January 2019 – MCLE Presentation on Scottish Map Law

by Justice William W. Bedsworth

We are justifiably proud in this country of being a nation “of laws, not of men.” Unfortunately, we seem to feel the best way of accomplishing this is to have the number of laws equal the number of men.

So I spend a little time and a lot of trees1 lamenting the debating, passage, amendment, reconsideration, renumbering, relocation, repealing, first confirmation, and quinceañera of the myriad laws we feel the need to adopt.

Did I mention that our legislature has now passed a law making surfing the official sport of California?

Yep. Government Code section 424.7. Surfing. If I’m lyin’, I’m dyin’. Happened in August. Beat out skateboarding down handrails and voting for Democrats.

It will now join the state butterfly, the state mineral, the state fossil, and the thousand and six other official state things that have made our Government Code the most obese fixture of American government since William Howard Taft. So help me, if the Government Code were a building, the fire marshal would cancel the concert and order it emptied.

Which I shouldn’t be complaining about. A significant percentage of the 400 columns I’ve written over the years have consisted primarily of carping about legislative wretched excess.

As long as I can keep telling people what legislators have done and getting the response, “No way! You’re kidding!” I can keep writing humor. As Will Rogers said, “There’s no trick to being a humorist when you have the entire government working for you.”

And in fairness, our California Hammurabis2 aren’t all that different from legislators in the rest of the world.3

My friend Kevin Underhill (loweringthebar.com) reminded me of this recently. Apparently the Scottish Parliament shares California legislators’ belief that their every quarrel, quirk, and quibble must be codified.

Here’s the problem the Scottish Parliament “solved.” Scotland occupies the northernmost part of the British Isles. Picture Great Britain as a gecko standing on his hind legs and leaning to his left. The gecko’s head is Scotland.4

But that isn’t all of Scotland. Scotland also includes the Shetland Islands, waaaaaaaaay off to the northeast. That’s where the ponies come from.5 But you’d have to stand on the gecko’s shoulders to reach the Shetlands on the map.6

They’re a lonnngggg ways from the rest of Scotland. The ferry between the two takes thirteen hours. This is a problem for mapmakers.7

If their map shows the Shetlands where they actually are—way to the northeast of the other Scots—they have to make the map much bigger to maintain the scale. They end up with a ginormous map made up largely of water. Huge maps of water are not big sellers.8

Or they have to shrink the map down to a size whose print is indiscernible to anyone other than an eagle with a microscope. This, of course, is problematic because the only market smaller than the one for wall-sized maps of Scotland and water is the one for maps unreadable by humans.

Cartographers have always solved this problem by putting the Shetlands in a little box off to the side of the rest of the Great Britain—pretty much the way cartographers have always dealt with Hawaii and Alaska in making maps of the United States.

This never seemed a problem. Most folks know Oahu isn’t a few miles from San Diego. And even the ones who voted for the other party know that Alaska is not due west of Portland. That’s just where there’s space on the map.

So Scottish mapmakers just put a map of the Shetlands in a little box in the Firth of Moray and trusted in the gray matter of the map reader.

But a Scottish MP named Tavish Scott9 considered that intolerable. “My contention is the islands should be in the right place on the map.”

Now, if you’re like me,10 you were waiting for the rest of that sentence. You thought the rest of the sentence would say why the islands should be in the right place on the map. Certainly if the sentence were being spoken by someone proposing a law to require that all maps put the Shetlands where they “belong” you would expect the rest of the sentence to say, “because the present state of affairs causes [insert serious problem here].”

But it doesn’t. Tavish pointed out that the map did not reflect reality the way he thought it should. That was his whole argument.

And it was enough. Because Scots legislators were afraid people would look at maps and think the Shetlands had a fence around them, section 17 of the Islands (Scotland) Act 2018 includes this rule:

(1) There is to be a Scotland mapping requirement.

(2) The Scotland mapping requirement is that, in any map of Scotland, the Shetland Islands must be displayed in a manner that accurately and proportionately represents their geographical location in relation to the rest of Scotland.

There does appear to be a way out. You can obtain a waiver. You can seek permission from Scotland to put the Shetlands in a box.11

What constitutes grounds for such a waiver? Nobody knows.

Nothing in the Act suggests what you might say in your request for permission. I would think telling them you’re a mapmaker and have children to feed might work. Or you might bring in one of the maps with the requisite amount of ocean in it and threaten to unfold it and block out all their overhead lighting.

Nor does the Act set out a punishment for violating the Act. I’m hoping this is no worse than a finable offense. I’m hoping no one is ever incarcerated for it.

Because if you end up in stir and the big guy with badly drawn tattoos on his shaved head and biceps the size of Volkswagens asks what you’re in for, you don’t want to have to say, “Map crime.”

The Scots will probably be able to cope with these impenetrable new map regulations. After all, with the exception of their Parliament, they probably already know where the Shetlands are.

And they’ve apparently got a more relaxed attitude about travel than we do. The great Scottish novelist Robert Louis Stevenson said, “To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.”

I have no idea what he could possibly have meant by that. Ask Jim Hawkins or Long John Silver. But it’s a useful attitude now. With maps the size of Hobie Cat sails, “traveling hopefully” will become a way of life.

The rest of us will just have to hope we don’t get assigned to do a paper on the Shetlands. Or have to explain to our children why Alaska and Hawaii take so long to get to when the map shows them just offshore.

In the meantime, if you’re lucky enough to own a standard-sized map of Scotland, for God’s sake hold onto it. The demand for such maps is gonna soar. They’re gonna be like Mickey Mantle rookie cards.

You don’t want your children saying someday, “Yeah, Dad passed on Microsoft and Amazon, and he threw away a 14”x18” map of Scotland. We coulda been so rich.”


  1. Both raked and unraked.
  2. If only I’d made enough money to buy a baseball team. The California Hammurabis might not have been as good a name as the Rocket City Trash Pandas (an actual team in the Angels farm system; order your t-shirts now), but they probably would have been good enough to get into the Government Code one way or another.
  3. And let’s say a prayer for all the people on this planet who don’t get to complain about their legislators because they don’t have any.
  4. You might just prefer to get a map of Great Britain; that works, too.
  5. The Shetland Ponies would play in the same league as the California Hammurabis. And the Manila Envelopes. And the Boston Cream Pies.
  6. No, I don’t know if geckos have shoulders. It’s a metaphor. Work with me here.
  7. Also commuters.
  8. No, boaters do not use maps. They use charts. They don’t care so much where the water is or what it looks like as what it does.
  9. Honest, that’s really his name. I know it sounds like the kind of thing someone with an imagination as impoverished as mine would devise, but it’s not. It’s his real name.
  10. Don’t worry; we aren’t gonna make you admit it.
  11. But not Baby. “Nobody puts Baby in a corner.” Or a box.


William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at william.bedsworth@jud.ca.gov. And look for his new book, Lawyers, Gubs, and Monkeys, through Amazon and Vandeplas Publishing.