John Thomson was born in 1777 to a merchant father in Edinburgh. He started business as a bookseller in Hunter Square, Edinburgh, in 1807. His first major publication was the ‘Traveller’s Guide’ of 1798 which ran to nine editions. ‘A New General Atlas’ was a superb folio production issued in 1817 and again successful with several later editions. Buoyed by this success he set about the production of a Scottish county atlas. It was to be on the largest scale attempted yet with the exception of one or two in Joan Blaeu’s atlas of 1654. A prospectus was issued in 1818 and quickly the number of subscribers passed 1,200.
Thomson produced his maps by utilising existing work in many cases and increasing the scale. He then used land surveyors and local people to amend and add to the maps. The map of Edinburgh uses the same plates as the James Knox of 1812 with some alterations. For that of Ayrshire a new survey was undertaken by William Johnson who spent three summers studying local material. The land surveyor Alexander Martin spent the years 1822-26 working on Fife, Sutherland was freshly surveyed at the expense of the Countess of Sutherland and Bute was surveyed by John MacKinlay.
As in his previous publications partners were employed around the country. The plates were engraved in both Edinburgh and London from 1820 to 1830. As they were finished the maps were made available for sale. In the Preface of the finished work Thomson wrote that since 1818 ‘the work has been continually in progress, but the great difficulty of finding assistants, materials, and making the necessary surveys have retarded the completion much longer than anticipated … A Work which he never would have undertaken, had he known the difficulties to be encountered, the great number of people to be employed, the advance of capital, and the time necessary to carry through such an arduous undertaking, which required at least one surveyor to each county to correct the drawings, and find respectable names to guarantee their accuracy’.
This inevitably led to Thomson suffering financial difficulties and on 20 April 1830 he went into bankruptcy. After the Trustee for the creditors decided to finish the atlas it is recorded that various people needed payment for goods. Especially to the engraver Robert Menzies, who would not complete the large four-sheet map of Inverness-shire until paid. The Trustee attempted to sell the entire complete stock without success and the whole went to auction in April 1831. Thomson, in the guise of John Thomson & Co., bought the stock for £1800. His payments were guaranteed by his friends. A title page had been printed by the Trustee dated 1831, one example of which survives in the example at the Cambridge University Library. Thomson went on to produce his own title page and Index both dated 1832 which is the standard format found. This example contains BOTH TITLE PAGES and BOTH PRINTED CONTENTS LISTS.
The complete work has 58 maps of the 29 counties of Scotland. The scales vary between one and two inches to the mile. It was therefore the largest and most detailed survey of Scotland to date and not superseded until that of the Ordnance Survey. His financial woes continued and he filed for bankruptcy a second time in 1835. Provenance: private English collection. Chubb (1927) no. 32; Moir (1973) no. I pp. 129-31 & II p. 154 no. 11; Withers, Charles ‘Introductory Essay to Facsimile of the atlas’.