This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 28th May 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 EYRE?
(Variations: Ayr, Air, Eyre, Heyer etc.)

Up to the end of the Middle Ages (c.1400) Britain was divided and sub-divided into increasingly smaller units all of which were held under grant by their occupiers. These occupiers enjoyed the profits and privileges which went with the grant but in return they were required to pay homage to their grantor and to render him services. At the top of the social scale, where land was held directly from the king, these services largely involved soldiering, but further down the line, especially at the local Manorial level, general administration was part of the deal. To ensure continuity, land ownership was vested for life in the one occupier, with immediate succession, on his death, to a specific person, almost invariably the eldest surviving son. He was, from the moment of his birth legally designated the "heir" (sometimes, with greater precision, "the heir apparent") and upon whom all the privileges and responsibilities which went with the grant devolved. Hence it was very much a "status name". Unless there were exceptional circumstances the tenant for life had no authority to put a bar on the succession and the heir had little choice but to take over the estate when his predecessor died. Except where these old rules still operate (e.g. in succession to the throne) the expression "heir" is now used very loosely and with no legal significance in common conversation.

Indications that it was a recognised "status name" can be detected in the persistent use of the phrase "the heir" in early records. Down in Essex (1208) we encounter "Ralph Le Eir", over in Gloucester (1274) there was a "Richard Le Heyer", and up in Wakefield (West Riding) mention is made of "Adam Le Hayer" (1275). The registers of Students at university are significant: at Cambridge (1273) is "William Le Eyre" and at Oxford (1276), "Henry le Eyre". It seems that such "heirs" probably came from the lower echelons of the landed-gentry (Lords of the Manor?) whereas those of higher rank would have been accorded their "courtesy titles".

The name also occurs in Scotland with much the same meaning. It is interesting to note that many references to "heirs" are accompanied with a mention of the paying of homage and of the rights of the people involved to bear a heraldic shield. Hence "Stevene, Le fiz de Johan le Heir" of Berwick is mentioned along with a description of his seal and motto.

Not all services under grant were necessarily honourable. One English land owner held his estate on condition that he attended state Banquets and jumped around breaking wind audibly. (Honest!). And the Scots weren't much better. "Robert le Eyr" (1296) was charged with horsestealing and cattlerustling in Aberdeen. The variations in the spelling will have been noted. If there were any references in writing to the grants, they would certainly have been done in Latin, using "Heres" or "Heredis" and which would have been rendered in translation with such spelling and pronunciation as the scribes used locally. For the present article, "Eyre" has been chosen as the heading since it has connections with Hathersage.

Scotland also provides another source of the surname, it is derived from the Royal Burgh of Ayr (South-West Scotland). The exact meaning of "Ayr' is not known but an acceptable suggestion is that it is based on the Old Norse "eyer" which can be interpreted as "the beach which affords a smooth landing." It is interesting to note that surnames indicative of association with the Burgh use "of" whereas in the case of "heir" the definite article appears: i.e. "John of Ayr" as against "John the Heir", in 1287 we find mention of "Reginald of Ayr" while "Albinus de Are" is named as being in grant of lands from King Robert in 1315.

It is found in Ireland, particularly in Galway, but it was imported from England by Cromwellian settlers. Following the prohibition of the use of native Irish names, a few families, called "Hehir" appear to have Anglicised it into "Eyre". In present-day Gaelic it appears as "O hAichir", and families with links to County Clare and Limerick might be able to establish, a connection.

The word "Eyre" occurs in several other contexts. It describes the itinerant judges who were sent around the countries during the 12th and 13th centuries. It comes from the Latin "iter" meaning "a journey". It is doubtful if the arrangement generated a surname. In Shropshire there is a place called Aston Eyre (5 miles west: Bridgnorth). It has a completely different origin and does not appear to have been adapted as a surname. Although the river Oare in Somerset is identical with the Ayr in Scotland no names appear to have developed.

Easily the best known bearer of the name is the heroine of Charlotte Bronte's "Jane Eyre". Most of the setting of the story is in Yorkshire which conceals the name's identity with Derbyshire. The "Eyres" were a notable county family and probably their best representatives were the explorer Edward Eyre (1815-1901) who came from Hornsea (East Riding) and also Charles Eyre (1817-1903) who was born in York and became the first Arch-Bishop of Glasgow in 1878.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 28th May 2001.

Are you called EYRE?
I [Rosemary] was surprised to find Desmond omitted the classic origin (or myth) of the surname 'Eyre' in Derbyshire. It supposedly had been granted by William the Conqueror to one of his Norman Knights who gave him 'Le Eyr' (presumably medieval French - 'air') to breathe, when saving William's life at the Battle of Hastings by removing his visor which had been trapped over his face during battle… Yes, it does sound rather fanciful…

However Robert Dylan Eyre has provided further interesting speculation on the name's origins from Scotland. Robert argues that Island names (of Scotland) remain unchanged since Celtic times. Hence the name has existed for centuries in its exact form in the towns of Kensaleyre and Eyre, the Loch Eyre and the Dun Eyre - places and locations on the Isle of Skye, where also the standing stone formation known as the Eyre Row is to be found, and the famous Eyre Stone which allegedly portrays a star constellation. [q.v. Megaliths of the World Deciphered - formerly www.megaliths.co.uk - which also mentions stones nearer 'home', at Arbor Low and on Gardom's Edge in Derbyshire with similar properties... it must be true, folks, because hey, you read it on the Internet! ;)]

The places of Eyre and Ayr also exist in Western Scotland, where the name could be derived from the Irish Eire or Eirin as the Irish as Scots colonised these parts in the 5th century.The existence of a DUN called Dun Eyre also adds to the evidence of it being originally a gaelic word as surely it can not be the only dun in Scotland without a gaelic name.

[Desmond also mentions Ayr, quoting for a possible origin the Old Norse "eyer" which can be interpreted as "the beach which affords a smooth landing" seemingly quite apposite, for perhaps both Western Scotland and places on the coast of the Isle of Skye!]

Robert also believes that Eyre is a lot closer to the word Eire than it is to the word heir, especially bearing in mind the Irish (Scottish) 'i' is often replaced with the British 'y' in words such as Dylan/Dillon and others.

This additional information was supplied by Robert Dylan Eyre in April 2003.

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