which had been used as a training college for Polish forces staff officers from 1942 to 1945. General Maczek and his family were regular summer guests and stayed in a room in the family accommodations.

With the encouragement and assistance of Polish glaciologist and geomorphologist Mieczystaw Klimaszewski from Krakow University, the idea to build a great open-air relief map on the grounds of Tomasik's hotel in Eddleston was born. The work began in 1974 and continued throughout six summers. A team of young Polish geographers was led by map designer Kasimierz Trafas from the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. Construction started with the help of hotel staff, local people, and members of Tomasik's family. The completed concrete map was coated with a plastic resin, the surface was painted (green for forests, cities outlined in brown, etc.), and the lochs and major rivers were painted blue and had water flowing through them. Sadly, shortly after completion the Tomasik family sold the hotel and subsequent owners took no action to preserve the map. Thus it was almost lost as a victim of neglect, frost weathering, vegetation and atmospheric pollution.

I will leave my map as a gift to the Scottish people." ~Jan Tomasik

The restoration of the map is now a work in progress, but the seabed is sealed and soon they'll be doing a test flood of the area around the map as well as the lochs and rivers. In their long-range plans is also building an observation platform so that visitors can view the map from above*. I cannot wait to see that! Truly, it is one thing to see pictures and videos of the map, and quite another to actually stand there and walk around it!
*Update: The viewing platform was completed by 2017.

Keith is pointing at Mull of Kintyre
The map is built of concrete on a scale of 1:10,000 with a x5 vertical exaggeration, which was standard for relief maps created and used during the war. The vertical exaggeration makes the relief features and general topography more readily visible. The map measures roughly 50m x 40m (164ft x 131ft).

This lobster-like shape is our beloved Isle of Mull!
It's lighter in color because frost damage required extensive repairs.

I have a photo of me sitting on Mull, but I like this one better.
I can now say that I did reach the peak of Ben Nevis,
Scotland's highest mountain!

The map was rediscovered in 1996 when our friend Keith was at the Barony Castle Hotel for a conference. He went for a walk around the grounds during a break and basically tripped and fell onto the weed-covered map.* When he stood up he noticed that the strange surface in front of him was shaped a bit like the Mull of Galloway. He explored further, growing astonished with each new discovery - the Isle of Arran, Ben Nevis, Cape Wrath... When he realized what he was looking at, he made fruitless inquires at the hotel but eventually found others who knew of the map's existence. So he started gathering a team of enthusiasts with the goal of saving and restoring the map.

*If you knew Keith, it would not surprise you at all to hear that he literally stumbled across this hidden international treasure and is now driving its restoration. Although he is retired from his career in the nuclear power industry (most recently as safety and technical manager of a nuclear power plant), he still runs up and down mountains and cycles - often on a tandem with his wife - around Europe in his free time. One journey some years ago took them to Krakow to find surviving members of the map's original design and construction team. His fascinating life and experiences would fill the pages of a blog for years...

In the foreground in reddish brown is the Isle of Skye.
In this view I'm standing at the west coast of Scotlandand looking north/northeast.
The Barony Castle Hotel is visible through the trees.

In 2012 the map was granted Category B listed status with Historic Scotland, and it is supported entirely by grants, donations, and the hard work of devoted volunteers.

There is no charge to visit the map, but donations for the restoration project are welcome. Set your GPS to Barony Castle Hotel in Eddleston and park in the hotel parking lot.  You can otherwise enter the postcode "EH45 8QW" into your navi or Google Maps for further help in locating it. Bus X62 gets you from Edinburgh to Eddleston in a bit more than an hour. There is not extensive signage yet, but we were able to find the map without a problem. 

To make a day of it from Edinburgh - stop at Rosslyn Chapel (made famous by Dan Brown's novel The Da Vinci Code), drive on to Eddleston to visit the Great Polish Map of Scotland and have lunch or a coffee at the Barony Castle Hotel, and go on to the lovely little village of Peebles where you can stroll along the banks of the River Tweed.

I want to leave you with this (appropriately) concrete poem written by Christine De Luca, who met Jan Tomasik and saw the map in the 1970s. The words of her poem form the shape of Scotland, and if you're well familiar with Scotland's topography, you'll be able to identify in the layout of the words the isles of Lewis, Skye, Mull, and Islay and the Mull of Kintyre.

The map was also recently featured on the ITV show "Border Life". 

Thank you, Keith, for the time you took to personally show us the map and explain your team's progress and future plans, answer my questions, and offer corrections and clarification for this blog post!


  1. So interesting! I was in Scotland in March on a weekend trip while studying abroad in Heidelberg, Germany but I didn't see this map! Guess I'll just have to go back :)

    1. Definitely pay the map a visit! I also have a list of "things to see/do next time". There's no way you can see enough in just one visit. :-)