GIS for avalanche probability mapping and more

When I am not doing GIS or writing about GIS I try to escape to the mountains.  They mountains have always had a magnetic like attraction over me, and are probably the reason I got into maps and geography in the first place.  Mountains are magical, dynamic places but they do present dangers to those who venture into them.  The risks and dangers increase significantly when you add snow into the mix.

Avalanches are the most obvious risk and they are not confined to the high mountains of the Alps and the Rockies.  Avalanches occur frequently in the mountains of Great Britain. In fact, the constantly changing weather in Great Britain regularly creates quite unstable snow packs.  Research into avalanche prediction and probabilities helps forecasters inform walkers and climbers and this research relies on GIS to analyse the various parameters that determine the risk.

I spotted this great article about the use of GIS in mapping avalanche probability in the Northern Cairngorms.  It is written by a PhD student at The University of Edinburgh.  They have used various data such as Ordnance Survey Panorama DTM and base maps from EDINA’s Digimap service. They have then used some free Open Source tools (GRASS – an open source remote sensing package which is also available as a plugin for QGIS.) to run the analysis.

Worth a read, oh, and there is nice pic of a slide from me! Link to the article.


Avalanche Hazard Map


Robert Burns – Man of the People

The life of Robert Burns is celebrated every year on the 25th January; the date of his birth. Why did the Burns Night tradition start and how did this obscure Ayrshire farm lad, born in 1759,  turn into a literary phenomenon and national hero?

The Birth Certificate of Robert Burns held at the General Register Office for Scotland, Edinburgh: Getty (still images) 24-01-2007

The first Burns Night was held on the wrong date (29th January 1802) due to a mistake in a  newly written biography by Dr James Currie (one of many inaccuracies written about Burns’  life).  The poet had been dead less than  six years yet, such was the impact he had made on the Scottish people, there was a great wish to preserve his memory. And what better way than to celebrate in the manner he would have appreciated most: with good company, haggis, Scotch whisky and of course, poetry. If you are thinking of hosting your own Burn’s Night Supper it’s advisable to consult some reliable information on the running order of the event. Click on the image below to watch a newsclip about Burns’ 250th anniversary in 1996.

Delivering the Address to the Haggis
Scotland: Robert Burns: Channel 4 News 23-01-1996


Robert Burns was born into a poor Ayrshire farming family in 1759. It was a constant struggle to make a living off the land and Robert endured hard manual labour during much of his early life. Despite this, his father made sure Robert was given the basis of a classical education, although he spent little time attending school. Find out more about the area where Burns grew up by watching ‘ Ayr from the Auld Brig‘ made by Films of Scotland.

Burns Birthplace at Alloway: Ayr from the Auld Brig: Films of Scotland 1961

As a young man he read widely and began to write poetry inspired by his passion for nature,  revelling and the local girls. To say he had a complicated love life would be an understatement and his many amours (plus resulting progeny) deserve a blog post all of their own.

The Brig O’Doon from Burns’ famous Tam O’Shanter
Ayr from the Auld Brig: Films of Scotland 1961

After his father’s death,  life on the farm continued to be precarious. In a bid to secure a reliable job and escape the embarrassing fallout of a recent romance, he came up with the unlikely idea of emigrating to Jamaica. Unfortunately he did not have money for the ship’s passage so decided to publish some of his poems (by subscription) to try and raise the funds. Astonishingly his volume, written in Scots dialect, was a runaway success. He changed his plans and set off for Edinburgh, where he knew no-one, to seek his fortune.

A Legend is Made
Scotland: Robert Burns: Channel 4 News 1996

In the course of arranging a second edition of his poems, he found himself in demand by the leading figures of Edinburgh society who were eager to meet the  ‘Heaven-taught Ploughman’ themselves. He charmed them all with his vivacity and wit and soon became a celebrity figure. Burns also had a strong interest in folk songs and he set many of his own poems to music. In 1787  he toured different parts of Scotland, in the course of which he collected many traditional songs which were in danger of disappearing. On his return he worked collaboratively with others to collect, publish and preserve this vital part of Scottish culture. Take your own Scottish tour  by watching Holiday Scotland which features most of the places Burns visited himself.


Burns travelled as far north as Inverness during his travels in 1787
Holiday Scotland: Films of Scotland 1966

Sadly,  Burns was never destined to make much money. He sold the copyright to his poetry early on and refused to take any payment for his work collecting folk songs, which he regarded as a patriotic service. He returned to Ayrshire to bring up his family and took up a post with the Excise in order to earn a regular income. Click the image below to find out more about how Burns is still remembered in the town of Ayr.

People of Ayr celebrate the June Rite of Burns by re-enacting the ride of Tam O’Shanter: A Town Called Ayr: Films of Scotland 1974

His outspoken radical views got him into a lot of trouble with the authorities and there were occasions when he nearly lost his job with the Excise as a result.  He desperately needed to support his growing family but hard times lay ahead and he became unwell. Many have said his illness was due to a dissolute lifestyle but we now know he was suffering from endocarditis which, in the days before antibiotics, would inevitably prove fatal. He died on 21st July 1796 at the age of 37. His wife, Jean Armour, gave birth to his 13th child on the day of his funeral. His popularity was so great that it was said  over 10,000 people watched his funeral procession.

Burns Celebrations: Gaumont Graphic Newsreel: 29-01-1920

What was Burn’s legacy to the Scottish nation? His works have been translated into 50 languages and songs such as ‘Auld Lang Syne’ are known globally. His poetry is remarkable for its simplicity and honesty,  expressing his zest for life and egalitarian ideals. He has become a conduit for spreading  Scottish culture throughout the world.

Burns’s poetry and ideas continue to be relevant to us today. When the new Scottish Parliament opened, one of  Burns’ most famous songs was chosen to mark the occasion.  ‘A Man’s a Man for A”That’  is a declaration of equality and liberty.

For A’ that and a”that

It’s coming yet for a’that

That Man to Man, the world o’er

Shall brothers be for a’that


Further Links:



Old Maps online workshop

Old maps online launched some months back and has been quite a hit.  It essentially is a catalogue of old maps from library collections around the World.  However, it is much more than just that. Old maps online allows users to make spatial searches for maps rather than having to rely on fields such as Title, author and published date.  This is not the information that springs to mind when you want a map.  Place-names, regions and coordinates are more logical search terms.

As part of the Old Maps Online project, the  team are putting on workshops and i attended the Edinburgh event on Thursday 13th December. Edinburgh is steeped in mapping history and has one of the largest map library collections in the World.  Whats more, a significant percentage of the National Library of Scotland’s collection has been scanned and made available online for free.  The NLS have recently updated their catalogue interface and it is even easier to search and view maps.  This is a huge resource and has sparked the interest in many researchers who have utalised the old maps in their research.

The NLS site is uses software from Klokan Technologies, a small Swiss company run by Petr Pridal. Petr has put a lot of effort into improving the searching and discovery of historic maps online and it was for this contribution that he received the Bartholomew’s Globe. The Bartholomew’s Globe is an award from the Royal Scottish Geographical Society (RSGS) and is awarded in recognition of an exceptional contribution to cartography, mapping and related techniques in Scotland over a long period of years. The award was presented by Bruce Gittings, RSGS Vice Chairman.

Bartholomew’s Award 2012

The rest of the event focused on how historic maps, and historic geographical data in general, were being used in researchers. The flavor was, as expected given the location, generally Scottish, but it also brought together a mix of academic researchers, commercial organisations and enthusiastic amateurs.  Presentations that stood out included:

Alice Heywood (NLS) who described a project that got School children to develop content for mobile apps that provided historic tours of their home towns. The pilot had been run in Elgin and the children had produced some excellent narratives explaining their local historical sites and traditions.  This kind of partnership between the NLS and schools seems like an excellent initiative. Perhaps it could link in with organisations such as VisitScotland to create apps for tourists visiting Scotland. More information about the Great Escapes project can be found on the NLS website.

Chris Speed (University of Edinburgh) who discussed the “blue dot” concept.  This is really that a mobile device will represent your position as a blue dot, but using historic maps and data you can allow the user to travel back through time at a particular location. Chris has had publicity with his Walking through time app, a project which was supported by JISC and EDINA. This allowed users to view historic maps of Edinburgh and embark on guided tours through history via their mobile phones. Chris want to expand this to Glasgow, arguably a more dynamic environment which might reveal more startling change to users. I am not sure I entirely agree with Chris’ comments about connecting with individual objects such as trees which have persisted in green spaces while the build environment has changed around them.  Trees on maps tn to be representative rather than an absolute record.  However, if you are in a greenspace and faced by a tree that is clearly over 100 years old and trees are marked on the map you can believe that the surveyor stood there and added it to the map all those years ago and that tree is a link to the past environment.

There were 2 talks on mapping old transport links.  David Simpson had tried to locate roads marked on Roy’s Maps, Roy’s Roads. David found that bridges were quite reliable features of Roy’s maps and by locating these on the ground and modern maps you could then find the old road features. Many of these bridges are being lost, used only by farmers to access fields but represent an important part of Scotland’s history.  Neil Ramsay (Scotways) was working to display old path networks on modern maps.  Discovering old routes and posting them online is one way in which Scotways in encouraging people to get out and discover their local area. It was noted by a member of the audience that there was an apparent lack of paths connecting Glasgow and Edinburgh. Neil noted this and mentioned that it was certainly on the list of places to investigate, perhaps enthusiastic walkers could lend a hand.  Just go to the NLS maps page and scan through the maps to see if a path exists in your local area that is missing from the modern OS maps, then get out an see if it exists on the ground. Take a look at Scotways excellent Heritage Paths site.

There was a very interesting presentation on using Historic maps as a tool for place-name research given by Jake King (Ainmean Aite na h-Alba). Jake had used the NLS historic maps to investigate the changes in spelling of Gaelic place-names through time.

Bomb Sight

Bomb Sight

Humphrey Southall and Andrew James (The National Archives) deputised for Kate (bomber) Jones (University of Portsmouth) who was unable to travel to the event.  The Bomb Sight project maps the bombs that fell on London during the first phase of the blitz. This project digitised and mapped records held by the National Archive. These maps were previously only available for the public to view in the reading room at the National Archive.  Users can view the location of bombs and display attribute data such as the date, bomb type and, in most cases, view “nearby memories” such as audio and pictures from the archive. Users can switch between the modern map and the 1940 Bomb maps. These maps are a bit grainy and it would be great to see some crisper historic mapping in there.  The Bomb Sight project also has a mobile app that allows users an augmented reality view of the blitz. The project has done incredibly well and attracted a lot of publicity. This demonstrates the power of fusing historic maps with archived data that has never been displayed digitally.

This really summed up the event.  There is public interest in historic data and making it accessible in a digital format is the key.  Once those interested in historic data can get their hands on the digital data, they can turn it into useful information that others can enjoy or even re-appoint for other uses such as education and tourism.


Guest Blog Post: Whose Town? a heritage project for schools

This week we have a guest post about the Whose Town? Project from Clare Padgett, Library Services Officer at Edinburgh City Libraries and part of the Whose Town? team. We bumped into her at the Scottish Association of Family History Societies Conference and she kindly offered to let AddressingHistory blog readers know more about this new resource about Edinburgh’s past.

School pupils across Edinburgh are getting to grips with an award-winning new digital teaching resource which uses real life case studies to illustrate key periods of history.

Whose Town? is an award-winning and innovative resource for teaching Social Studies developed by Edinburgh City Libraries. The resource is aimed at pupils aged between 8 and 13 and is linked to the Curriculum for Excellence, second, third and fourth levels. It is available on Glow, the Scottish schools’ intranet and on free CD.

Whose Town? looks at Edinburgh’s past from the 1850s to the 1950s through the eyes of people who lived there. There are 14 lives to discover who lived in Victorian times, at the beginning of the twentieth century, during the Second World War and in the Fifties. Archival material is collected in a digital box and hidden in an attic for pupils to uncover and examine. Each life is captured at a particular point in history, creating a snapshot of their life: a Life in a Box.

Pupils can discover what life was like for Levi, a destitute and orphaned boy in late Victorian Edinburgh, or how nine year old Bessie became the youngest Suffragette. They will uncover Luca’s story as he established an ice cream business in Musselburgh, or learn from John what it was like to grow up in wartime Edinburgh. They can hear a first hand account from Hugh of working on Edinburgh’s trams in the Fifties or the early days of television from Bill.

Edinburgh City Libraries worked closely with the volunteer contributors. Many of the participants who appear as ‘lives’ within the resource generously gave their time, memories and personal archives for inclusion in Whose Town? Nancy Comber (Pugh), who was an evacuee during the Second World War said:

“I really enjoyed being part of this project – it’s a brilliant idea and I’m sure the children will get a lot out of it. The fact that they’re looking into the lives of real people – some of whom, like me, are still alive – should help to make it much more interesting. It makes it like a kind of living history, which is possibly easier to relate to than just reading a book about someone’s life.”

Whose Town? is a Heritage Lottery Funded project. It has been developed by Edinburgh City Libraries in collaboration with Edinburgh Museums and Galleries and Edinburgh City Archives, and has been supported by many partner organisations.

To find out more, visit Whose Town? or contact the Information and Digital Team at Central Library on 0131 242 8047.