Wednesday 21 May 2014

I would map 500 miles

When The Proclaimers released Sunshine on Leith in 1988 I was just about heading off to University (to study cartography and geography - that bit is important). They were not to my musical taste...why would I want to be beaten up for liking such a dreadful duo? Little did I know that over 25 years later I'd be making a map relating to one of their first and most celebrated ditties I'm gonna be (500 miles). If you want the background read on...if you want to see my map, scroll to the bottom.

The song is renowned for the lyric But I would walk 500 miles. And I would walk 500 more...blah de blah blah.... And so fast forward to 2014 and the following popped up in my twitter stream.

Now it's clearly tongue in cheek and fair play to Hazel McKendrick...I haven't seen anyone tackle this cultural dilemma before and she had a good go. Where, indeed, were The Proclaimers going to walk 500 miles to from Leith? And what about the 500 more? Unfortunately she used two perfect circles at the nominated distance around Leith but too late, another viral map is born and all the usual suspects begin clamoring to heap praise upon it.

I and a number of map-minded people folded our arms and began finding fault because the circles shouldn't be so, well...circular! Yet again someone had done something wrong on the internet (thanks to Barry Rowlingson for reminding me of the well observed XKCD cartoon).

Great idea. Nice bit of fun but...wait...the Web Mercator projection distorts shapes and areas pretty markedly. If you draw a line indicating 500 miles around Leith on that projection it would not be a circle.

Here's the classic example from The Economist on the threat from North Korean missiles that made the same mistake...

And here's the correction they were forced to publish after they had redrawn the lines properly and with respect to the projection used for the map...

Now it's questionable whether marking the range of North Korean missiles incorrectly is more or less dangerous than the lyrics from The Proclaimers (I guess it's a question of taste) but either way McKendrick's map is wrong. And then what about the fact that reaching Iceland would require them to walk on water? Now we're stretching the bounds of their talent just a little far with that one surely!

So, as a self-respecting cartonerd I re-did the map...

I still used Web Mercator and placed 500 mile and 1000 mile geodesic buffers around Leith (using the same huge assumption as McKendrick) to show the real distances as they appear on this map. These represent the theoretical extent of how far they might walk so if they went off-road and walked in a straight line that's where they would end up (notwithstanding the small matter of the wet stuff).

I also went a little further and used a bit on analytic acumen to calculate how far 500 miles would take them using the European road network. Then I calculated how far they could get by going 500 more. Those areas I show as shaded so we can see how far they would walk on land. I took some liberties...I presumed they only walked on roads and of course, they may know of sneaky short-cuts or go roaming cross-country. I also presumed the ferry journey's equated to a walking distance when they most likely sat down and had a rest (though if they walked round the deck then the eventual distances need reducing slightly)

It's not perfect (there's no North Sea ferries to Scandinavia and the Brittany ferry is also missing) but it's better than shoving circles on a Web Mercator projection and calling it cartography. The correct version applies knowledge of how maps work to make a sensible, correct map...even though the theme is distinctly daft and I still hate the song with a passion. I hate poor cartography more though.

That said, McKendrick's map has nearly 2,000 retweets at the time of writing. Mine? 88. Proof positive that actually nobody gives a shit about quality anymore...or when someone has gone to the effort of providing a correction they do their very best to ignore.

Update: Thank you to all the people who have read this since posted. And a particular thank you to all the other nerds out there who have found fault with my version. I have updated the map to make the necessary corrections and disclaimers.

Update 2: I couldn't resist...I did a Where the Streets Have No Name follow-up map...and I'm now thinking of all the other geo-related maps that can be made. I'm calling them Lyric Maps.

Update 3: Funny how frivolous work gets noticed...I've written an update in a new blog post called Pedantic cartography.


  1. Clearly you are not also a punctuation nerd. "Proclaimer's"?

    1. You're right, of course. I stand corrected and have corrected. Thanks.

  2. I assume the Proclaimers are scared of getting their shoes dirty and refuse to go off-road in teh NW Highlands.

    Wrt retweets - impact and novelty outshine quality and accuracy.

    1. The off-road version would be represented by the buffers because that's the theoretical extent. That said I've never seen a picture of them in sturdy hiking boots.

    2. Update - i saw 1/2 of the proclaimers last week and he was heading south on Buccleuch Street, Edinburgh (55.943375,-3.184898). We can no longer assume they travel together!

  3. Given the narrator's professed fondness for getting drunk, the assumption of a linear path in the walk seems highly questionable. A random walk down roads may be more likely.

  4. Indeed - just proves that any sort of analysis is littered with problems, error, uncertainty and bias.

  5. Ferries to Ballycastle, Larne and Belfast (all in Northern Ireland) from Scotland aren't shown. Although, let's face it, they could have just walked to the nearest airport and went anywhere and walked from there, makes sense to allow planes if ferries are allowed.

  6. Hello,

    I am contacting you on behalf of ABC News. We are interested in the photo credited to you seen here: We'd like to share the photo with our viewers tomorrow morning.

    We would like to request permission (for free) to show this video on Good Morning America and across our ABC News shows and platforms seen worldwide in all media, in perpetuity.

    Please let us know if you are authorized to distribute the footage and if we may have permission to air this in our programming. Also, please let us know what screen credit requirements, if any, should accompany the footage.

    Please email both and
    Thanks in advance!
    Claire Pires
    Good Morning America

  7. You omit to mention the Harwich-Esbjerg(Denmark) ferry, which, in conjunction with the bridges linking mainland Denmark via Funen and Zealand islands to Malmö in Sweden, or indeed the Frederikshavn-Gothenburg ferry, greatly extends the on-foot distance the Proclaimers could walk

  8. Nowadays there are no direct ferries from the UK to Norway, but at the time the song was released there was a regular sailing from Newcastle to Bergen. Leith to Newcastle is about 120 miles by road, Newcastle to Bergen 453 miles along the geodesic, so that would have given them another 427 miles from Bergen - enough to reach anywhere from the southern tip of Norway to as far north as Trondheim, or a small area over the Swedish border. They could even have walked to Hell (a small town near Trondheim).

    Another route which no longer runs is that from Lerwick in Shetland to the Faroes and then Iceland (the ferry from Denmark to Iceland is still going, but doesn't stop in Lerwick). By walking to Thurso and ferry-hopping to Orkney then Shetland, they could have reached Seydisfjordur with about 20 miles to spare.

  9. You are assuming that both walks were in a fairly straight line (drunkenness excluded here), and that both sets of 500 miles are in the same direction.

  10. How did you calculate distances by road? Been looking for a tool to show everywhere with ten miles of my home by road, but so far can only find ten miles as the crow flies.

  11. If they were travelling from Auchtermuchty to Lisbon as directly as possible they'd reach the ferry terminal in Portsmouth shortly after walking 500 miles. From Santander the next 500 mile walk takes them to the outskirts of Lisbon. Hence two perfectly rational walks each of 500 miles, and a good reason not to refer to it as a single 1000 miles.