Concerning the Names
Gavin, Gawaine, Gavan, and Gabhainn
2nd Edition

by Josh Mittleman
known in the SCA as Arval Benicoeur

Last updated 21 Aug 2001

Gavin is a Frankish, French, English, and Scots name. At a fairly early date, it was confused with Gawain, the Arthurian character name. It was popular in medieval England and France in a variety of spellings. The first examples we find in Lowland Scotland are 15th century. It was eventually adopted into Gaelic as Gabhainn, but apparently not until well after 1600: We have found no clear pre-1600 Gaelic evidence of the name in any spelling.

The name appears to have two ultimate origins: a Welsh name Gawain, which also appears in Old Breton as Gauen, and an Old German name Gawin. The two names were confused at a very early date. The Welsh name may have derived in turn from Gwalchgwyn, a hypothetical alternate name for the Welsh legendary hero Gwalchmai whose name was latinized by Geoffrey of Monmouth as Walganus. The name was common in Brittany; in Anglo-Norman it took the form Walwain, and in central French Gawain or Gauvain, with the common replacement of W by G [1, 2].

The Old German name Gawin was adopted directly into Frankish, and appears in France in the 7th century Latin forms Gavinus and Gavienus [1]. Later French examples include [6, 7]:

In medieval French literature, the name shows up in a large variety of forms, mostly commonly Gauvain, Gauwain, Gavain, Gavein, Gavin, Gawain, and Gawein. Less common variants (some no doubt the result of scribal errors) include: Gauveis, Gauven, Gaven, Gagain, Gaugain, Gaugein, Gauvainet, Gauvenet, Gavainet, Vauvain, Galva, Galvain, Galvan, and Galvant [9],

English examples of the name include [1, 2]:

Gawayne, Gawn, and Gawen were also common in medieval England [1].

In Lowland Scotland (where they spoke Scots, a language very similar to contemporary English), recorded forms include these [3, 4]:

The name was eventually adopted into Scottish Gaelic as Gabhan or Gabhainn, which was re-anglicized as Gavan. Gabhainn is the modern spelling, but we have no evidence that any of these forms existed until well after 1600 [5]. Its introduction to Gaelic was no doubt influenced by the word gobhainn "smith" [8], the root of the common surname Mac an Ghabhain or Mac Ghobhainn "son of the smith", which is recorded in English and Scots documents as MacGawne 1422, McGoun 1503, McGawin 1613, M'Gawyne 1643, and which produced the modern names MacGavin, MacGowan, MacGoun, etc., as well as the shortened and partially-translated forms Gove, Gow, Gowan, Gowans, Gowanson, etc. [2, 3].

We have found one example of a form of Gavin used in Ireland in conjunction with a Gaelic family name: Gaven O'Rewrdane, 1576 [12]. This name appears in an English-language record, so it is not direct evidence of Gaelic use of Gaven. By this period, many originally-Gaelic families had adopted English language and culture, so there is no reason to believe that this man was a Gaelic speaker.

The modern Irish surnames O Gavin (or O Gavan) and O Galvin are etymologically unrelated. The former was recorded as O Gawane in English records in 1428, and derives from an unknown Gaelic root [11]. The latter originated from the early medieval Gaelic given name Gelbán and appears in English documents c.1600 as O Gealwaine, O Gallivain and O Galvane [10, 11].

Gavin or one of its forms would be a fine choice for a re-creation of France or England in the Middle Ages or Renaissance, and of Lowland Scotland after 1500. However, we have found no form of the name in Gaelic-speaking Highland Scotland before modern times.

Notes and References

[1] Withycombe, E.G. The Oxford Dictionary of English Christian Names, 3rd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988. S.n. Gawain.
[2] Reaney, P. H., & R. M. Wilson, A Dictionary of English Surnames (London: Routledge, 1991; Oxford University Press, 1995), s.nn. Gavin, Gawenson, Gawn.
[3] Black, George F. The Surnames of Scotland: Their Origin, Meaning, and History. New York: New York Public Library, 1986. Original edition, 1946.
s.nn. Rais, MacGavin, MacGowan, Rait, Auchtercraw, Langland, Goudie, Hourie, Gove, Gow, Gowan, Gowans, Gowanson.
[4] The manuscript Aberdeen Council Register. Vols. 8-20 (1501-1551). Aberdeen City Archives, Aberdeen Town House, Aberdeen, Scotland, UK.
[5] Morgan, Peadar, Ainmean Chloinne: Scottish Gaelic Names for Children (Scotland: Taigh na Teud Music Publishers, 1989).
[6] Morlet, Marie-Thérèse, Les Noms de Personne sur le Territoire de l'Ancienne Gaule du VIe au XIIe Siecle, three volumes (Paris: Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, 1972), p.107.
[7] Morlet, Marie-Thérèse, Étude d'anthroponymie picarde, les noms de personne en Haute Picardie aux XIIIe, XIVe, XVe siècles (Amiens, Musée de Picardie, 1967).
[8] Dwelly, Edward, The Illustrated Gaelic-English Dictionary (Glasgow: Gairm Publications, 1988), s.n. gobhainn.
[9] Flutre, Louis-Fernand, Table des noms propres avec toutes leurs variantes, figurant dans les romans du Moyen Age écrits en français ou en provençal et actuellement publiés ou analysés (Poitiers: Centre d'études supérieures de civilisation médiévale, 1962), s.nn. Galva, Gauvain.
[10] Woulfe, Patrick, Sloinnte Gaedheal is Gall: Irish Names and Surnames (Kansas City: Irish Genealogical Foundation), s.n. Ó Gealbháin.
[11] MacLysaght, Edward, More Irish Families (Blackrock, Co. Dublin: Irish Academic Press, 1982), s.nn. (O) Gavan, (O) Galvin.
[12] Annala Rioghachta Eireann: Annals of the Kingdom of Ireland by the Four Masters from the Earliest period to the Year 1616 edited from MSS. in the Library of the Royal Irish Academy and of Trinity College, Dublin with a translation by John O'Donovan, VII Volumes (Hodges, Smith, and Co: Dublin, 1854), vol.5, pp.1690-1. A footnote on these pages contains a transcription of an indenture (written in English) dated March 8, 1576.