The Name

 by Don Erwin


Surnames – Today we all have surnames, but we are apt to forget that it was not always so. The Normans are thought to have been the first to introduce the practice of fixed surnames in England, probably starting during the second half of the eleventh century. Prior to that time, particularly during the "Dark Ages" between the fifth and eleventh centuries, people were largely illiterate, lived in rural areas or small villages, and had little need of distinction beyond their given names. During Biblical times it was the practice to refer to individuals by their given names, combined with the locality in which they resided, such as "Jesus of Nazareth." After the Norman Conquest at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 it soon became a common practice add “de” in front of ones place of origin, such as William de Irwyn, literally meaning “William of Irwyn.” And, as populations grew, the need to identify individuals by surnames became a necessity. The acquisition of surnames during the following several centuries was affected by many factors, including social class and social structure, cultural tradition, and the naming practices in neighboring cultures.

Surnames in Scotland were adopted for the same reasons, and at about the same time, as they were in England and Wales. Nonetheless, it is generally thought that Malcolm II of Scotland was instrumental in introducing family names to Scotland. While some individuals in the Highlands had been taking clan names as their own for several centuries, it was not the practice in the rest of Scotland. In the Lowlands some territorial names were being introduced as surnames in the 11th century, mostly by landed people. It was not, however, until early in the 12th century, during the reign of David I as King of Scots (1124-1153), that surnames became common in Scotland.

Many European-based surnames are derived from patronymics, i.e. the forming of a surname from the father's given name, such as Johnson, meaning literally "the son of John," or “the son of Donald” as in Donaldson. Many individuals became known by their trades, such as Taylor, Smith, Porter, Baker or Butcher. In some rare cases, the naming practice was metronymic, wherein the surname was derived from the mother's given name such as Catling, Marguerite or Dyott. The proximity to geographical features, as in Wood, or Rivers, or the use of personal physical characteristics was common. Some examples are: Little, Small, Long (meaning tall, and sometimes brutalized by the Scots twang into Lang), Reid (red) or Blackmantle.

The majority of the ancient Scottish surnames were territorial. In other words they were based on place names or geographical locations, such as England, North or West. Many surnames, such as Moray, Crawford, Cunningham, Dunbar, Forbes, Guthrie and Douglas, resulted from a prior-named castle or lordship. Less popular methods of surname origins include house names such as Rothchild, or after one's character such as Stern. In some cases an individual was named after a bird or an animal such as Lamb for a gentle or inoffensive person, while Fox might be used for a person who was cunning, and Wolf or Eagle for an aggressive individual. Surnames were also derived from seasons such as Winter and Spring, and status such as Bachelor, Knight and Squire.

Early on the sound of ones name was more important than the way it was spelled. It should also be remembered that Gaelic, English and Old Scots were all spoken in Scotland during this period, and that Latin was used for most formal documents and at formal occasions. Family names, as well as place names, tended to change over time. In this era few people outside of the clergy could actually read and write, and then—more often than not—Latin was the preferred medium. In addition, it was not until Henry VIII standardized English (Kings English) that there was any uniformity. Even Shakespeare, who was considered literate, spelled his name in at least twenty different ways during his lifetime.

The name of our Erwin ancestors had many forms over the centuries. First, there was the Irveni tribe in Northern Ireland. During the 300s and 400s the members of this tribe, under a High King named Niall, gradually gained the name of “Erin-viene. “ This seems to have been as a result of their raiding the Scottish coast from Northern Ireland. “Erin-viene” (which – over several centuries – evolved into Erinvine, Eryvine, Erivine, Irving, Irwyn, Irvine, and in our case Erwin about 1750 in North Carolina), comes from the ancient Celto-Scythick word Erin-viene or Erin-fiene, and meant a “true or brave west land man.” Erin, in both old Gaelic and Welsh, meant “west.” Erin is used liberally today as a synonym for Ireland, which is west of Scotland. According to early scholars the ancient meaning of viene or fiene meant “a resolute or worthy man.” Today the original meaning of our name is generally interpreted as “the man from the west.”

During the next 300 years or so the old clan name of “Erinvine” seems to have been used. This was also the time when the clan inhabited an area where the town of Irvine now stands. Around 848 some members of the clan, now firmly settled for over 400 years in Caledonia, and what would be known as Scotland, were calling themselves “Eryvine.”

Historical records indicate that by 965 AD the name had evolved into “Erivine.” In 1004 the members of the clan at Bonshaw were calling themselves “Irving.”

At some point, probably during the period of William the Conqueror, also remembered as the King of England and Duke of Normandy (1028-1087), the chieftain of the Border branch of the Irving family took the Norman-sounding surname “de Irwyn, meaning of Irwyn. Many of his clansmen and/or relatives took the same name after him, but others would use Irving.

In 1323 Sir William, the Laird of Drum, used “de Irwyn” as a surname. The next generation used only “Irwyn.” By 1425 the Drum branch of the clan was using “Irvine” as their surname, and is still using this version today in Scotland. Our immigrant ancestor, James N. Irvine, arrived in William Penn’s colony about 1739. Sometime between then and when he moved to Rowan County, North Carolina about 1752 he began spelling his last name as “Erwin.”

Across the history of the Eryvine clan, in literature and in genealogical records, writers have used many variations of the name, and during the last 1500 years or so over 200 variations have been cited.  There are many reasons why surnames changed and evolved over time, but the most common reason seems to be that the owner of the name was illiterate. When a scribe or a public official recorded the name of a person who could not read or write it was most likely written as it sounded to the writer.

Surname spelling and pronunciation has continued to evolve over the centuries, with our current generation often unaware of the origin and evolution of their surnames. Among the humbler classes of European society, and especially among the illiterate, individuals had little choice but to accept the mistakes of officials, clerks, and priests who officially bestowed upon them new versions of their surnames, just as they had meekly accepted the surnames which they were born with.

Illiteracy, however, was not the reason James N. Irvine, my immigrant ancestor, changed the spelling of his name. It is fairly clear, from what we know about him, that he was literate. In fact, he most likely attended the University of Aberdeen as a youth. So why did he deliberately make the change? Was it perhaps because his father back in Scotland had disinherited him because he married without prior permission? Did he have a “past” in Scotland that he wished to escape? Was it his way to make a new start in the New World? Did it have something to do with acquiring land? History does not tell us, so we can only wonder.