GIS & History

GIS & History

GIS and Historical Data

The use of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) to map and analyse historical data.


David R. Green |  Geography
James D. McEwan | History (Research Associate)

Courtesy of DroneLite

Research Project


Using GIS to Map Scotland’s Forgotten Turnpikes

James D. McEwan & David R. Green – University of Aberdeen


Courtesy of Dmitri Mauquoy

The Toll Roads of Scotland

In any survey of the historiography surrounding Scotland’s early modern era one can expect to find frequent and fleeting references to turnpikes or toll roads.  This is also true of popular literature, as mentions of this once extensive - but largely forgotten - road system punctuates Scotland’s many guide- books, travel aids, and outdoor works.  Indeed, many of us today make use of the same roads that in the not too distant past made up the toll road network, or we are aware of one of the 400 or so surviving toll houses that can be found scattered across Scotland’s landscape.


That the legacy of Scotland’s turnpikes is hard to escape is testament to the sheer size of the network and the fact they were Scotland’s most important routes of transport for well over half a century. Indeed between 1750 and 1870 there were some 370 road and bridge acts passed in Scotland to establish turnpike trusts leading to a road network that ran for thousands of miles with construction costs running well into millions of pounds.


Why Study Toll Roads?


In 1750 Scotland was on the brink of a period of major industrial and agrarian change that would transform the lives of the Scottish people.  Key to this was the simultaneous arrival of the turnpike era that would revolutionise Scotland’s road network and play a pivotal role in the coming century. 


Unlike studies of their English counterparts, this road network has lain in relative obscurity, unmapped (until now), undiscussed, fleetingly referenced, and largely neglected. 


Some of the significant findings of this study have been to identify the principal factors shaping turnpike development.  In the early development years, the competing innovation of statue labour conversion, the county trust and opposition were all deemed to be important.  The later turnpike boom was illustrative of the close relationship between turnpike development and the economy. The subsequent decline of Scotland’s turnpikes was not solely due to the arrival of the railways, but rather it was the growing unpopularity of the system on account of its flaws, coupled with its success as a transport innovation, that ultimately rendered it obsolete.


From the historical sources coupled with the maps it is clear that turnpikes were economically influential.  However, their impact cannot simply be restricted to the economy and Scotland’s turnpikes also played an influential role in the social and cultural transformations of their era and ultimately in transforming the very fabric of Scottish Life.


Many of these conclusions were aided by the toll road maps.  The map in many ways demonstrates the scale and extent of Scotland’s first industrial revolution but also the importance of communications and connectivity in the formation of modern Scotland.


Toll Roads in Scotland


The study by McEwan (2018) - that is the basis of this shorter article - is dependent primarily on evidence taken from the Old Statistical Accounts, the New Statistical Accounts, the various volumes and editions of the Statutes at Large/ Public General Statutes, the Journals of the House of Commons, minutes of road authorities and a variety of other primary material notably the ‘improving’ literature of the late eighteenth century. 


These sources are not without their complications, biases, and flaws, and each has been handled accordingly.  This primary material has also been used in conjunction with the English turnpike literature for comparison, and with early modern Scottish histories for placing these roads in their wider context.


GIS Mapping of the Toll Roads of Scotland


This study has sought to fill the gap in understanding by charting the chronological and geographical development of Scotland’s turnpikes; one crucial element of which is the mapping of the toll roads.


In this article, we report on the mapping of the Toll Roads of Scotland using GIS software. ESRI’s ArcGIS 10.5 Geographic Information System software was used to map Toll Roads for three periods: (1750-1770), (1770- 1790), and (1790-1800).


There were three stages to the GIS mapping undertaken. The first stage involved identifying the Toll Roads using a combination of the literature, a Road Atlas, Google Maps, and two digital datasets of the road network of Scotland. The digital road network datasets used were freely available: OpenStreetMap ( and OS OpenData ( Although purporting to be similar if not identical datasets, when overlaid in ArcGIS, it was clear that although there were some similarities in the data, the datasets were not coincident, and in both datasets the road networks were sometimes missing roads or sections of roads. The map attribute tables for the two road datasets were also quite different.  For this project many of the attribute table fields were not needed, and it was only the fields that contained a reference to or ID for the road name that were used when searching the map/table for the road of interest.  The second stage of the methodology involved searching for the road of interest, sub-setting the map dataset to create a new road map layer, and then adding two new fields to the road attribute tables of the sub-setted data: Toll Road (Text: Y/N) and Year (Integer: 1750, 1770, or 1790).   This was completed for all of the roads of interest. The final stage of the methodology involved completing populating the two new fields for each road with the help of reference to Google Maps, and a modern Road Atlas.  Once completed, the map layers were checked several times - and where necessary - edited to correct any final errors.


The layers were then mapped using the ArcGIS View function using the Year Field to represent the three years 1750, 1770, and 1790.



The Turnpike Map


Mapping of the toll roads has provided a way to help improve our understanding of an innovation that played a critical role in an equally critical period of Scottish history.  The maps produced have helped to visualise the evolution of the toll road network over both space and time, opening a door to further study of this forgotten road network. The result is a simple GIS map, but one that provides significant insight into the major periods of growth and decline in the Scottish toll road network and can be clearly linked to major economic, operational, and social transformations.



James D. McEwan is a Graduate in History at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland.

David R. Green is in the Department of Geography at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, and Director of the MSc in GIS Degree Programme.