There is excellent mapping available from a number of sources for Scotland. Let’s take you on a tour. I can’t list every option available so I’ll mainly tell you about those I use. Do use the comments to add more information about other options.
I use a mixture of online and paper maps, including printing off maps for selected areas from my online maps. I’m a big fan of paper maps, particularly sheet maps as you get a real sense of what’s where and what’s around from them. Without them, it’s too easy to plan to go from A to B by the shortest (and sometimes dullest) route and miss the lesser gems just off the main route.
Most ‘official’ maps are based on the Ordnance Survey, originally the government (military) mappings service but now run privately.
If you are wanting to zoom around Scotland in some detail, then the online maps at osmaps.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/57.60006,-3.63041,12 are super. You can zoom in to the level of individual houses or zoom out to the whole of Scotland. You can search for places names and, especially useful in the Western Isles, it’ll cope with the Gaelic and English names. You can turn on layers to show many features of interest to tourists but I find it sometimes patchy, at least in the free version: it shows Dunvegan but not Eilean Donan Castle as a tourist attraction for example.
But if you want high quality mapping and can run the App, then a month long subscription at £3.99 looks to be a decent deal to me for a visitor. You can use both the online and downloaded offline maps as well as printing routes out.
Details of pricing and features for iOSand Android here: www.ordnancesurvey.co.uk/shop/os-maps-online.html (but there are other options below).
The OS are best known for their standard 1:50000 and 1:25000 paper maps. These now come with the equivalent digital download service. Personally, I love paper maps: there is nothing quite like spreading one out and seeing what is about. You will see these paper maps for sale widely. The OS maps are the base maps used for routes on sites like Walk Highlands and these or the equivalent maps from Harvey should go with you if you are headed into the hills. These are the only maps that properly show the topography: very important when you are walking in our hills and mountains.
Side Note: Grid references, Postcodes and Latitude/Longitude
It’s worth me at this point talking a little about grid references, postcodes and latitude/longitude.
You’ll often find exact locations in official sources given as grid references: a series of letters and numbers e.g. NG 881 258 (this is for Eilean Donan Castle). This uses a series of squares (here, NG) covering the whole country and then within those squares a grid to give locations. Six digits (within about 100m) is usually sufficient accuracy.
The standard OS maps are overprinted with the grid with each 1km grid square being the first two digits of either the northing or the easting, leaving you to estimate the third digit to make the six digit grid reference. So for Eilean Donan Castle you read across on the easting to the 88 line and then 1/10 of the way further east and then northing to the 25 line and then 8/10 of the way to 26 north.
Postcodes are a bit like US Zip Codes but are more detailed covering usually just around a dozen properties. They take the form of a mix of letters and numbers e.g. IV40 8DH. That’s fantastic in towns as if you can plug the postcode into a SatNav, it’ll take you more or less right to the door, including which side of the street you are looking for. In more rural areas a dozen properties might be an area several miles long and a few miles wide.
For example, the postcode for my holiday house (IV40 8DH, www.varisholiday.co.uk) is shared by all the properties in Reraig. A SatNav will happily announce ‘You have reached your destination’ at the centre of the postcode area, the blue pin. I, of course, need to tell my guests to go up the small road beside the caravan park and turn right to find the house. And/or I can give then the Grid reference NG818273 or even Latitude : 57.284647, Longitude : -5.6209102 (my SatNav will use postcodes and lat/long). It’s a common issue for rural Scotland: be sure to know more than just the address and postcode if you are trying to find where to lay your head at night in rural Scotland.
I use http://gridreferencefinder.com/ to switch between postcodes, grid references and Lat/Long if necessary.
Open Street Maps
This is a crowd-sourced mapping project which has an enormous amount of detail, including bus stops, details of parking places etc. But it can vary according to levels of interest. It’s used as a the base map for collaborative public projects e.g. The Great British Toilet Project (more details here) and can be licenced for other applications. See http://www.openstreetmap.org
We are probably all familiar with GoogleMaps: it can be hard to avoid them! If there is a commercial angle to something, it will probably, but not certainly, have found its way onto the maps but it’s less good at non commercial locations.
I confess to using GoogleMaps and particularly StreetView when booking accommodation so that I not only know what the accommodation looks like but also the immediate area. It also gives some confidence when looking for accommodation when you are tired, that you can recognise the area.
I find it interesting that Open Street Maps shows the four new houses close to the caravan park but that neither GoogleMaps nor the OS have caught up yet (although Google’s satellite image does show the site preparation and therefore can be dated to Spring 2016).
I have installed on my PC an application called Memory Map where for £75 I have the OS 1:50000 maps for the whole of the UK. I can print these off onto A4 sheets – and its what I do for e.g. kayak or hiking, usually laminating them to protect them from water. I can also have the maps on multiple mobile devices.
For £7.99 you can have 1:250000, 1:25000 and 1:10000 OS maps on your iPhone or iPad. I’ve this installed and find it really useful. You just download the tiles you are interested in. You can search by postcode, placename and road. I love the fine detail of the 1:10000 mapping where almost every small cove in named: something you don’t get the on the larger scale maps. It also names all the roads: invaluable in towns and cities. My partner, a keen landscape photographer, is forever bothering me for the exact details of an image he has taken. http://ukmapapp.com/
As well as the detailed OS or Harvey maps, mentioned above, if you are touring over a large area, then larger scale road maps showing features of interest to tourists are very useful for planning both in advance of a visit and on a day to day basis. I’d never just rely on a SatNav (electronics go wrong) and paper maps give you a good idea of the other interesting things just off you main route from A to B. I’m a great one for going from A to B via 1,2,3, and 4 and occasionally never get to B.
I like the Phillips Leisure and Tourist series (Don’t bother with the Skye one as its just a bigger print of the Highlands)
For the whole of Scotland, try https://www.harpercollins.co.uk/9780008158521/scotland-touring-map
These should be available internationally.
The most important thing to stress about these is that they mainly just take you to the postcode of where you want to go. In towns that’s fine. In a rural area the postcode area might be 7 miles long and 3 miles wide. Always, always, always have a decent map based backup if it’s critical you find something in rural areas.
I’ve not much experience of using the big commercial SatNavs from the likes of TomTom and Garmin. I use a very cheap app on my iPhone (£7.99) which uses OpenStreetMap as it’s underlying data. The routing is pretty good and for those finding their way about on foot or by bicycle, there are pedestrian and cycle modes. It’s useful to have a SatNav that will accept grid references or longitude/latitude as well as postcodes so if you are buying/hiring one ask this question.
I definately do not recommend GoogleMaps as a SatNav. I’ve experienced it producing some bizarre routes. And it’s journey times in the Highlands are terribly optimistic : I think it believes that if the speed limit is 60mph, then the rate of progress much approach this on all roads.