This is a copy of an article published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 19th May 1997, 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 SKAYMAN?

A Reader has approached the "Peak Advertiser" asking about this name. It is certainly very unusual in form, although it is, in fact, another version of the more frequently encountered "Shaw". In the spelling as given, it is almost unknown outside the North-West of England - barely half-a-dozen altogether in the Local Directories, and only one in the London Area!

No research has been carried out on "Skayman" and it is not listed in any Reference Book. This, of itself, is not an insuperable barrier against offering suggestions as to its possible development but it must emphasised that there is a need to fall back on inspired guess-work.

The simplest solution is probably the best and in this case, "Skayman" is a misspelling of another and similar name, "Shayman". Although explanations which fall back on misreadings do appear to be just that little too felicitous, nevertheless such errors are recognised. In a former feature it was noted that the city of Nome in Alaska owes its name to such a misinterpretation. [Ed: See "Laud", 27th January 1997].

In the consideration of surnames it must be remembered that the times our predecessors ever needed their names recording were limited: - births, marriages and deaths. Few of them could read anyway and in their small communities everybody spoke of one-another using familiar names only. Surnames had little significance. Even into the middle of the Nineteenth Century variations in the spelling of a family name could appear on the same grave-stone and would pass without challenge. So it is hardly likely that our Mediaeval Ancestors would know or care about how their names were written.

The hand-writing of the Middle Ages was based on what we now call "Gothic Lettering" and certain letters, even in today's typesetting can easily be confused. Rendered still less legible in the crabbed penmanship of the Parish Clerk, characters as alike as "h" and "k" would be especially vulnerable. So: it is submitted that in "Skayman" the first unit, "Skay-" is a misrendering of "Shay".

Of course this explanation turns entirely on whether there was such a name as "Shay". Fortunately such supporting evidence is readily available. Both "Shay" and "Skey" appear in the Records for Yorkshire, dated 1564. They can be traced back to an earlier form which was written as "Schawe" and occurs for Wakefield in 1307.

This unit is based on the Old English word "sceaga" which signifies "a small wood" or "a thicket". Such items were scattered all over the landscape and so it is not surprising that they provided the basis for numerous place-names. In the High Peak and its adjacent regions it emerges as "shaw" as in Bagshaw and Longshaw. In Yorkshire the dialect form is "shay".

Further south it becomes "chay" - hence "Frenchay" in Gloucester, which means "the small woodland alongside the River Frome". Development may have brought about the similar surname "Skey" which can be traced along the same lines to Upton-on-Severn.

The seconed unit, "-man" is capable of at least two interpretations, the more likely of which is that it simply describes a member of a community and where he lived: that is, "The man who dwells by the thicket". Alternatively it could be a reference to a servant or a worker in the employment of somebody called "Shay" and hence bear the meaning: "The man who works for Shay". It might even be an occupational name - "the man who tends to the woodland". Each interpretation is perfectly in order, but the first is probably the best.

Finally an Irish connection seems promising. There is the name "Skehan" which could easily have been modified into "Skayman". In Gaelic it is written as "Sceachain" - sometimes the characteristic prefixes "O" and "Mac" appear as well. It originates in the counties of Monaghan, Louth and Tipperary.

The basis of the name is the word "sceach" which closely resembles the Old English form "sceaga". It describes any type of vegetation which cuts or tears, particularly thistles, brambles and briers and for that reason it was regularly converted into "Thornton" when native Irish Names were suppressed during the English Occupation of Ireland. It would require very detailed and personal research to verify this source and so those people who are called "Skayman" and who believe that they might have Irish associations might be interested in following up this lead on their own account.

The name "Skayman" does not appear in any of the Standard Biographical Reference Books, although its close counterpart, "Skey" was borne by a distinguished Surgeon, Dr. Frederick Skey (1798-1872), a native of the county of Worcester.

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From "The Peak Advertiser", 19th May 1997.

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