KIRK

This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 7th March 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 KIRK?

The remarkable thing about this name (and its exact counterpart, "Church") is that it is to be found in our language at all. The meaning of "kirk" (and "church") is self-evident but what is interesting is that it was already in use long before Christianity took a foothold in these islands. Although the precise origin of the word is uncertain, it is accepted that it is Teutonic and can be linked in a general way to the Greek word "Kyrios" which means, in modern parlance "the Boss" (Lord) and more specifically to the word "kyriakon" which, again in modern parlance means "it belongs to the Boss" (Lord)! In this context, "it" would have been understood as referring to the places of worship used by the Early Christians.

Still more remarkable is that "kyriakon" (which ultimately emerged either as "kirk" or "church") was used by tribes living beyond the frontiers of the Roman Empire - but why they selected this form still remains a mystery. Although they were heathens they knew a great deal about the Christian way of life and about its places of worship - as indeed they ought, since they pillaged them often enough! In fact the Greek-based expressions "kirk" or "church" were so extremely familiar to these heathen people that when they were converted to Christianity by the missionaries from Rome, they still stuck to them and the Latin equivalent, "ecclesia" was ignored. (Note: French 'eglise'; Spanish 'iglesia' and even the Welsh 'eglwys').

How the "k" in "kirk" turned into "ch" is interesting but would take us too far out of our way. It is sufficient to say that whereas invaders from Northern Europe introduced "kirk", others, more central, brought "church". The "kirk" people settled on our northern regions whereas the "church" ones took over the south. This is exactly mirrored in the distribution of place-names which incorporate the units "kirk" or "church" - as a glance through the pages of any road atlas will verify.

At the beginning of this feature it was mentioned that "kirk" was derived from the Greek word meaning "- it belongs to the Boss" and this led to a curious consequence. It was not liguistically possible to construct a describing word to correspond with the notion "it belongs to the Boss-ish" and so even after all these centuries neither "kirk" nor "church" have any adjectival form. (There is, of course, "churchy" but this is used disparagingly and is not standard English: it came in about 1840). Hence both "kirk" and "church" have been used to describe both the buildings and also anything associated with them.

This has affected place-names. For example: one can look backwards over "Kingston" and read it as "King's Ton" (i.e. "the Farm of the King") whereas in Kirkton, the middle "-s" (which indicates possession) is missing. Although we readily recognise that it means "the Farm of the Church" taken literally, it means "Church-Farm". This combination in place-names is so familiar that this small point of grammar is overlooked.

However this item has extended into surnames. In location-names, the unit "Kirk" is almost invariably linked with identifying words such as "-ley" (i.e. meadow), "-wood" or "-land". Yet the same does not occur in surnames. Rarely, if ever, is it joined up with a unit referring to an occupation, It must be accepted that in the past there would have been numerous people who would have been identified as being, for example, "the dweller by the Church" or "keeper of the Kirk-gate", etc. Our ancestors moved around less frequently than we do today and so jobs tended to pass from parent to child over several generations.

Consequently the specific nature of such peoples' jobs would be taken for granted and they would simply take the name "Kirk" by association. In a way we still do something like it when we say somebody "works for the Council" or is "on the roads". In the fullness of time the name "Kirk" would be assumed as a matter of course and later, when descendants moved away from the original settlement or took up another occupation, the designation had become their established surname.

In the local directories alone there are over 1,000 entries under the name "Kirk" and this indicates how many of our ancestors would have been employed by the church in the Middle Ages. While "Kirk" place-names have, of necessity, retained the second identifying unit, surnames have discarded it and so, today, unless there are supporting records, the exact nature of the original occupation followed by a predecessor must remain in doubt. Sometimes the actual building at which an ancestor was employed might be traced - as, for instance, in the name, "Kirkbride" which refers to the "Kirk of St. Bridget" - though, of course, it still doesn't tell us what he worked at.

Strange to say, although the name is of undoubted antiquity and widely distributed over the British Isles, nobody bearing the name, has, to date, "hit the headlines"!

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 7th March 1994.
Further articles on this surname were to be published in October 2001.

WHAT'S IN A NAME … Are you called KIRK?
(Part One: Kirk and Kirkman only. Variations on "Kirk" to follow)

In the Middle Ages, after the Crown, the Church was the most extensive land-owner and controlled a huge work-force. Contrary to a general notion "Kirk" is not especially Scots and seems only to have been officially adopted in 1645. It had long been introduced into this island by the Norse invaders and survives in countless place-names which have generated about 20 or so surnames which will be, selectively commented upon in a later issue of the "Advertiser". Most of these place-names are to be found in the regions where they exerted influence, which certainly included Scotland but extended as far south as Lincolnshire.

The word has its counterparts in most northern languages eg. "Kirche" in German and "Kirkke" in Danish. In very simplified terms, it developed in a rather roundabout way. During the first centuries of Christian development, the Teutonic tribes dwelling on the borders of the Roman Empire were largely pagan. They had only a limited understanding of the significance of the places where the early Christians assembled and took to describing them as "The Houses belonging to the Person the Christians call their Lord". Over a period of time this was reduced to "The House of the Lord" which in Greek sounds as "kyriakon doma". This, in turn, was further reduced to "of the Lord" and out of which evolved the word "kirk". By the time of the conversion to Christianity of these pagan Tribes, the word "kirk" was so entrenched in their vocabulary that it continued being used, whereas the designation which the Church hierarchy tried to impose simply didn't take on. It was "ecclesia" and shows up in languages such as French (eglise) and Spanish (iglesia). It is remarkable, though, that in a few pockets where Celtic Christianity had been practised, forms of the word can be detected as in Welsh "Eglwys" and place-names such as Eccles in Norfolk and Lancashire.

While the Norse spelling "kirk" was generally used throughout the north of Britain, the Old English, with its southern dialects, wrote it as "cirice". Both versions were pronounced much alike ie. as "kirk". Again in highly simplistic terms, the French, after the Conquest, had difficulty in pronouncing the hard gutteral sound which is used when saying "kirk" and softened it into "ssh". This is shown up in other words which they took over from Latin. Hence "canem" becomes "chien" and "campus" turns into "champs". Thus "kirk" or "cirice" modulated into "church". So, in a reference to Canterbury Cathedral which is officially called "Christchurch" we find at first (1031) "Christes Cyrican" but by 1220 such references were appearing as "Ye Holie Chireche".

According to the gazetteer, while there are at least 450 locations incorporating the word "kirk" yet it seems that only one place is called simply "kirk". It is in Caithness, on the B876 highway, 7 miles beyond Wick. Since it is inconceivable that every family called "Kirk" could have derived their surname from the one site, it really follows that people called "Kirk", with all of the countless permutations and compounds which it has generated, must look across the entire breadth of the country for the source of their surname. These will be discussed in the next feature of the "Advertiser".

Where "Kirk" exists as a surname, it rarely varies the spelling, but forms such as "Kirke", "Kyrke" and "Kerk" are sometimes met with but these variations are not significant. An exceptional spelling, though, such as "Kirche" might indicate immigration, perhaps from Germany.

Only one variation on "Kirk" is not a location name. It is "Kirkman" and would have been used to describe a man whose job it was, to look after the fabric of a church - or, perhaps several in a district. The name seems to predominate in the north and especially in Yorkshire. In 1230 we meet up with Roger Kirkeman and later, in 1259, Roger le Kirkeman, also in Yorkshire. Strange to say it does not seem to have been in use in Scotland.

Sometimes there are words added to surnames to indicate placement. Hence in Lincolnshire (1209) we find Reginald Attekirk and 100 years later Richard Attekirck in Yorkshire. Then there is "Adam of the Kirk" in Suffolk for 1308. Being described as "of the Kirk" suggests he might have been a sexton or a verger. An interesting transition of "kirk" into "church" shows up in 1273 with John de la Chirke of Lincoln. Here in Derbyshire we find John be ye Kirk (1438) but no specific site is given. The name first occurs in Scotland for Sir Patrick Kirk (1456). Note: the "Sir" is not a title of nobility. It was then the standard designation for a priest who was not a university graduate. In this case Sir Patrick officiated in St. Mary's at Perth.

The name is widely distributed across the English-speaking world and there are some 200 entries in the local directory. Curiously enough only one personality emerges with the name: it is Sir John Kirk (1847-1922) who spent most of his life promoting free education for the poor and disadvantaged members of the working classes. Recently the name has become a boy's first name, perhaps because of the popularity of the film star Kirk Douglas.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 15th October 2001.

Are you called KIRK?
(Part-Two: Surnames based on Kirk)

The previous article dealt with "Kirk" and "Kirkman". The following paragraphs aim for explanations of corresponding surnames, principally only those, appearing in the local directory. To attempt to cover every name would present readers with something akin to a gazetteer!

"Kirkland" is the most represented (60 entries) and it is obviously a place-name, equally distributed between Scotland and England. People with Scots connections might identify with the site on the River Leven in Fife or with "Kirkland" in Dumfries where the A702 and the B729 intersect. Cumberland offers four possibilities: a former hamlet now a district of Kendal; a small place on the A595, 3 miles s.e. Aspatria; a larger site 6 miles e. Whitehaven and finally, 1 mile e. Wigton. The name means obviously "The land belonging to the church" but curiously this does not hold for "Kirkland" in Lancashire. Here the meaning is "The woodlands owned by the church". It is about 2 miles e. Garstang. (There are neighbouring place-names: Churchtown, Eccleston which may be significant). Because workers on large estates often adopted as their surname that of their employers, alternative sources of the name might be sought in the case of a mansion near Melrose (Berwick) or a seat on Ale Water near Ancrum (Roxburgh). It is suggested that the estate 1 mile s. Bodmin (Cornwall) appears to have been established too late to provide a surname. Which of the foregoing locations related to our own Dr. Thomas Kirkland (1722-1798) is unknown. His family is described belonging to Derbyshire and he came from Ashbourne. He is noted for his active involvement in bringing about the conviction of Earl Ferrers for murder (1760). There is a widespread belief that the noble lord was hanged with a silken cord but it wasn't so. He had to make do with hemp like the rest of us!

The surname "Kirkwood" has 6 entries and the meaning is self-evident - it correspond with the Lancashire name mentioned above. There are two sites and individual families must make their choice between a place in Dumfries 5 miles s. Lockerbie and one in Lanark, 1½ mile n.e. 0ld Monkland. A familiar unit in place-names is "-by". It was introduced by the Norse invaders an signified village or settlement. The word was "Byr". It must be left to local historians to decide whether, in a particular case, the church either came to an established habitation or the community grew up around an existing church. In the beginning there were innumerable place once designated simply as "Kirkby" (or Kirby) but to avoid confusion it was desirable to give each place some distinctive label. For example Kirkby-in-Ashfield just over the county border, 12 miles e. Matlock) 'was first called simply "Churchbi" (Domesday Survey: 1086) but by 1237 had been particularised as "Kyrkeby-in-Essfield". This method of distinguishing all the hundreds of "Kirkby's" in the land was obviously widely adopted because the gazetteer lists well over 40 places with such compounded names. Unless a particular bearer of the name "Kirkby" (or Kirby) has other supporting information, it must now be impossible for most people of the name to establish their place of origin. In fact there are only four places called simply "Kirkby" or "Kirby". In Warwickshire there is Kirby - 5 miles n.e. Shipston-on-Stour and three Kirkby's elsewhere. In Lancashire, near Aintree, in Lincoln, 3 miles n.w. Market Rasen and in the West Riding a place, now a neighbourhood name in Denby Dale, near Barnsley.

The Old English units found frequently in habitation-names are "-ton" (an enclosed settlement), "-ham" village and "-ley" (clearing, open space). Examples linked with "Kirk" occur in many place-names and they have generated corresponding surnames. However only "Kirkham" (local directory 30 entries), and "Kirkley" (local directory 12 entries are listed locally. There are three places called Kirkham and the one most likely to have led to most surnames is the place in Lancashire. It is popularly called the Capital of the Fylde. It is on the A583, 8 miles w. Preston - i.e. Priests' Town which might be significant. The other sites are in the West Riding near Malton and in the North Riding near Stokesley.

In the case of "Kirkley" families who seek romantic associations might look to Kirklees 4 miles n.e. Huddersfield where there are connections with Robin Hood. Otherwise Kirkley (Lowestoft) and Kirkley (Northumberland) might be worth investigation.

The picturesque concept of the "church in the valley" is discernible in the names "Kirkhope" and "Kirkup". They incorporate the unit "hope" which is Old English for Valley. There appears now to be only one place to correspond with the surname. It is in Scotland, on the B7009 on the River Ettrick, just west of Selkirk.

An interesting element appears in the case of surnames incorporating the names of saints. It is not often appreciated that during the Dark Ages, while Christianity had died out in Western Europe, it survived in the West of Ireland and was re-introduced into Britain largely by St. Columba and St. Patrick and not only by St. Augustine. Hence the names of Irish saints are frequently associated with churches in Scotland and the North-West. A family called Kirkpatrick or Kirkmichael have several sites to which they owe their surnames. The name of St. Bridgid of Ireland can be detected in Kirkbride. This place-name is to be found in the Isle of Man, Cumberland and Ayrshire. Note: the name is not to be confused with the Scandinavian saint called Bridget.

Site Index Site Index © Desmond Holden
From "The Peak Advertiser", 29th October 2001.
The first article on this surname was published in March 1994.

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