Textual Ecologies: Infrastructural Networks and Geosemantic Patterns in Nineteenth-Century Scotland

Eric Gidal and Michael Gavin

Time and Place: Thursday, 01.07., 14:10–14:30, Room 1
Session: Networks and Spatial Analysis

Keywords: GIS; Computational Linguistics; Environmental History; Infrastructure; Urban Networks; Scotland

Our project describes changing relations between language and place in nineteenth-century  Scotland, a region that experienced rapid transformation from an agricultural economy to an  industrial powerhouse and a central site of a global imperial system. We are interested specifically  in the historical geography of these transformations — the alteration of urban centers and rural  towns, agricultural and pastoral districts, plantations and planned villages, forests and peat bogs,  ports and bays, rivers, lakes, and inlets under the pressures of an extractive economy — and how  this geography was recorded by an information infrastructure of print publications and communication networks. By describing Scotland’s economic modernization and ecological  changes through these textual records, we aim to produce an environmental geography of print  culture in the industrial age. Our research methods therefore combine network modelling with  computational linguistics (CL) and geographical information science (GIS) to map the distribution  of topics within various bodies of text and across geographical space.

As described in a recent co-authored article, published in the International Journal of Geographical  Information Science (Gidal & Gavin 2019), we have built a network model from the collection of  postal directories published online by the National Library of Scotland. These directories include  detailed data about the daily movements of information (postal routes), capital goods (shipping  routes by wagon and boat), and persons (stage-coach routes) and allow us to show how language  and geography were conjoined in Scotland’s industrial system. Our model demonstrates what  Lynn Hollen Lees refers to as the “space economy” of British industrialization (Lees 2000) — how  infrastructural networks increased during this period, transforming Scotland into a cohesive zone  of economic and cultural activity. Increasing rates of travel, communication, and shipping through smaller towns caused a qualitative shift in the spatial  structure of Scottish infrastructure: as local towns developed into commercial hubs, Scotland’s  economy and culture simultaneously decentralised, differentiated, and specialised. In  the process, the shape of Scottish networks fundamentally changed from a simple core-periphery  structure to an interconnected web of regional hubs.

A map produced by the Parliamentary Committee on Postal Reform in 1838 offers a contemporary  visualization of these networks, illustrating the means and routes by which letters were circulated  in Scotland. Over the course of the nineteenth century, the geographic reach of the network  became substantially wider and denser, with a far greater number of connections beyond  Edinburgh and Glasgow. Using centrality measures to clarify the importance of various nodes, we  demonstrate how more and more nodes take on the role of local hubs, mediating between the  outliers and the major urban centers. Our model represents a kind of hybrid between studies of physical infrastructure and studies of spatially organised social networks (Sarkar et al 2016).  Scotland’ s infrastructure transforms from a concentric model that simply divides the centre from  the periphery, toward a more complex network of interrelated locales that through their mutual  communication constitute Scotland as such.

We use this infrastructure-network model to correlate these changes with a semantic analysis of  geographical descriptions contained in the Old and New Statistical Accounts of Scotland (1790s  and 1830s-40s respectively), topographical dictionaries and gazetteers, antiquarian and geological  surveys, musical miscellanies and literary periodicals. When combined, these datasets allow us to  compare changing patterns in geographic description with transformations in the infrastructural  networks that supported Scotland’s industrial development. The industrial integration of the  varied regions of Scotland and its consequent environmental effects may be traced in the contours  of these textual ecologies. We conclude by suggesting that these alignment between textual  representation, economic activity, and spatial movement should be viewed as central to  nineteenth-century Scotland’s emerging modernity.  

Gidal, E. & M. Gavin. 2019. “Infrastructural semantics: postal networks and statistical accounts in  Scotland, 1790–1845.” International Journal of Geographical Information Science 33 (12): 2523- 2544. DOI: 10.1080/13658816.2019.1631454  

Lees, L.H.. 2000. “Urban Networks.” In The Cambridge Urban History of Britain Volume 3, 1840– 1950, edited by Martin Daunton, 59-94. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 

Sarkar, D., et al. 2016. “GIScience considerations in spatial social networks.” In Geographic  Information Science: 9th International Conference, edited by J.A. Miller, 85-98. Montreal:  Springer.