Cranshaws Parish Church

Cranshaws, site of medieval church, 1

Summary description

Fragments of the probably rectangular medieval church include parts of the east gable. A new church was built on a different site in 1739, possibly re-using masonry from the medieval building; it was itself rebuilt in 1899.

Historical outline

Dedication: unknown/St Ninian?

The early history of this parish is utterly obscure; it occurs in none of the common sources of reference to the churches in the diocese of St Andrews before 1300, such as the Pontifical Offices of Bishop David de Bernham or the accounts of the papal tax-collector in Scotland, known as Bagimond’s Roll.  It occurs first in the fifteenth century as a free parsonage in the secular patronage of the family of Swinton of Cranshaws.  It had been granted to Sir John Swinton in 1401 by Archibald, 4th earl of Douglas, as part of his strategy to strengthen his political and military hold in the district.(1

It cannot be assumed to have lain for long previously in Douglas patronage, for the award was made following the exile and forfeiture in 1400 of George Dunbar, earl of March, within whose earldom Cranshaws lay.  Earl Archibald, however, had possessed landed interests in the March earldom before the fall of the Dunbars, occupied important parts of it on behalf of the crown, and he was pushing for its break-up and re-grant amongst himself and his regional adherents.(2)  Earl Archibald’s view was that his lordship over former Dunbar territories was permanent and it was understood by the charter of 1401 that if the Swinton of Cranshaws family should fail in the male line that it would revert to the superior lord, i.e. the Douglases. 

In 1409, George Dunbar was restored to his earldom of March.  Sir John Swinton had died before September 1408, when an inquest was held into his heritage, so when sasine was given to his son, also called John, it was under the restored superiority of Earl George.(3)  There was an attempt by Earl George in the 1420s to dispossess the Swintons and to resume possession of the lands of Cranshaws and the patronage of the church, but in 1425 Earl George confirmed Sir John Swinton II in possession,(4) and on the latter’s death gave sasine on 27 June 1428 to Sir John Swinton III, expressly confirming his right to the advowson of Cranshaws kirk.(5

On the final fall and forfeiture of the Earl of March in 1435, the superiority of Cranshaws was assumed by the crown and the then Sir John Swinton was apparently ejected from the lands which had been declared forfeit as part of the earldom.(6)  Swinton was still vainly seeking restoration in the 1470s and it may have been in consequence of this royal assumption of all rights of lordship in Cranshaws that it was annexed – apparently without consent of the Swintons – to the Chapel Royal at Stirling in 1401 by King James IV in 1501.(7

The patronage of the church was expressly omitted from all confirmations of the Swintons’ possessions down to the end of the sixteenth century, until in 1598 patronage of both the rectory and vicarage was restored to Sir Robert Swinton.(8)  Thereafter, the church was regarded as one of the lost endowments of the Chapel Royal.(9)  Somewhat contradictorily, however, at the Reformation the parsonage of the parish church of Cranshaws was recorded as an independent entity, assessed at £35, with no reference to a vicarage or to an appropriator.(10)  Again, the evidence is far from clear-cut, but this could be taken to imply that despite King James IV’s efforts to annexe the revenues of the church that his attempted union of 1502 was unsuccessful, but that it had nevertheless remained in royal patronage.(11)

There is one reference to an altar in the parish church, but it is unclear if this is a reference to the high altar or to a subsidiary altar.  In 1515, Catherine Lauder, the wife of John Swinton of Cranshaws, requested in her testament that she should be buried in front of the altar of St Ninian in the church.(12)


1. NRS GD12/16.  For the context of the grant, see M Brown, The Black Douglases (East Linton, 1998), 102.

2. For discussion of the Douglas interests in the earldom of March and the background to this grant, see S Boardman, The Early Stewart Kings (East Linton, 1996), 237-240.

3. NRS GD12/19; GD12/19.

4. NRS GD12/20; GD12/23

5. NRS GD12/26.

6. NRS GD12/40; GD12/41; GD12/42; GD12/50; GD12/51; GD12/52.

7. The History of the Chapel Royal of Scotland, ed C Rogers (Grampian Club, 1882), xxxiv; ibid., no.I (14, 15, 25, 26).

8. Registrum Magni Sigilli Regum Scotorum, vi, 1593-1608, ed J M Thomson (Edinburgh, 1890), no.737.

9. History of the Chapel Royal, cxxxiv.

10. J Kirk (ed), The Books of Assumption of the Thirds of Benefices (Oxford, 1995), 196.

11. Calendar of Entries in the Papal Registers Relating to Great Britain and Ireland: Papal Letters, xvii, 1492-1503, ed A P Fuller (Dublin, 1994), no.781.

12. NRS Title deeds of the Swinton Family of Swinton, Berwickshire GD12/80.

Summary of relevant documentation


Synopsis of Cowan’s Parishes: Independent parsonage in the patronage of the Swinton family in 15th century; annexed without their consent to Chapel Royal in 1502. Not clear but both parsonage and vicarage may have formed a prebend of Chapel Royal 1502-60, with provision for a vicar pensioner.(1)

1502 Cranshaws included in petition by James IV for annexation of various lands and churches to the chapel royal in Stirling.(2)

Altars and chaplaincies

St Ninian

1515 (8 Oct) Last will and testament of Catherine Lauder, wife of John Swinton of Cranshaws, specifies that she should be buried in her tomb ‘before the altar of St Ninian’ in the parish church of Cranshaws.(3)


Books of assumption of thirds of benefices and Accounts of the collectors of thirds of benefices: The Parish church parsonage valued at £35, (no reference to vicar or where it pertains to).(4)

Account of Collectors of Thirds of Benefices (G. Donaldson): Third of parsonage £11 13s 4d.(5)

1665 (21 Feb) James Culbie, mason, and William Paterson, wright, commissioned to build the manse at Cranshaws.(6)

1738 (4 Apr) Visitation of the church by the Presbytery of Duns at which tradesmen Alexander Bawmaker, mason, William Aitchison, mason, Thomas Wilson, wright, and Richard Frame, wright appeared. The tradesmen attend in order to given an estimate for the repairs or new building of the church. They noted that there was no thatcher at the meeting -report postponed.(7) [no further references to the building work in either presbytery or kirk session records].

1740 (18 Sept) Meeting at Cranshaws, anent the school house; makes no reference to the church [which has presumably been built].(8)

Statistical Account of Scotland (Rev George Drummond, 1791): ‘The church was built in 1739’.(9) (about a mile to the east of the present one).(10)

New Statistical Account of Scotland (Rev J H Sibbald): [Nothing to add to above account, neither refers to church buildings prior to 1739]


1. Cowan, The parishes of medieval Scotland, 37.

2. CPL, xvii, no. 781.

3. NRS Title deeds of the Swinton Family of Swinton, Berwickshire GD12/80. Eddy, Notes on the Parish and Church of Cranshaws, p. 1.

4. Kirk, The books of assumption of the thirds of benefices, 196.

5. Donaldson, Accounts of the collectors of thirds of benefices, 24.

6. NRS Presbytery of Duns, Minutes, 1659-1688, CH2/113/1, fol. 35.

7. NRS Presbytery of Duns, Minutes, 1726-1739, CH2/113/6, fols. 262-263.

8. NRS Presbytery of Duns, Minutes, 1739-1749, CH2/113/7, fols. 18-21.

9. Statistical Account of Scotland, (1791), vi, 441.

10. Eddy, Notes on the Parish and Church of Cranshaws, p.1.


National Records of Scotland, Presbytery of Duns, Minutes, 1659-1688, CH2/113/1.

National Records of Scotland, Presbytery of Duns, Minutes, 1726-1739, CH2/113/6.

National Records of Scotland, Presbytery of Duns, Minutes, 1739-1749, CH2/113/7.

National Records of Scotland, Title deeds of the Swinton Family of Swinton, Berwickshire GD/12/80.

Calendar of entries in the Papal registers relating to Great Britain and Ireland; Papal letters, 1893-, ed. W.H. Bliss, London.

Cowan, I.B., 1967, The parishes of medieval Scotland, (Scottish Record Society), Edinburgh.

Donaldson, G., 1949, Accounts of the collectors of thirds of benefices, (Scottish History Society), Edinburgh.

Eddy, C. E, 1975, Notes on the Parish and Church of Cranshaws, Berwick.

Kirk, J., 1995, The books of assumption of the thirds of benefices, (British Academy) Oxford.

Statistical Account of Scotland, 1791-9, ed. J. Sinclair, Edinburgh.

Architectural description

For much of the middle ages the church was an independent parsonage, and by the fifteenth century it was in the patronage of the Swinton family. But in 1501 it was annexed to the Chapel Royal in Stirling Castle, with provision being made for a vicar pensioner.(1)

The site of the medieval parish church was a short distance to the south-west of Cranshaws Tower. From as early as 1660 there were complaints about its ruined state.(2) On 4 April 1738 there was a visitation by the presbytery, at which the mason William Aitchison and the wrights Thomas Wilson and Richard Frame gave estimates for the alternatives of repair and rebuilding.(3) The decision was taken to build a new church on a site about 0.9 kilometres to the east, and this was put into effect in 1739.(4)

The materials of the medieval church were probably recycled in building its replacement, and little now remains of it beyond parts of the east gable wall and indications that it was a rectangle of about 19.5 by 5.6 metres. Excavations in 1889 established that it had two doors in its south wall, though the evidence for this is no longer visible.(5)

The church that replaced it in 1739 was itself about a century later deemed to be ‘probably in a worse state of repair than any Established church in the south of Scotland’.(6) It was eventually replaced by a new building in 1899, which was raised on its foundations and partly incorporated its fabric.(7)

This third church is an essay in the Romanesque revival designed by the architect George Fortune of Duns. Over the outer arch of the porch is a tablet inscribed ‘built 1739 rebuilt 1899’. Constructed of whinstone rubble with red sandstone dressings, the main body is an aisle-less rectangle of five bays terminating in an eastern apse. A porch covers the entrance in the west bay of the south flank, and towards the east end of the windowless north wall is a laird’s aisle and vestry.

The crow-stepped east gable and the south gable of the porch have prominent finials, while at the west end there is a corbelled-out birdcage bellcote. The external detailing is highly enriched, with nook-shafts and chevron to the windows, a porch arch with two orders of engaged nook-shafts and a continuous cable-moulded inner order, and an eight-light rose above a bipartite window in the west wall. The corbels and skewputts are finely carved throughout, and there is an attractively impish figure of Time holding a sundial that is dated 1731 at the south-west corner.

Internally the main body of the church is covered by a wagon ceiling with major transverse and minor diagonal ribs rising from head corbels. Arches carried on heavy three-quarter shafts open into the apse and the slightly elevated laird’s aisle, the former having chevron and paterae to the arch, and the latter having an arcaded parapet.

Amongst other noteworthy internal carvings is a handsomely-detailed angel between the lights of the west window. The woodwork of the ceiling, boarded dado, pews and other furnishings is stained black, while the walls are painted white and the arches into apse and aisle are pink.

Set into the north wall is a tablet carved with the royal arms that presumably came from the medieval church. It is of interest because of the absence of the top element of the double tressure, indicating that it was presumably carved following an Act of 1471.(8)


1. Ian B. Cowan, The Parishes of Medieval Scotland (Scottish Record Society), 1967, pp. 37-38.

2. G.A.C. Binnie, The Churches and Churchyards of Berwickshire, Ladykirk, 1995, pp. 143-45.

3. National Records of Scotland, Presbytery of Duns, Minutes, 1726-39, CH2/113/6, fols. 262-263.

4. Statistical Account of Scotland, 1791-99, vol. 6, p. 441.

5. James Robson, The Churches and Churchyards of Berwickshire, Kelso, 1896, pp. 76-79.

6. New Statistical Account of Scotland, 1834-45, vol. 2, p. 103.

7. The following description is based on Kitty Cruft, John Dunbar and Richard Fawcett, The Buildings of Scotland, Borders, New Haven and London, 2006, pp. 199-200.

8. Charles J. Burnett, ‘ The Act of 1471 and its effect on the Royal Arms of Scotland, Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol. 105, 1972-74, pp. 312-14.



Click on any thumbnail to open the image gallery and slideshow.

  • 1. Cranshaws, site of medieval church, 1

  • 2. Cranshaws, medieval church, gable wall

  • 3. Cranshaws medieval churchyard, monument, 1

  • 4. Cranshaws medieval churchyard, monument, 2

  • 5. Cranshaws, later church, exterior, 1

  • 6. Cranshaws, later church, exterior, 2

  • 7. Cranshaws, later church, exterior, stone inscribed with date of construction

  • 8. Cranshaws, later church, exterior, sundial

  • 9. Cranshaws, later church, interior, 1

  • 10. Cranshaws, later church, interior, 2

  • 11. Cranshaws, later church, interior, relocated royal arms