Dirrington Great Law

Dirrington Great Law (left) and Dirrington Little Law (right) looking south-eastwards Photo: © Neil Stewart Neil’s Hillwalking Exploits
Dirrington Great Law (left) and Dirrington Little Law (right) looking south-eastwards
Photo: © Neil Stewart: Neil’s Hillwalking Exploits

October 2016 saw members of the REELS team visit North Berwickshire en route home from attending a day conference in Newcastle organised by the Society for Name Studies in Britain and Ireland.  Dr Simon Taylor and Dr Leonie Dunlop (formerly of STIT, the precursor project to REELS) contributed papers.

Our objective was to conduct fieldwork and to enjoy the view of the rolling Lammermuir scenery and areas to the south from the top of Dirrington Great Law, a conspicuous hill of 398m situated 2.49km SSE of the village of Longformacus LMS and from its nearby smaller twin, Dirrington Little Law (363m), some 2km to the SW.  The forecast was not auspicious, but undaunted we briefly explored the mid-18th century parish church, with its simple Romanesque features and interesting gravestones, before journeying on to begin an ascent of the Great Law itself.

161016 Longformacus Church1
Longformacus Parish Church.  Photo Dàibhidh Grannd.

If you aren’t familiar with the hill-bagging terms such as Marilyn, Hump and Tump then the Online Database of British and Irish Hills is a good place to begin.  According to the database, Dirrington Great Law qualifies as all these three types of hill, being higher than 150m on all sides and having a top separated from other tops by more than 30m.  It is even distinct enough to warrant its very own Wikipedia page.

The earliest reference located so far to Dirrington Great Law and its smaller neighbour comes in a late 12th/early 13th century charter (1), which Dr Taylor translates: ‘also I have granted to them and by this my present charter confirmed the church of Horndean and certain sheilings in Lammermuir which are called (the) Diueringdounes…’ (2)  Further charters supply the variations: Diueringdon (3), Dunrindun (4) and Duurindun(?) (5).  May Williamson (6) adds to these: Diuiringdon and the later forms Deryngton (c1350), Derington (1478) and Derrington Law (1523).  She writes:

‘An OE form *Divering, Difering may be a patronymic based on a much simplified form of Dyċġferð, Dyċġfrið, but compare the River Deerness, Du: Diuerness, c1200, which seems to contain the same base, which is W dwfr, seen in many other river-names (ERN, 118-9). On this, in the OE form *dyfer, an –ing construction may have been made, so that *Dyferingdūn is “the hill by the rivers”.’

The eponymous(?) Dye Water at Longformacus Photo Dàibhidh Grannd.
The eponymous(?) Dye Water at Longformacus.  Photo Dàibhidh Grannd.

Dr Taylor is keen to re-examine this theory, suggesting instead that Dye Water, the major watercourse nearby, may also contain the same element as found in the Dirrington laws.

Dr Eila Williamson and Dàibhidh Grannd beginning the walk up Dirrington Great Law Photo Dr Simon Taylor.
Dr Eila Williamson and Dàibhidh Grannd beginning the walk up Dirrington Great Law.
Photo Dr Simon Taylor.

Our expedition too had a somewhat watery ending as is evident from the picture below.  Nevertheless it was a most enjoyable day out.

Dr Simon Taylor approaching the summit of Dirrington Great Law through low cloud Photo Dàibhidh Grannd.
Dr Simon Taylor approaching the summit of Dirrington Great Law through low cloud.
Photo Dàibhidh Grannd.



(1)  Kelso Lib.i no. 140, dated 1198 x 1214.

(2)  ‘concessi etiam eis et hac presenti carta mea confirmaui Ecclesiam de Horuerdene et quasdem scalingas in Lambermore que vocantur Diueringdounes…

(3)  Kelso Lib.i no. 143, dated 1203.

(4)  Kelso Lib.ii no. 460, dated 1243 x 1254.

(5)  Papal confirmation of Kelso Lib.ii no. 460, dated 1243 x 1254.

(6)  Williamson, M. (1942) The Non-Celtic Place-Names of the Scottish Border Counties, p55.  PhD.  University of Edinburgh.


900px-Common_crane_grus_grusThe Common or Eurasian crane (Grus grus)
Photo: ©Andreas Trepte www.photo-natur.de

In March 2016 I visited Cranshaws, a rural parish in the Lammermuirs with no village within its bounds.  The remains of the medieval kirk lie in an old graveyard on a broad, relatively open slope about 1 km west of the Whiteadder Water, and about 200 metres south-east of Cranshaws Castle (see the accompanying photos).  The name first appears in the mid-13th century as Craneschawes / Cranessawys’ / cranschaus, with reference to the church.

One of the problems with analysing Berwickshire place-names like Cranshaws is trying to decide which language to assign their origins to.  They could be Old English names, coined when Berwickshire formed part of the kingdom of Northumbria from about the 7th to the 10th centuries A.D. Or they could be later, when this northern form of Old English had evolved into the language now referred to as Scots.  A rule of thumb is that those names attached to medieval parishes and other central places are more likely to go back to the Northumbrian (Old English) period, while names attached to minor features such as wee burns or hillocks are more likely to be later Scots coinings.

This leaves a lot of names in between these two extremes, and an important part of the REELS project will be to try to define the Berwickshire name-stock more accurately in terms of language of origin.  However, as far as Cranshaws is concerned, the working assumption is that it was coined in the Northumbrian period.

So how should we analyse this name?  The first element is Old English cran ‘a crane’, the magnificent bird which until the early 16th century bred in Britain and which would have been a familiar site in the landscape of both Scotland and England.  One of the main ways we can judge just how widespread and conspicuous these birds once were is from the many place-names that contain references to them.  An article by S. Boisseau and D. W. Yalden from 1998 tells us ‘The former status of the Crane Grus grus in Britain’ identifies around 300 such place-names.  And there are no doubt many more still to identify (a recent one we can add to this corpus is the lost name Cairnbriggs by St Monans in Fife.

The second element is Old English sceaga (Scots shaw) ‘a small wood, a copse, a strip of undergrowth or wood’. It is not clear whether the original name was in the plural, though it certainly is by the time the name is first recorded.  If so, then it would refer to more than one clump of woodland.

So the name can be interpreted as ‘a small wood or woods associated with cranes’, and through it we are transported back into the first millennium A.D. to a relatively open landscape dotted with small clumps of woodland, where cranes were often seen, and presumably also bred.

Simon Taylor

Boisseau, S., and Yalden, D. W., 1998, ‘The former status of the Crane Grus grus in Britain’, Ibis 140, 482-500

The photos were taken by my old friend Alan McQuillan, who along with his partner Minie Smith accompanied me on my visit.

The ruins of the old kirk of Cranshaws
The ruins of the old kirk of Cranshaws, with Cranshaw Castle in the distance.  Photo: Alan McQuillan.

Looking SE from the edge of the old kirkyard of Cranshaws
Looking south-east from the edge of the old kirkyard of Cranshaws down the gently sloping fields to the Boontree Burn flowing eastwards to join the Whiteadder Water at short distance beyond the gap in the trees.  Photo: Alan McQuillan.

Cranshaws Castle

Cranshaws Castle.  Photo: Alan McQuillan.