This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 25th January 1999, 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 GURNEY?

There are slight variations in the spelling of this name but none is significant. The form "Gurnay" seems to prevail in Scotland. It is a location name derived from a town in Normandy called "Gournay". It lies within the district of Bray and is sometimes alluded to as "Gournay-en-Bray" (or "Gournai-en-Brai") - no doubt to distinguish it from another place of the same name, some 45 miles to the east. It stands on the western side of the River Epte, a tributary of the Seine. Paris lies some 65 miles south. It is a centre of a dairying industry.

The region in which Gournay is located was once under Roman influence and the name itself has a Latin equivalent made up from a personal name "Gordinus" plus the suffix "-acum". (As: York - Eboracum). Together they could be interpreted as: "The settlement where dwell the people taking the name of Gordinus". But - Who was this Gordinus? To that question there is, as yet, no positive answer: A perfectly good case can be advanced for it being either a Nordic or a Latin name.

The Latin suggestions rely very heavily on the similarity between the name of the individual "Gordinus" and that of the famous city in the ancient kingdom of Phyrgia (now Northern Turkey). The story goes that the inhabitants of Phyrgia were once in great turmoil. They consulted the Oracle and were told that a King would appear and would settle their disputes. He would be identified as a poor peasant driving into their midst in a wagon. Shortly afterwards this peasant, called "Gordius" did arrive as described and was instantly acclaimed King. Apparently he was very wise and restored order. The city was then named "Gordium".

The story continues by telling how he showed his gratitude to the Oracle by "Clamping" his wagon outside the Temple of Zeus. The "clamp" was a knot of bark and it was predicted that whoever succeeded in untying the knot would rule all Asia.

It seems that Alexander the Great came to Gordium and simply sliced through the knot with his sword and fulfilled the prophecy. Hence the well-known saying: "To cut the Gordian Knot".

The story was familiar throughout the Ancient World and so it would have been perfectly feasible for the name "Gordinus" to have evolved and be conferred or adopted as a personal name by citizens of the Roman Empire. It was borne by three Emperors in succession (158-244 A.D.). However after the town of Gordium was destroyed by invaders from Gaul in 189 B.C. it disappeared from history and this rather weakens the suggestion that it could be the basis of the place-name "Gordinacum" and yielding the modern "Gournay". However the alternative explanation - that it is of Nordic origin has almost as much to commend it.

Here a popular misconception should first be corrected. Normandy does not owe its name to being in the north of France, but from having been invaded and occupied by "the men from the North". (Their counterparts in Britain were similarly called "the Norsemen"). Although these "Northmen" rapidly adopted the language and customs of the society they invaded, they must have retained many personal names and it is suggested that "Gordo" or something of similar sound and form was included. What it might have meant is uncertain.

It is, of course, very tempting indeed here to seek a connection with the Scots "Gordon". However the best authorities on on Scottish surnames acknowledge that place-names in Normandy, such as "Gourdon" (Saone-et-Loire) certainly could provide a basis for some examples of the surname: the earliest records centre on a place in Berwick, 4 miles south-west of Greenlaw.

Nevertheless the region surrounding the Berwick site was long under the influence of the Norsemen and no doubt they could have left vestiges of their language in place-names. Hence "Gordon" is interpreted as "Gordo's Hill" ("don" is a common unit in place- names and means "hill".

Still, whatever the background, the word "gor-" is, by each site, and that "Gordon" in Scotland means, possibly, the "wide hill", and, just as possibly, the "Gordo-" in the Norman location, might imply, "breadth of mind" - i.e. wisdom. So, by expansion, it might be ventured that the name "Gurney" is derived from "Gournay" in France and signifies "the settlement named after the wise ruler".

Its continental origins are confirmed in that it is very strongly represented in Norfolk. This connection is accounted for in that two bearers of the name, both called "Hugh de Gournays" and from Gournay, no doubt, fought at the Battle of Hastings and were rewarded with grants of land in that county. In fact the earliest reference is to Hugo de Gurnai in the Domesday Survey of 1086 for that region. It certainly made its way to the north because we encounter an Adam de Gurnay in Northumberland in 1196.

The name is best-known on account of "Peter Gurney" who travelled to Widdicombe Fair on a celebrated grey mare. The place is actually "Widdicombe-in-the-Moor in Devon, and 6 miles south of Moreton Hampstead. The Fair is held on the second Tuesday of September.

The name is also well-represented in the area - particularly by Sir Goldsworthy Gurney (1793-1875) who pioneered steam-carriage and did much for safety in the mines.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 25th January 1999.

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