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Geography, science and national identity in early modern Britain: The case of Scotland and the work of Sir Robert Sibbald (1641–1722)

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Following a review of connections between early modern geography and science and the forms taken by early modern geography, the paper discusses the geographical work and writings of Sir Robert Sibbald, who from 1682 was Geographer Royal. Geography in early modern England has been shown to be a means to national identity—through survey, local, and regional description, and via the empirical investigation of nature. Scotland has been largely neglected in such work. Sibbald's vision for geographical knowledge as part of useful natural knowledge is outlined in detail in his Account of the Scotish Atlas or the Description of Scotland Ancient and Modern (1683), and in the preface to his Scotia Illustrata (1684). These texts are examined in the context of what was understood by geography as a scientific practice in early modern Britain. Sibbald's questionnaire and survey methods are shown to be broadly consistent with the chorographical traditions of his contemporaries, and to have been critically dependent on the assistance of other scholars interested in natural knowledge in Scotland. Sibbald's practice of geography and that of his contemporaries was undertaken in order to promote geographical knowledge as socially useful, interesting in its own terms, and supportive of the scientific and social contexts through which it was promoted.

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: Department of Geography, University of Edinburgh, Drummond Street, Edinburgh, EH8 9XP, UK

Publication date: January 1, 1996

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