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Interview: CEO Adam King of Harvey Maps

Written by Fiona

December 17 2021

I interviewed Adam King, the CEO of Scottish mapmakers, Harvey Maps. The article was published in The Scots Magazine. If you enjoyed reading this article, why not buy another Scots Magazine, or a subscription.

A lifetime love of maps

For as long as Adam King can remember, maps have been both a useful and “aesthetic” part of his life. Now the CEO of Scottish company Harvey Maps, he finds it surprising – but “also somehow not surprising” – that his work allows him to be immersed in maps every day.

“It’s actually my perfect job, although I still feel fortunate to be here after so many years,” says Adam, 41, who joined the company as a cartographer in 2010. “To be able to work for a map-maker creating maps for the recreation of walking that I also enjoy is very special.

“Anyone who hears what I do for a living always comments, ‘Oh I like the sound of that.’”

As a boy growing up in the Cotswolds, Adam’s first clear memory of a map was on a night navigation activity with the Scouts. He says: “I remember the excitement of looking at an OS Map and realising that if I could understand ‘the code’, work out what the lines and symbols meant, I would be able to navigate myself back to the base.

“I could see that once you knew the code, it would be similar for all maps and, wherever I went, I would be able to understand the landscape.”

In his early 20s, Adam, who now lives in Linlithgow, West Lothian, again recollects how maps were the focus of another lightbulb moment. He says: “I’d recently graduated with a degree in sociology and I was wondering what to do next and what career to choose.

“It came to me that I liked maps, especially the look of maps, and I suddenly thought: ‘Someone makes maps. I wonder who makes maps?’ I headed to my local library and found a book on careers and this is when I discovered what a cartographer does.”

An MSc in Geoinformation Technology and Cartography at the University of Glasgow led Adam to a role with an English planning and architect firm and then a “more technical job” for British Waterways, now the Canal and River Trust, before returning to Scotland to join Harvey Maps.

He says: “I was interviewed and hired by Sue Harvey, the co-founder of Harvey Maps, at their base in Doune in Perthshire and that was it. I had found the perfect job making maps for recreational use.” 

Robin and Sue of Harvey Maps.

Joining Havey Maps

The company dates back to 1977 when Sue and her business partner Robin Harvey decided to “try to make a living from making maps”. In the early days, the pair, now divorced, concentrated on maps for orienteering clubs and events. 

They were both keen orienteers and their aim was to make a map that was easy to read while moving at speed. Another hallmark has long been that the maps are printed on a highly durable waterproof polyethylene.

One of the first maps was of Howgill Fells for the renowned Karrimor International Mountain Marathon (now the OMM). The scale chosen was 1:40,000, offering the advantages of a compact sheet size and the space to include the level of detail needed to give a clear picture of the terrain. 

Many Harvey Maps continue to be produced in this scale, including the well-established British Mountain Map series.

A series of 1:25,000 Superwalker maps were developed in 1994 and have become a core part of Harvey’s large product range offering “accurate, detailed, easy-to-read and waterproof navigation”.

A collection of maps of National Trails and Long Distance Paths followed. The first of was published in 1996 detailing Scotland’s original long-distance trail, the West Highland Way. Within a few years there were more than 40 similar titles.

In 2014, the Superwalker was redesigned with double-sided printing and concertina folding to give access to any part, and either side, of the sheet. The lightweight paper is tearproof, as well as waterproof.

Two years later, another innovation was the Ultramap, which is described as “pocket perfect”. The 1:40,000 scale covers a large area and yet is handily compact. There are more than 30 maps in the series.

The company continues to expand its product range and has developed overseas maps; UK Summit Maps; mountain charts, such as for Munro baggers; cycling maps; books and jigsaw maps called a Mazzle.

Further map innovations include a Challenge Map series, covering routes such as the Ramsay Round in Scotland, and specific race maps.

Harveys offers digital maps through partners including Viewranger and Anquet.

However, map making is a slow and intensive process. Adam says: “We are not a huge company – we have nine full-time staff – and each new map takes a long time to develop.

“We use aerial photos and a photogrammetrist plots what is seen on the ground. This part can take up to six months for a new map. 

“Then there is the creation of the detail of the map, where the cartographer chooses what we believe is necessary detail while also making the map useful and, of course, beautiful. Harvey Maps has always believed the look of a map is important, as well as the detail.

“The maps are also checked on the ground with staff undertaking field studies. I was part of a great survey trip when we were creating the Superwalker map of Suilven, for example.”

Harvey Maps in focus

While Harveys do not provide full UK coverage, this is not viewed as a disadvantaged compared to the largest competitor, Ordnance Survey (OS).

Adam explains: “OS is the national mapping agency for Great Britain with the responsibility to map every inch of Great Britain. They are required to map as much detail and information as possible.

“Whereas we have greater freedom. We can choose what we include in each map and while, of course, we ensure accuracy for navigation we do not need to add every detail. It means we can remove unnecessary information and provide what we feel is greater clarity.

“Our map scales also help with this and we have other choices, too, such as where to create a useful map boundary based on what we know from our own resources and from actual walkers.

“The aim of Harvey Maps from the start has been to be different to OS Maps and to offer a choice of maps to walkers. It’s as true now as it was almost 45 years ago.” 

In more recent years, the founders, who have both been honoured with MBEs, have retired, although Sue remains a director. In 2017, the employees took over ownership of the company through the formation of an Employee Ownership Trust and Robin is a trust board member.

The company has also revamped their Map Shop and created a Map Bothy, where there is an exhibition of map making, at the headquarters in a 17th century coaching inn.

Adam was chosen to become CEO in January 2020 and has taken over much of Sue’s role, as well as forging his own path. He says: “It wasn’t an easy year to become CEO because 2020 was so affected by the Covid-19 pandemic but I feel I am settling in now.

“I have been learning from Sue’s legacy and also making plans for what I believe should be the future for Harvey Maps. Sue and Robin made a courageous and inspired decision to found the company and it remains a strong business. I hope I can build on this and I do have my own ideas.”

See Harvey Maps.

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