~ Posted by Robert Butler, April 16th 2012

This week's British front cover of The Economist shows Scotland as a free-floating country. The headline reads: "It'll cost you. The price of Scottish independence." The place names that appear have been changed: Scotland becomes "Skintland", Edinburgh becomes "Edinborrow (Twinned with Athens)" and Glasgow becomes "Glasgone". The cover has caused outragesome of it, no doubt, genuine; some of it, probably, a little manufactured. Of course, the cover is not saying, "This is Scotland today". It's saying in an eye-catching way: this could be the future. It's the article inside that makes the case that the economics of independence are "steadily worsening". 

To take the map too literallyto claim that each community mentioned is going to be insulted by a pun on its name and that the illustrator should show more sensitivityis to ignore a lively tradition. For centuries maps have been a gift for satirists because they can muck about with easily recognised symbols. And these maps are central to national identity, the touchiest of subjects.

Rudeness has always been part of it. In the 18th century Gillray portrayed John Bull as the British Isles defecating his warships over the northern coast of France. In the 19th century Fred W. Rose drew Russia as a giant octopus that stretched its tentacles out across Europe. In the 20th century Saul Steinberg's New Yorker cover "View of the World from 9th Avenue" portrayed China, Japan and Russia as small nondescript land masses in the far distance. The Economist's own recent cover of America changed the names of each of the 52 states: Texas became "Taxes", Florida became "Horrida" and Iowa became "I.O.U. WA".  What gives The Economist's current cover its punch (more than the puns) is the image of Scotland as an archipelago with England, Wales and Ireland nowhere to be seen.

The best ripostes to this cover have been versions that turn the argument on its head. One that's retitled "Skilledland" optimistically renames Glasgow, Skye and Stornaway as "Glasgoingplaces", "Skye's The Limit" and "Storminaway". Another reverses the headline to: "It's cost us. The price of Scottish dependence". In this map, which has some bite, the sea near Cromarty is named "Russian Navy Berth", Dunbartonshire is called "nuke storage" and large parts of Invernessshire, Aberdeenshire and Kirkcudbrightshire are labelled "Belongs to some Lord".

Robert Butler is online editor of Intelligent Life