Here's tae us! Wha's like us ?....

...Damn few & they're a'deid !

An investigation into the origin of the Shankland name

by Simon Grundy, UK

Surnames began to be used in the 12th century, but it took several centuries before the majority of Europeans adopted one.

Broadly, most surnames fall into four categories :-

  1. Patronymic / Matronymic - Johnson, Thompson, Williams etc.
  2. Occupational - Shepherd, Carter, Taylor, Wright etc.
  3. Locational / Topographical - Hill, Ford, London, England, Wood etc.
  4. Nicknames - Short, Long, Young, Small etc.

But what of our variants of surname ? - Shankland, Shanklin, Shankiland, Shankilaw, Schankilau, Shanklilaw, Shanklan, Shanklands, Shankaland, Shankieland, Shanenklend, Shanklen, Shynglandes, Shanklynd, Shanklend, Shanklene, Shankly, Shynglandes, Chankelyn, Shanklane, Shanklind, Sharkland, Shanland, Shanklyn, Shangelan to name but a few. Not to mention my very favourite, "Shanklard", a candidate for the nickname category if ever I saw one!

At least from the very start I could discount the first category of surnames as the roots didn't seem to be handed down from a father or mother.

To me there has never been any mystery in the suffix of the name, as my family history was concerned with the "Shankland" variant. "-Land" meaning terrain or settlement seemed fair enough. Although even allowing for the degrees of freedom in the variants the meaning seems comparable :-

Lynn , related to the name Lyn. (English) Variant of Flann (Irish, Gaelic) "of ruddy complexion." The surname is also possibly of Old English and Gaelic origin, meaning "lake", "waterfall" or "pool", and probably would have been given to a family living near such a body of water.
Law , under the jurisdiction of (-settlement also).
Llyn , is the Welsh word for lake. It can mutate to Lyn, for example: i Lyn(to Lake) or: o Lyn (from lake).
Lau or Law , could be derivations of the French L'eau meaning water, of the same meaning as above.

I might return to the "ruddy" complexion later, but the suffix would favour a topographical derivation concerning either a "terrain" or "water" feature.


The romantic mystery, for me, has always concerned the prefix "Shank". It seems an obvious question to ask "Where is this land of Shank and what is it ?".

An intuitive place for me to start, in the quest, was to take a look at "Shanklin" on the Isle of Wight, especially since I spent a year as a student looking at the waste water quality in Sandown and Shanklin bay there. Here's what the Isle of Wight visitor's website says about the town of Shanklin and its name :-

The name of Shanklin derives from its famous Chine, the deep ravine that winds down from the cliff-top to the beach, and which the Saxons called Scenc-hlinc, meaning "cup in the rising ground". It was known to the Romans, and the manor of Shanklin was referred to in the Domesday Book, where it was listed as being at that time in the possession of Fitz-Azor.

Interestingly enough the word "Luncheon" has etymology founded on the same roots :-

1580, nonechenche "light mid-day meal," from none "noon" + schench "drink," from O.E. scenc, from scencan "pour out."

So the first step would suggest a topographical root meaning "cup" or "drink". A place that has a "cup" type appearance or a supply of "drinking" water. This ignores the obvious that it could just portray a "Shank" of Land like an outreaching "Leg".


At this juncture, the reader may be wondering why I did not previously discount the "occupational" category of surnames. It might be a good time to mention the one and only root I could find for this type of name and that is the German word "Schank", which can be used to mean "Landlord" and no doubt has the same origins as above. So the surname could describe a medieval hostelry somewhere? Which sounds like an oasis to me!

It might be worth mentioning at this point that my Maternal "Shankland" Grandparents were fervently Scottish. I stole the by-line of this piece from them as they would often toast using Rabbie Burns' words, "Wha's like us?". My earliest childhood memories were of being told how the Scots had advanced civilization by inventions such as the television, telephone and tarmacadamised roads, to name but a few. I remember their disappointment in visiting a kilt manufacturer and being told that their surname could not be matched up to any clan. The implication being that their forefathers were not Scottish, this was anathema to them.


At this point in my research I was favoring a "location" type of surname so I went about trying to find the "Land of Shank" or "Shank Water". The good news for my Grandparents was that preliminary investigations seemed to suggest that the surname had its roots in 17th century Scotland. In fact Anne Shankland (the Webmaster of this site) suggested that the earliest recorded Shanklands predated this and were Scottish. Although the evidence is not conclusive - the surname could be Welsh for all we know - the available data, mostly presented by Anne herself via this website, would suggest the surname is Scottish.

To back this up further, a search on the Ordnance Survey website for place names containing the string "shank", delivers 85 different places in the UK. (My personal favorite would have to be "Shank of Inchgrundle" in Angus, which seems to amalgamate both my Shankland and Grundy ancestry.) The results seem to suggest that "shanks" are a predominantly Northern phenomenon. Of the places the geographical spread is such :-

Scotland: 59
Northernmost England: 20
England - other: 6
Dumfries & Galloway
(Scottish borders)
Angus 17
Aberdeenshire 5
Lanarkshire 4
Ayrshire 2
Lothian 2
Moray 2
Fife 1
Stirling 1
Northumberland 15
Cumbria 5
Isle of Wight 3
Cambridgeshire 1
Northamptonshire 1
Somerset 1

Based on this information you would have to say that Shankland, as the "land of Shank", is the Scottish borders or Angus in Scotland.

Of the placenames the topographical spread is :-

Unidentified Feature60
Hill / Mountain 12
Water Feature 7
Town or Village 2
Forest Wood 2
Farm 2

So, the Ordnance Survey compilers know of topographical features called "shanks" but don't know what they are!


Time to visit the dictionary to see if it has a definition :-

shank   (shãngk) n. 1. a. The part of the human leg between the knee and ankle. b. A corresponding part in other vertebrates. 2. a. The whole leg of a human. b. A leg or leg like part. 3. A cut of meat from the leg of a steer, calf, sheep, or lamb. 4. The long narrow part of a nail or pin. 5. A stem, stalk, or similar part. 6. Nautical: The stem of an anchor. 7. The long shaft of a fishhook. 8. The part of a tobacco pipe between the bowl and stem. 9. The shaft of a key. 10. The narrow section of the handle of a spoon. 11. Printing: The section of a body of type between the shoulder and the foot. 12. a. The narrow part of the sole of a shoe under the instep. b. A piece of material, such as metal, that is used to reinforce or shape this part of a shoe. 13. A projection, such as a ring, on the back of a button by which it is sewn to cloth. 14. a. See tang. b. The part of a tool, such as a drill, that connects the functioning head to the handle. 15. a. The latter or remaining part, especially of a period of time. b. The early or primary part of a period of time: the shank of the evening.

When you look through the Ordnance Survey maps for the locations described, a lot of them could loosely be described as a limb type outgrowth from a hill or mountain. However, it isn't immediately obvious when you visit a few of the places, as I have, that are called just "Shank", why this would apply. In fact a confluence in a running beck might just as well apply. I suppose from the dictionary definition you could also apply a place that is common for walking, sheep farming or a place where armaments were made. In the latter case I have read of William Wallace secreting his armies away in forests and producing the common weaponry of the day such as pikes and lances.


During my early correspondence with Anne she had stated "I'm basically quite perplexed by the frequency of the Shankland name in the Celtic fringes of the UK when there were hardly any in England until comparatively recently". With this in mind I chose to investigate the possible Gaelic heritage of the name. There is a Gaelic Public Information Service, as part of the Scottish Parliament, which issues translations of Scottish place names to and from Gaelic. They publish these lists on their website and did not include an entry for the word "shank". I sent off a tentative enquiry to a woman who works there and managed to strike up some rapport as her name was Sarah Gundry, my wife being called Sara Grundy. Being as the enquiry was family history based and there was a possible connection between our ancestries she helpfully proffered this information :-

"A shim a charaid, Simon ... "Shank" is a Scots word meaning "leg", but I remember that there is also a Gaelic word which is pronounced "shank": "seang". As a verb it means "to make or grow slender", and now used to mean "to diet". As an adjective, it means "slender, hungry, gaunt, small-bellied, nimble".
But as a noun, it means "a roebuck". This is not in common usage now, but I remember it used in Donnchadh Ban Mac an t-Saoir's 18th Century Gaelic poetry (see
Le gach deagh dhurachd, Sarah.
P.S. my surname Gundry is Cornish meaning "Homestead on the Heath", where does Grundy come from ?"

This opened another can of worms and could be other plausible explanations of the name. Another tenuous link between my Paternal and Maternal surnames comes from my belief that Grundy comes from the Anglo-Saxon for "Founder" and shares a similar etymology with the word "Ground". However, on the Shanks Family History website it claims "First found in Midlothian where the family has been seated from very ancient times where they were designated as 'Shank of that Ilk' meaning an ancient Clan who possessed lands of that same name." A similar name then, but this did seem to be too easy as if it was conveniently pasted on to a coat of arms and sold to the nearest Shanks punter.

I was envious of Sarah's positive approach to her surname, with its accepted meaning of "Homestead on the Heath" - done and dusted, move on!


Having explored most of the first three categories of surnames, the final one to consider is that of "Nickname". The reader might recall that predominantly Shanklands live on the border of Scotland or in South Wales. Although again probably abhorrent to my Scottish Grandparents, could it be that their name heralds from King Edward I, "The Hammer of the Scots" or "Longshanks" as he was alternatively known. The theory is not without merit and gives the surname a certain kudos by its blockbuster film portrayal in Best Picture Oscar Winner Braveheart. It's a film I really like but although it's good it is erroneous. In my opinion, both King Edward I and Robert the Bruce are portrayed in a bad light to enhance Wallace's reputation. Shanklanders can be rightly proud of their portrayal, as it is from their ancient seat that Mel Gibson rushes to protect the honour of his bride following Longshanks' granting of prima nocte.

Incidentally, despite the romantic portrayal of the clans and Scottish history being from the highlands, Robert the Bruce was born in Ayrshire and was seated at Lochmaben and there are arguments afoot as to whether Wallace was from Ayrshire or Renfrewshire. All these places in downtown Shankland, the engine room of Scottish medieval history.

The beginning of the struggle between Longshanks, Wallace, and Robert the Bruce, depicted in the film Braveheart, is due to the death of King Alexander III of Scotland who dies without an heir. This created a power vacuum that was fought over by the relevant parties. I mention this event because it introduces a legend that starts off in a dubious manner but strengthens into quite a good case.

A letter was passed on to me from Ronald Lee Shankland of Michigan USA, a person who has spent a lot of his time doing genealogical research into the name. It purports to be from the Assistant Chief Constable of Glasgow, 1936, himself a keen genealogist. Bear with me here, as this is what is reported:-

" ... regarding the history of the name Shankland, it has been found that the family was first known as Schanks or Shanks, and are supposed to have originally been Norwegians, who having landed on some predatory expedition on the north eastern coast of Scotland, settled there ...

... The first of the family to be mentioned in any records was Murdoch Shanks, who, according to tradition, is said to have discovered and taken charge of the body of King Alexander III of Scotland, who fell over the cliffs at Kinghorn, Fife, in 1286 A.D. For his services, Robert the Bruce granted Murdoch Shanks the lands of Castlerig, and it is presumed that from the granting of these lands arose the name "Shankland"."

I think this goes to show that if you are lost ask a policeman!! This again seems a bit too romantic to be true but he does back it up with an excerpt from a book entitled Shank of Castlerig by R.R. Stoddart, 1875. This does seem to take a balanced approach, only weighting the information as it was obtained i.e. if some information is sketchy it says as much and gives the reference source. The quote I want to concentrate on is this :-

"The lands of Shank, which lie in the Parishes of Cockpen and of Borthwick, belonged, long before the earliest portion of Nesbit's Heraldry appeared, to the Dundases of Arniston, and are still in the possession of that family, who, however, have never taken their designation from them."


Prior to obtaining this gem of information one of my favorite pastimes was getting onto the National Digital Library of Scotland and trawling through their superb collection of Timothy Pont, and other, maps dating from as far back as the 1600's through to the present OS ones. In Ronald Shankland's dissertation on the Shankland surname (well worth a read) he postulated that the land of Shank was near "Dunscore" in Dumfries and Galloway. Having taken a trip up there to do a cycle ride around the area and having looked at early maps and not found reference to the place, I had started to discount Ron's theory. Not so with the Dundases of Arniston theory. Shown below is a map dating from 1654 of Schank of Midlothian and its modern day Shank location :-

Map 1654

"Schanck" is located left of the letter "N" in "Edenburgh" with neighbouring Arnistoun and Temple.

OS map Image produced from the Ordnance Survey Get-a-map service. Image reproduced with kind permission of Ordnance Survey and Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland.

Left: Modern day OS map showing location of Shank neighboring Arniston Mains. You travel over Shank Bridge on the way up to Edinburgh from a southerly direction.

Barony of Shank

There is a Barony of Shank and this was passed into the Dundas family. Below is an extract from the Inventory of marriage contracts in the family of Lord Prestongrange :-

Unfortunately Scottish Law has changed recently and Barony Titles are no longer up for sale. When they did come up for sale, researchers would investigate the title back to source and sell the titles for an extortionate amount of money. I say unfortunately, because onlookers could often see the research for free, when the title was up for sale. I decided to get in touch with the person who I thought would be the current holder of the title; Lady Henrietta Dundas-Bekker. She runs Arniston House, which is an estate that can be visited or toured and has its own website. Here is what she said :-

When the Dundases bought Arniston in 1572 Schanck was not part of the sale. James Dundas (1st Laird) found himself in dispute with Shank over certain rights but negotiated and secured the rights of his own tenants. An account of this can be seen in the Arniston Memoirs by George Omond.

One of the owners of Schanck was George MacKenzie of Rosehaugh, known as Bloody MacKenzie because of his harsh dealings with the Covenanters.

I believe the estate did acquire Schanck around the mid 1700s and it was sold some 20 years ago and is now a market garden. Unfortunately we don't know the history of Schanck before the Dundas acquisition.

We do make our papers available to researchers at Register House in Edinburgh. If you contact them they will submit the Arniston list. They will then contact us to arrange a deposit for your consultation.

Unfortunately I haven't had the time to follow up this research, but by this route I have made this "Shank" the prime candidate for the land of Shank associated with the name.

This was the second reference I had seen of our association to persecutors of Covenanters. Ron's dissertation makes a link between the family name and Grierson of Lag who was infamous in this field. In order to redress the balance there is another character who could be responsible for the name and location and he, "Old Shank", pops up in The Tweedie Archive : History of Peeblesshire: Polmood". To quote :-

In Adam Hunter's pedigree interest centred chiefly on his Grandfather James, who was known as Old Shank. It was said that he had previously been tenant of Fingland, that he was Cameronian and attended the field meetings, that during the persecution he had to leave Tweedsmuir, that he then lived in a place called Shank, and afterwards returned to Tweedsmuir, where he built himself a house between Carterhope and Fruid and died in 1721.

On the face of it, this might be seen as coming from left field, as the surname certainly predated this Old Shank. However, I add it because the earliest recorded Shankland is a Sande Schankland in the Register of the Seal 1536. At this time, he was among the friends and dependants who were taken under the royal protection in 1536 when Malcolm Lord Fleming was sent on embassage to France, in connection with the marriage of King James V of Scotland. Also listed in the same protection is Walter Hunter of Polmood. There is a loose connection between the families which I haven't identified yet, but certainly geographically they blazed the same trail, from Biggar, Lamington, Wanlockhead, Sanquhar and even to Straiton in Ayr where my ancestors are from. Maybe someone of the Tweedie family will help, as I believe there was some long running dispute between the Flemings and the Tweedies, that may have ended Malcolm Lord Fleming's father's life.


To finish off the theme of nick names, I return to the previous translation of -Lin variant of Flann (Irish, Gaelic) meaning "with a ruddy complexion". This would suggest that Shanklin could mean "Redshanks".

The Scots had originally been a tribe from Ireland who had settled in Argyllshire and the neighboring islands. By a series of accidents, their name became applicable to the whole realm and people of Scotland. For many centuries, however, a distinction was made, by Scots themselves, between people in the Highlands and those in the Lowlands. The former were styled "Red-Shanks", "wild Scots" and "savages", and they spoke a language quite different from English. The Highland Clans by Charles E Tuttle

So there is another permutation !

England / Ireland

OS Map Image produced from the Ordnance Survey Get-a-map service. Image reproduced with kind permission of Ordnance Survey and Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland.

For completeness, I should mention the English claim to the surname. There was a Shank Castle located in Cumbria, on the border of Scotland (see map, right). Having said this, there is also a Shancastle in Dunscore, near the Shank proposed earlier by Ron, and the largest Shankland populated place is currently Sanquhar in Scotland. Sanquhar derives its name from the Celtic words "saen caer" meaning old fort or old town and may have previously been pronounced with a "Sh" sound rather than the current pronunciation.

The infamous Shankill Road in Belfast derives its name from a place called Shankill, from the old Irish meaning "old church". So it could be somewhere old succeeded by another word such as Clan, Cearland, Church etc.

To conclude I put in my two-penny worth. Clearly this is a work in progress and I would welcome information from anyone else, especially one that is definitive! My current belief is that Shankland, Shanklin etc and all variants derive from a people that populated a place near Arniston House in Midlothian. Shank is a primarily a topographical feature, that is a limb type outcrop from a hill, but it is my belief that, in the case of Arniston, it derives from a place where you would find drinking water. (Often on the maps you find there are water features such as reservoirs or running water).


My best shot at romantic fiction is for people who are fans of Dan Brown's Da Vinci Code. Shank means cup or grail and Shank Land is situated Rosslyn Chapel smack bang in the Heart of Knights Templar country triangulated by Temple, Arniston and Rosslyn Chapel. There are theories that the Holy Grail is buried beneath Rosslyn Chapel or is contained within the Apprentice column there. (Maybe this is all a smoke screen, to hide the truth, that it is located closer to Arniston?)

Left: the Apprentice Column in Rosslyn Chapel.

Rosslyn Chapel is designed on the same basis as the Temple of Solomon, that was rumoured to be looted by the Knights Templar in medieval times, the riches having been secreted away somewhere.

The search for the origins of the surname certainly feels like the search for the grail to me !

Simon Grundy, April 2006