This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 19th March 2001, reproduced by kind permission of the author, the late Desmond Holden.

The “What's in a Name” series was a regular feature in the Advertiser over the period 1993‑2004, taking a refreshing look at the derivation of some typically Derbyshire surnames.

Articles are confined to the origins and meanings of surnames, and do not indicate any particular interest on Desmond's part in the genealogy, descent, or family history of individuals bearing the surnames featured.

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 ALLEN?

There are some 40 variations of this surname but they nearly all stem from the Celtic personal name "Alan". By "nearly all" attention is drawn to the fact that in a few cases some forms have evolved from the Germanic "adel" (modern: edel) which means "noble". It is usually identified through being pronounced "al-En and not "A'ln".

Otherwise "Alan" is extremely old and has long been established in Britain. There are several possible sources. Families with Scots associations can relate their surnames to the Gaelic "ail" meaning "rock". It is found in place-names such as "Alloa" (the rock-strewn plain: Clackmannon). When used in surnames, the diminutive "ailin" was adopted: i.e. "little rock". Converted to a personal name it signifies "one who is steadfast". Its Celtic counterpart south of the border is now obscure but lurks in names such as "Llaneilian" which means "the place (Ilan) of (St.) Eilian" which is in Anglesey. Here the reference is to a "St. Alan" but, along with a Cornish saint of the same name in the vicinity of Poldhu (?) little is known of either.

During the fifth and sixth centuries a large number of Celtic people from Wales and the south-western peninsula made their way across the channel to settle in north-western France. At one time the region was called "Armorica" but acquired the name "Brittany" on account of the new immigrants. Naturally they brought with them much of their Celtic vocabulary. Even today typical words appear in modern French dictionaries, such as "dolmen" and "cromlech". In the cast of personal names, they are known to have introduced "Alan". This name particularly attached itself to a certain "St. Alanus" who was a Bishop of Quimper (Finisterre). There are hosts of legends about him but nothing positive. The most that can be said is that since the Bishopric had been established in 453 A.D. by St. Corentin (a verified saint who is commemorated locally: 12th December) it is likely that Alaunus had been so highly regarded as to be made his successor. A cult under his name long flourished in the region. There is also a tantalising reference to "Alan, King of Brittany" (683 A.D.)

More extensive uses of the name occur during the tenth century. One is "Alanus" and the other is "Alamnus". It is suggested that "Alanus" is a corruption of "Alamnus" and would have described the neighbouring Germanic tribes who had also begun to infiltrate the region. It means "All the Men" (i.e. of the tribe) and survives in the French for Germany - Allemagne.

Consequently many of the followers of William the Conqueror came from this region and were descendants of Britons who had established themselves during the previous 500 years. It would not be correct to say they brought back the name, nor would it be right to say they re-introduced it here since it had never entirely fallen out of use. However, although it had lost some of its former appeal, it rapidly recovered it and by the end of the thirteenth century one boy in six bore some version of the name. Its popularity may have been enhanced through its resemblance to the Anglo-Saxon Name. It is now found as "Elwyn" (though "Alwyn" prevails in the States. It signifies "the worthy friend." There are plenty of examples of "Alan" as a personal name in the early records - e.g. "Alanus" (Domesday: Suffolk: 1086) and "Alain Fergeant" was Count of Brittany. He assisted William in the invasion and was awarded the earldom of Richmond.

The first appearance of its use as a surname occurs in Cambridge (1234) and refers to a "Geoffrey Alain". There is a "Roger Alain" in York (1246) and also a "John FitzAlan" of the same place (1416). The name was also popular in Scotland, especially on account of its being adopted regularly by the Stuart family. As a surname it first appears in Aberdeen (1446) and is to "Duncan Alowne" while there had long been innumerable examples of "FitzAleyne". The first is "John fiz Aleyn" (Montrose: 1296).

All the numerous variations in the spelling really reflected local pronunciation and how medieval scribes tried to reproduce it. Individual families must decide which form of spelling they prefer and take whatever steps are possible to determine where they originated.

In accordance with Scots practice "Mac" is often used. While "McAlan" is easily identified, a form such as "McKellen" less so. The name was exported to Ireland by the Normans and then later settlers and usually appears as "Alleyn". More specifically Irish are "Hallinan" and "0 hAillin". The standard biographies list well over 50 personalities bearing forms of this surname. Most of them are so eminent in their own fields that it must be left to the judgement of readers to make a selection.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 19th March 2001.

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