This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 21st April 2003, reproduced by kind permission of the author, Desmond Holden.

The "What's in a Name" series has been a regular feature in the Advertiser.
Articles are confined to the origins and meanings of surnames and Desmond regrets he is unable to undertake research into the genealogy, descent or family history of individuals.

Editor's Note: Articles are provided for general interest and background only. They are not intended to provide an exhaustive treatise for any individual family history - investigations of which may yield quite different results. Or, in Desmond's own words:

"In the end it must remain with individual bearers of the names to draw upon family traditions and to seek out such documentary evidence as is available to decide the matter for themselves."

WHAT'S IN A NAME … Are you called BARNES?

A resident in Liverpool has suggested this name. There are at least three sources. It could be the personal name "Beorn"; the status implied in "bairn" or a location name "barn". Today, with few exceptions they have all settled on the one spelling " Barnes". Separating them out is now almost impossible. The final "-s" is a feature of them all and invites comment. To avoid linguistic technicalities and in simple terms the form "Barnes" has evolved from constructions which provided answers to these questions: "Whose child are you?" - I'm Beorn's. Or, "Whose servant are you?" I am Bairn's. And finally, "Where do you live?" - the barn's my home. First: the personal name. This was "Beorn" and was Old English and is believed to mean " warrior". It is rarely used today but survives in Scandinavia as " Bjorn". One of our medieval leaders was called "Beorn, Earl of the Middle Angles". He was a nephew of King Canute. Records confirm that it was once a popular given name and a hint of its use as a future surname is implied through Tomas filius Bern (Stafford: 1190). Without exceptional written evidence it is doubtful if many families could confidently attribute their name to this source. It is the basis for many place names and a connection might be possible in a few cases, as, for example, a family associated with Barnsley (West Riding) which means "Beorn's meadow".

Second: the status name. It is the word "bairn" which is largely used in the north of England and Scotland. In Old English there were variations in spelling. It was "barn" in the north; it was " bairn" in Scotland and "berne" in the south. In all cases it was derived from the Nordic "bera" which meant " to bear" (a child). The word "born" is detected in it. In modern parlance it refers to a young human being but in the Middle Ages it had a secondary meaning. Although examples are scanty, there are enough of them to indicate that "bairn" was used to describe a young man of some titled family who was in line for knighthood and who was expected to prove his suitability for that distinction. Where "bairn" was not much used the corresponding term was " child" - it is reflected in the Spanish expression "infante". It may be noted that later writers, not being of perfect understanding of this, admittedly, obscure usage, concocted the affected archaism "childe". The phrase "of the Bairn" would have been rendered as "Barnes" which used the Old English possessive form. It could either have described a young man who was the son of such a candidate for knighthood, or, as seems more likely, a servant of such a person. It is significant that the earliest records of the surname are nearly all found in the north. Gamaliel Barn (York 1166) and Adam le Barn (Lancaster : 1212).

Thirdly: "Barnes" as a location name. Apart from castles and cathedrals, barns were generally the most substantial constructions encountered by the average medieval land-worker. Most of them knew only simple affairs, largely of wattle and daub, comprising four walls and a roof. Barns were different. They were for collective use and were of robust construction.

They were put to more extensive uses than their original name would imply. The name is a combination of "bere" (barley) and " aern". They are both Anglo-Saxon words and have united in a condensed manner to give "barn". Although it signifies "a place for barley", barns provided storage for food-stuffs, shelter for animals (especially in the north) and accommodation for farm-vehicles. Their opposing doors were admirably suited for threshing. Note that " barn" is still used in the States for "stable". The proverb is rendered as "locking the barn door after the horse is stolen" (1906). They could be resorted to for refuge in tempestuous weather. Hence people who dwelt near their local barn or were employed there would certainly acquire an appropriate name. The oldest recorded seems to be for Henry de la Berne (Norfolk: 1273) and, later, John atte Bern (Somerset: 1327). Contrary to what might have been expected, only one distinctive site features the name: Barnes in Surrey. Otherwise they were so widely distributed as to provide merely neighbourhood names as, for example "Barnes" (or "Barnes Farm") near Dronfield.

Furthermore, families who had derived their surname from association with their local barn, were at a disadvantage when they moved away from their native settlement. Their name would be meaningless among their new neighbours, who had barns of their own! - and found new identities for the immigrants. Bearing this caveat in mind, few families can look confidently to this source for their surname. A similar confusion also exists in the case of the Scottish surname. It has been suggested that Scottish bearers of the name take it from a site in Aberdeen. But beyond consulting the Gazetteer, nothing more can be learned than that it is located somewhere in the Parish of Premnay, Aberdeenshire. It is submitted that the surname can be traced to as many sources as its English counterpart. An interesting circumstance is in the case of "Barnie" to be found in Caithness, and has been imported from the Orkneys. The best opinion is that it is based on the personal name "Beorn" (in Scots, Bjarni, which signifies warrior). In Ireland the native name "Barron" (fighter) has unaccountably been replaced with Barnes. It is not widespread, but readers with associations with Waterford could usefully check this source.

The name is well-represented locally with over 120 entries in the directory. Although there are some 50 entries in the standard biographies, none is exactly a "headliner". However William Barnes (1800-1886) is a name familiar to language students because of his well-meaning attempts to replace fanciful Latinisms with native English words. The name has crossed the Atlantic. Several places bear the name in the States: Barnes Sound off the coast of Florida and Barnes County (North Dakota) are examples.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 21st April 2003.

URL of this page:
Logo by courtesy of the Open Clip Art Library