Who were the Nithsdale Shanklands?

by David Shankland Mallan, UK


I was named after my great-grandfather David Shankland and can trace my descent directly from John Shankland and Margaret Gillies, first recorded in the Durisdeer Kirk Session records in 1780. Margaret appeared before the session and "acknowledged herself with child in uncleanness", the father being John Shankland younger in Gateslack. This may be the "end of the line" for my Shankland family tree, but with a John Shankland senior in Gateslack at this time, and almost certainly the father of John, at least I can go back a further generation to the early part of the 18th century. By the way, John and Margaret were subsequently married in November 1785.

I would also like to think I am descended from James Shankland and Nicholas Cowpland (see my article The Skirmish at the Enterkin). The use of the name Nicholas for women as well as men at this time is not unusual in Scotland but uncommon enough for me to believe that Nicholas Shankland, daughter of John Shankland and Jean Hislop and granddaughter of John Shankland and Margaret Gillies, is named in her honour, or more likely one of her descendants.

Nithsdale Shanklands before the OPRs

The Drumlanrig rentals and various documents such as sasines, tacks, and wills give us important information about the family. The table below shows us that there was a Shankland presence in this area throughout the 17th century and probably much earlier than 1638. They were tenant farmers, and as such would be quite important people, second only in status to the lairds and landowners such as the Duke of Buccleugh. The farmtouns were not farms as we know them today but could be home to a number of families employed by the tenant to work the land. They may also have had household servants. A tenancy could also be shared amongst a number of tenants and often fathers and sons and brothers would share a tenancy jointly.

DateSource Shankland Location
1638Privy Council summons James ShankilandEnochtoun
1671Privy Council Bond of CautionJames ShankilandEnochtoun
1677Tack James ShankilandEnochtoun
1681Will James ShankilandCoshogle
Jon Shankiland (next of kin) Kirkland of Morton
1682Tack James Shankiland youngerEnochtoun
John Shankiland  
1684Privy Council Enterkin Skirmish Jon Shankiland, Helen SmithWhytfold
Robert Shankiland Crariehill
James Shankiland Ulisyde
James Shankiland, Jennet DouglasEnochtoun
John Shankiland, Issobell ClerkEnochtoun
Janet Shankilaw Burn
Margaret Shankilaw Mains of Morton
1708Drumlanrig Tenants Robert Shankiland Crarie
James Shankiland Crarie
Archibald ShankilandEnochtoun
Archibald ShankilandThornhill
Robert Shankiland Nether Crossnibock, Sanquhar

Shanklands elsewhere

The Shankilands mentioned above all came from a very small area in the upper Nith valley. Webster's census in 1755 gives the total number of inhabitants as 1019 and 435 for the parishes of Durisdeer and Morton respectively. This says that the population would have been highter at the turn of the century but not significantly so. For each of those mentioned above there would have been an extended family, but there is no way of knowing how many.

The Enterkin Affair

As a result of the Enterkin Affair of 1684 and the subsequent investigation by the Privy Council of Scotland, the commissioners interrogated all persons over the age of 16 years, requiring them to state on oath whether they knew anything about the Enterkin Affair. The details are recorded in the Privy Council records, giving what amounts to a census covering the parishes of Nithsdale, Kirkcudbright and Wigton. A significant number of Shanklands are listed in two distinct geographical areas, Kirkcudbright and the Upper Nith Valley.

Lamington Shanklands

There were also Shanklaws / Shanklavs in and around Lamington, an area I know well, as early as 1536 (Sande Shankland). A gravestone in Lamington churchyard has the inscription John Shanklaw 4/2/1818 aged 82, so even allowing for variations in spelling in old documents which often complicate things, this name has been reasonably consistent in its spelling. I have found what looks like a farm near Lamington called Shank but not a hill called Shanklaw (law means hill). I think that Shanklaw is a separate family group and it would appear to have died out. Perhaps the John Shanklaw who died in 1818 was the last of the line.

1682 map of Nithsdale 1682 Map of Nithsdale

A search on Shankiland rather than Shankland in the Old Parish Records shows 2 distinct groups, the first in Morton Parish and the other in and around Terregles near Dumfries. We also know of Shankilands in Kirkcudbrightshire as early as 1576 (Gilbert Shankiland).

Scottish Surnames

Shank (leg), Schankis (stockings) was a commonly used word in the Scots language with a number of closely related meanings. The word is also used in mining, "to sink a shaft". See the Dictionary of the Scots Language for examples.

In his Introduction to the Derivation of Scottish Surnames, William L. Kirk says:

The first surnames were place-names and originated with a man who lived in or came from a place, sometimes a big district like Moray (Murray) or Lothian, often a small rural community. A proprietor was particularly likely to take his name from his estate, but tenants also often took their names from the estate where they lived. Clearly many individuals, and ultimately of families, could originate in the same place, and take their names from it, without being related to each other. Besides, the same or similar names were given to different places, and so individuals or families who came from different parts of the country, and shared neither blood nor territorial affinity, could nevertheless have the same surname. Thus, anyone called Calder (or its variant, Caddell) may derive from an ancestor resident in Calder in West Lothian, Calder (or Cadder) in Lanarkshire, Calder (or Cawdor) in Nairnshire, or Calder in Caithness. Similarly, there is no necessary relationship among the many families called Blair, a place-name which occurs in at least a dozen different areas.

This same argument applies to Shank, Shankland and Shanklaw. It is worth noting here that there are no occurrences of Shanklin either as misspellings or otherwise in the Scottish records as far as I am aware. It is quite likely that Shanklands went to Ireland in the 17th century as part of the lowland Scots colonisation of Ulster. It is estimated as many as 100,000 Scots may have gone there by 1640 and in the decade up to 1700 another 50,000 people. See Ulster Ancestry for more details. A Shankland could have become a Shanklin, but equally it could be a completely separate family name originating in Ireland.

There is an interesting example of how difficult it can be to establish the origins of a name in the Drumlanrig rentals of 1710:

image from Drumlanrig Rentals 1710 Drumlanrig Rentals 1710

Here we see a tenant called Fingland who may even be William Douglas of Fingland who penned the words of the famous song Annie Laurie and was the eldest son of Douglas of Morton. So what Fingland is he "of" - if you'll pardon my grammar?

Some of the older maps show a farm called Fingland just off the Well Path near Dalveen above Durisdeer. There is another near Sanquhar. If we search on the surname Fingland in the OPRs we can see the earliest occurrences are in Upper Nithsdale. What Fingland did they take their names from? Are they descendents of William Douglas?

Fingland is probably a shortening of Farthingland or even Fiveshillingland. There is a Fingland in Cumbria and one even closer near Moniaive which is the one assumed to be his estate. Again this should make us very wary about linking together names in a common family without taking into account geographical location and many other factors.

What's in a Name?

In this case it's an "I". The various documents listed above, except for the Privy Council records, are original documents. They show some differences in spelling even within the same document, but mostly it is Shankiland. I have a sasine from 1780 with John Shankiland in Gateslack, still with the older spelling but by this time the newer spelling seems to have been adopted. Spelling of Scottish surnames in general was very fluid. There was no orthography. Names given verbally in a local accent were transcribed by clerks phonetically with variable results. I have a family member called Agnes Beverland but she was actually baptised Agnes Beverly.

Shankiland Examples

image from 1681 Will Will 1681: Jon Shankiland in Kirkland of Morton

image from 1710 Drumlanrig Rentals Drumlanrig Rentals 1710: Robert and James Shankiland

image from Menzies Shankland Tack 1682 Menzies Shankland Tack, 1682: John and James Shankiland (note the use of Jacobi for James)

So what does all this tell us?

  1. We have a population of Shankilands in Dumfries and Galloway as early as the middle of the 16th century, located in a few distinct areas.
  2. The earliest recorded is Gilbert Shankiland in 1576
  3. The name recorded is Shankiland not Shankland
  4. Many were tenant farmers and perhaps landowners.

Why Shankiland?

This is the great puzzle. It seems to me "quite a mouthful". I am not surprised it ended up as Shankland. It seems to be that it must be a shortened version of a longer name, perhaps Shankisland. But why drop the "S" and not the "I"?

So where is Shankland? Well, it's not Legoland.

Shankston, Patna, Ayrshire

We have known for some time now about a farm called Shankston adjacent to Shankston Loch near Patna in Ayrshire but we have never been able to make a connection with our Shankland family. It can be seen on maps in the 17th Century and is still on the latest OS maps.

1654 map of Shankston Shankston, from Blaeu Atlas of Scotland 1654

Shankston, Cumnock, Ayrshire

There is also a Shankstoun near Cumnock.

following up Luggar river, nixt above the town of Cumnok is Shankstoun 1/4 m. on the south syd.
then is Temple-land 1/2 myl up on the north syd.
followeth Logan on the southsyd 1/2 m. up
Craikstoun 1/4 mile up on the N.S.
Barlannochan 1 m. up on the S. syd.

Timothy Pont "text", 1600

Shankston wood is still there today but Shankston itself has been swallowed up by Cumnock town.

1860 map of Cumnock and Shankston 1860 map of Cumnock and Shankston

The Campbells of Shankiston

In the History of the County of Ayr Vol 1 by James Paterson, there are genealogy and notes for this family who it is said are descended from the Loudoun Campbells, a prominent Ayrshire family. They can be traced back to John Campbell of Shankiston in 1488 and became major landowners in and around Cumnock. By the middle of the 17th century they possessed much of the land in Glen Afton.


The Shankilands prospered in Nithsdale as well as in Dumfries and Galloway in the 18th century. In the 19th century many migrated to the industrial centres of Glasgow. They had already moved into Ayrshire in the 18th century and as the Industrial Revolution opened up took up opportunities outside farming, such as mining in the Ayrshire coal fields. The 2nd Marquis of Bute, Cardiff's foremost landowner in the late 18th century, owned much of the coal industry in Wales. Shanklands may have gone there from the Ayrshire coalfields.

Cumnock is only about 25 miles from Durisdeer and I think it is possible that the Shankilands came from there. It is very difficult for us today to comprehend a society without surnames, but this would have been the case, like most things, until there was a need for them. For the ordinary person this may even have been as late as 1600. Few people could read and write and most people would have been known by nicknames or placenames like Shankland.

The Shankilands may well have been Campbells. They may have decided, for whatever reason, to adopt the name Shankiland when it became necessary to have a family name. They might even have been given this name by their new neighbours, as the folks from the Shankis land. Perhaps a closer look at the historical records for Cumnock will yield more information. If they were originally Campbells then they would almost certainly have been tenant farmers running part of the "family business". There is also a strong possibility that they were in Shankiston before the Campbells started buying up the lands around Cumnock and may even have owned Shankiston at some time. I looked at the OPRs for Cumnock and the surrounding area and there don't appear to be any Shanklands there until the middle of the 18th century - but this needs further investigation. The Kirk Session records for Cumnock and the surrounding churches, as well as James Paterson's history of Ayrshire may yield more information.

The search goes on ...

Dave Shankland Mallan, October 2006