Old maps are a fantastic resource for giving you a feel for the community that your ancestors lived in. You can see how rural or urban the area was, how large or small the village, what factories, mills, mines, schools, institutions, or other landmarks were in the area. You can see whether the area was mountainous or open field, whether there were any rivers or streams that ran through the area, or whether they were near a lake.
Maps can also help you to see how easy it would have been for your ancestors to travel if there is a railway line or harbour nearby. If not, you know that they would have had to resort to walking, using a horse or relying on a stagecoach. Similarly, you will be able to see any topographic barriers to travel – mountains to get around or up and over, lakes or large rivers that need to get crossed, deep canyons or powerful waterfalls that needed to be avoided.
Maps can show you neighbouring counties where your ancestors may have met spouses or had children. And they can show you how county boundaries may have changed over time.
You can print out an old map and then place pins in all of the places where your ancestors lived and see how their migration happened over time. Or you can enlarge a village map and place pins where different branches of your family lived to see how close they were to one another. This will give you a deeper understanding of their community as well.
Many local libraries, family history centres or genealogy societies will have old maps for their area. There are also a number of websites that have digitized maps. Some of these will allow geo-referencing where you can compare what the area was like in the time when your ancestors there lived compared to what the area looks like today.
Be warned: Once you get started on these websites, you can easily lose track of time! Here are some websites to get you started:
National Library of Scotland: http://maps.nls.uk/
Historic Map Works: http://www.historicmapworks.com/Search/search.php
Sanborn Maps: http://sanborn.umi.com/
Scottish born, Canadian raised, Christine had the best of both worlds, growing up immersed in Scottish culture. Realizing that others of the Scots diaspora were not as fortunate, she started her business, Genealogy Tours of Scotland to allow others researching their Scottish roots the opportunity to return to the land of their ancestors, conduct family history research and deepen their sense of belonging to their ancestral kin.