LIKE Robert Louis Stevenson, I filled many empty childhood hours poring over maps.

An atlas was my PlayStation, covered as it was in those faraway days with "pink bits", denoting the extent of the British Empire. Like Stevenson, too, I was told that there were people who "did not care for maps", but like him I never met any. Who could not care for maps? With even the smallest atlas, the names of whose places could be read only with the aid of a magnifying glass (which added to the romance), you held the whole world in your hands.

Stevenson so loved maps that when he created his best-loved book, Treasure Island, the first thing he did was draw a map, as Tolkien and countless other novelists have done since. Such imaginary maps can be as useful as those which describe real places. Of course, Stevenson was far from the first writer to invent a map, but his was surely the first to seep into public consciousness. He always maintained it was a fantasy but Shetlanders were not convinced, recognising in the outline of Treasure Island their own island of Unst, which Stevenson knew from a visit in 1869 with his father to Muckle Flugga lighthouse.

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By then Scotland was itself a well-mapped country, as visitors to the exhibition at the National Library of Scotland will attest. Titled Putting Scotland on the Map: The World of John Bartholomew & Son, it is a hymn to the art and science of cartography as practised by one of the great map-making families of the globe. For maps, as its organisers rightly stress, are not just useful, they are objects d'art, coveted as much for their content and accuracy as for their beauty.

The first proper map of Scotland was made in 1654 by Joan Blaue, and is one of four published over the last few years in sumptuous limited editions by the Edinburgh-based publisher Birlinn in association with the NLS. The others are William Roy's The Great Map: The Military Survey of Scotland 1747-55, John Thomson's county by county Atlas of Scotland, which first appeared in 1832, and Bartholomew's Survey Atlas of Scotland, which was published in 1895. Together they show how Scotland developed from a country that was often viewed as empty and barbaric and untamed into one that was increasingly populated, connnected and urbanised.

The hero of the NLS's exhibition is John George Bartholomew, who was once described as "the very prince of cartographers". Born in 1860, he emerged from three generations of engravers and cartographers, all based in Edinburgh. He led a troubled life, suffering from bouts of mental and physical ill-health. When he was just seven years old, he wrote in his diary: "Morbid days in garden at Dick Place – wished to die among the flowers." He was 12 when his mother died.

But, as Karla Baker, curator of the NLS's Bartholomew Archive, has said, his personal travails appear not to have hindered him commercially and professionally. He was a founder member of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and an ardent advocate of the better teaching of geography in schools. His greatest achievement, however, was surely The Survey Atlas of Scotland, the first financially successful one of its kind. With colouring to show the height of land and the depth of sea, it allowed its users to picture in their minds how lands lay even though they had never seen them.

This is what maps looked like when I was boy, with multiple shades of green for the plains and valleys and coastal areas, and ever-deepening shades of brown as the ground steepened, becoming almost black around the most vertiginous peaks. Such old maps are endlessly fascinating, even though they bear little relation to contemporary reality. Another of Bartholomew's great advances was a chronological map of Edinburgh, which attempted to chart its history from earliest times to the date of publication in 1919. At a glance you can see the development of the precipitous city which Stevenson was obliged to leave in search of better health, travelling to wherever the winds blew him with those "little pictorial maps" that he held in his head.