This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 23rd May 1994, 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 BURNS?

There are many variations on this surname: Burns, Burne, Burnes, Bourne, Byrne as well as compounds such as Burnside, Burnley, etc.

All these names are based on an Old English word which has several meanings, the most familiar of which is "brook" or "stream". Its use in this sense is interesting because originally it was restricted to water-courses which flowed intermittently - e.g. during the Winter or only after heavy storms of rain. This is reflected in the frequency with which the unit "winter" accompanies place-names incorporating the name "burn" or "bourne". There are at least 21 places called "Winterbourne" in the south-western region of England.

In Yorkshire, near Skipton, we find "Winterburn" and nearby there is Flashby. This is worth noting since "flash" is another dialect word for a sudden flood. Otherwise "burn" or "bourne" is found in placenames all over Britain: from Bannockburn in Scotland down towards our own Ashbourne and Kilburn (near Belper) and ending up on the south coast at Bournemouth. Hence people called "Burns" or "Bourne" could originate almost anywhere in the United Kingdom. They would have been identified as "the inhabitants of a site near the stream".

Being, a dialect word the exact significance of "burn" is now shrouded in obscurity. It was the accepted word for a brook or a stream from very early times and is to be found in some of the first examples of written English. In an Anglo-Saxon version of the Gospels, for instance, we find "burnen Cedron" (John: XVIII:1) However to trace the idea of water being "borne away" with the form "burn" is attractive but it doesn't work out. Neither does the suggestion that the sudden gushing forth of water from the ground may be comparable with spurts of flame. There is, of course, an old word "bourne" which is related to the word "bound" and which means a "dividing-line", i.e. a "boundary". (Note the expression "out of bounds"). This might possibly be linked with a stream which constituted a "bourne" and gave this significance to the surname adopted by a local family, but it is doubtful since the word did not take on this meaning much before 1390.

People who live in, or whose ancestry can be traced back to, the north-eastern counties might very well investigate the possibilities presented by the fact that an extremely old word exists - "berne" - and which appears as both "burn" and "bourne" in historical documents. It is connected with the same word which gives us the name of the animal "bear".

Out of this we can easily extract the form "Bruin"! In primitive societies where the inhabitants were frequently at risk from attacks by hostile neighbours, members of the community who were strong and resourceful stood high in everybody's estimation. Not unnaturally they would be likened unto wild animals, including the bear on account of its strength.

In fact the title "Bear" was much used that it took on an independent meaning of its own, signifying "warrior" and its association with a bear forgotten. Hence it is quite possible that some people whose family-name is "Burn" might have their origins here. It has been suggested that the Romans were so impressed with the war-like qualities of a Tribe living along the north-east coast, from Stirling to the Tyne, that they took over the name and called the region "Bernicia" and that is a route along which people from that part of the world might wish to travel. We would all like to think we could trace our name from that of a noted warrior!

In a few cases the name "Burn" can be seen to be an English adaptation of the Irish name "Byrne". This itself originates from "O'Broin" (not to be confused with "O'Brian") this means "one who is a descendant of Bran". The word "bran" is believed to be Classical Irish for a raven. It is historically plausible for bearers of this name to be descended from one "Bran" since the records show that such a man was the son of a King of Leinster and that he died in Cologne in 1052.

The name with its variations is by no means uncommon: the local direc- tories list about 200 under "Burns" alone. The most famous person called "Burns" is, of course, Robert Burns (1759-1796) - although it ought to be mentioned that he began life as "Burness" and only changed his name in 1786. Another bearer of a variation on the name, Ambrose Burnside (1824-1881) was an American Civil War General. His name has come down to us in the reverse form, "Side- Burns" which refers to a form of facial adornment of which he sported the most flamboyant examples!

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 23rd May 1994.

URL of this page: http://names.gukutils.org.uk/Burns.shtml
Logo by courtesy of the Open Clip Art Library