900px-Common_crane_grus_grusThe Common or Eurasian crane (Grus grus)
Photo: ©Andreas Trepte

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.

One thought on “Cranshaws”

  1. Hi,
    My surname is Culshaw, which is a south Lancashire name. I note that there are places in the Cranshaws area called Preston, Blackburn and Bolton. Could the origin of all these names not be down to people moving from Lancashire?

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