By: Terry Skillen

I was told by my father that our family of origin was Irish. I was surprised on my first visit to the Republic of Ireland to find that no one with whom I made inquiries had ever heard of a Skillen. I was told that my surname was not of Irish origin. Indeed when I checked telephone directories in the Republic I found only one listing of the name. I was relieved to find a number of telephone listings for Skillen in Northern Ireland. The vast majority of these listings were for persons in County Down. It seems that my ancestor, Francis Skillen, may have been Irish but his surname was not. I did not find Skillen on any list of Irish names. The presence of the Skillen name in Ulster assured me that my family was from Ireland if not Irish in origin. I then set out to find out more about the origin of my surname.

Authorities differ about the origin of the surname Skillen. John O’Hort in his Irish Pedigrees gives the name a Norse or English origin. One English commercial source that retails information on family names and coats of arms in England has the name derived from the old English (Norman) Skilamaor, a name meaning the trustworthy and honest man. The name according to this source was brought into England with the Norman Conquest in 1066 and made its way north into Scotland. Edward MacLysaght, author of Surnames of Ireland, discounts any connection with the Old English root Skilamaor. There are no examples of the name in early Irish records according to O’Hort. The name is numerous in County Down and rare elsewhere in Ireland. Skilling is a variant of Skillen with Skilling originally being the singular of Skillen. In English the name is rendered Skillen and Skilling. In Gaelic it is rendered Scilling and MacScilling. There seems to be a general consensus that the name is Norse in origin. I have yet to discover any documented historical data that explains how and when the name came to be present in Ireland.


The word Viking means pirate or sea raider. The Vikings were people from the north west of Europe, Denmark, Sweden and Norway who invaded and established settlements in other parts of Europe from Russia in the east to Ireland in the west. All of the British Isles felt the impact of the Viking presence especially England where one half of the country came under the influence of the Norse. As well the Vikings settled in the Islands around the coast of Scotland such as the Orkneys and the Hebrides as well as the Isle of Man. Ireland was invaded by Viking plunderers who eventually established settlements along the coast at Dublin, Wexford, Waterford, Cork and Limerick. They also took control of the country known today as the province of Normandy in France. The Vikings assimilated with the host populations of the countries they invaded. Norse Normans conquered England in 1066 perhaps bringing with them someone with a variant of the name that was to become Skilling/Skillen.

In the latter part of the 8th century Nordic sea raiders began to attack and plunder in the North Sea. These Vikings eventually settled in all areas of northern Europe including Britain and Ireland. Beginning in the closing years of the eighth century Vikings from Norway made a habit of attacking monasteries in Ireland where they killed monks who resisted them, plundered precious artifacts and took captives for the purposes of slavery or ransom. After thirty five years of conducting raids the Norse began to establish settlements in places with protected harbours and water access to the interior. Their raids were then directed inland. The Norse had major settlements at Dublin, Waterford, Wexford, Cork and Limerick as well as many other places which were used as bases from which to plunder the surrounding areas. By 830 these harbours had became colonial settlements where the community included Norse woman and children.

Unlike the Vikings in England who took control of half the country, those in Ireland did not move inland much beyond the harbour colonies. Hostility between the Irish and the invaders increased after the Vikings established their colonies. The Irish prevented the Norse from extending their territory in Ireland beyond the sea side colonies. They did however have a negative effect on the stability of Irish society by initially laying waste to monasteries and upsetting the monastic environment where intellectual pursuits and teaching was an important function. The enlightened period of Irish contribution to art, literature and religion was disrupted by the Viking presence. The Vikings also dealt in slavery. The Norse focused on defense of their holdings through involvement in Irish politics. They would enter into alliances with feuding Irish kings in order to protect their own holdings. The Norse presence in Ireland was diminished when the last Viking independent king of Dublin was expelled in 1052.

The Vikings from Norway, like other Europeans, were not accustomed in the Dark Ages before 1000 A.D. to use surnames that denoted a family relationship. Some of the Norse men intermarried with Irish who lived around their settlements. When Vikings integrated as minorities in Ireland they may have come to use second names given to them by the Irish or they may have adopted second names to distinguish themselves from the Irish. In other parts of Europe such as England and Normandy where the Vikings were assimilated by the host population they adopted second names or they were given second names. How a specific name was assigned to certain Viking groups is unclear. Perhaps all of the Viking members in a community chose the name of the place where they lived or they were given a nick-name, to differentiate them from the host population. Since the Vikings did not use surnames in their homeland before the patronymic system was introduced, it may be that the host population of a community in a conquered country assigned a name to the local group of Viking foreigners in their midst. The name given to the group of Vikings in one community might reflect a local place, environmental characteristic, personal characteristic or activity undertaken by the person.

In some region of Europe perhaps the Hebrides, mainland Scotland, England or Normandy a descriptive name assigned to a group of Norse evolved into the surname Skilling/ Skillen of which Skilling is the singular and Skillen is the plural form. The Norse society was among the first to utilize a naming system based on a child’s father. This is called the patronymic method of naming off-spring. If a Norseman named Anders called his son Jon the boy would be known in his community as Jon Anderssen, that is, Jon the son of Anders. If Anders had a daughter Anne, she would be known as Anne Andersdatter, that is, the daughter of Anders. The patronymic system was little used, if at all, at the time the Vikings first invaded their European neighbours in the 8th century but came into vogue sometime after the year 1000. The name Skilling/Skillen does not seem to fit the patronymic model. Perhaps the name Skillen derived from a place or local name where a family of Norsemen lived. Another possibility is that the name derived from a physical or other characteristic of the Norse bearer. A fourth possibility is that the person was named Skilling/Skillen after a skill or occupation.

Perhaps the name Skilling/Skillen originated in the Norse community on the Hebrides Islands which lie off the north-west coast of Scotland. At least one prominent person with the name MacSkilling was living in the Hebrides during the 12th century. In the Annals of The Four Masters, a history of the Irish people written by monks in the 17th century, there is reference to a Norse naval commander MacSkilling, also rendered MacScelling and MacSceiling, from the Hebrides who in 1154 was involved in a sea battle. The Annals tell about the event involving the fleets of Gall, Gaeidhil Of Arra, of Ceann-Tire, of Manainn and the seaboard of Alba, over which MacScelling was in command; and when they arrived near Inis Eoghain, they fell in with the other fleet and a naval battle was fiercely and spiritedly fought between them; and they continued the conflict from the beginning of the day until the evening, and a great number of the Connaght men, together with the Cosnamhaigh Ua Dubhda were slain by the foreigners. The foreign host was defeated and slaughtered; they left their ships behind and the teeth of MacScelling were knocked out. The story told by the Four Masters seems to indicate that after a very long and exhausting battle the Irish from Connaght finally defeated the Norse naval force commanded by MacSkilling from the Hebrides. The name of the Norse commander provides a clue to the presence eventually of the surname Skilling/Skillen in Ireland. Given the proximity of the Hebrides to the Scottish mainland it is very possible that a Norse macSkilling namesake migrated to Scotland in the 11th or 12th centuries.


A family history deposited in the Mormon Family History and Genealogy Records identifies a rare Swedish reference to the surname Skillen. Johan Skillen and Greta Cajsa Persdr married on November 5, 1830 in Nysatra, Uppsalla, Sweden. The couple had at least three sons and a daughter all born in Sweden. The Skillen surname is not found in the Swedish telephone directory for 2005. The name Skillen may have evolved into Schillen which is listed 61 times in the Swedish telephone directory for 2005. On the other hand a John Skillen may have migrated to Sweden in the first quarter of the 19th century and married Greta. Knowing the place of residence of Johan’s parents and grandparents might provide more meaningful information about the Skillen connection with Sweden.

Scandinavian references to the Skilling/Skillen rendering of the surname are found occasionally over the years in Sweden and less often in Norway. The earliest Swedish reference found was a Kirsti Skilling born 17 June 1698 in Flace Brastad, Goteborg och Bohus, Sweden. Her father was Corperal and mother was Kirsti. Another reference is that of Olaf Skilling who married Kirstan Pehrsdr on 19 May, 1783 in Karl Kung, Vastmouland, Sweden. There is reference to a 1796 marriage between an Abraham Skilling and Stina Lisa Samuelsdr Kallmark in Skillefta, Vasterbotton, Sweden. In another instance Anna Maria Skilling was born on 27 May, 1802 in Skanela Stockholm. Her parents were Gustaf Skilling and Anna Stina Laurin. The prominence of the name Skilling in the Vital Records Index Sweden seems to indicate a Scandanavian connection. Surprisingly the Swedish telephone directory in 2005 found only eleven listings for the surname Skilling while the name Schilling is listed 112 times. Perhaps over time Skilling and Schilling became different spellings of the same name.


Graham Skillen, who was born in County Antrim, Ireland and now resides in England, provided me with the references to the Norseman MacSkilling in the Annals of the Four Masters. Graham has made an effort to discover more about the Norse origins of the name. He has found that the frequency of the name in the British Isles continues to be greatest in those areas that were settled originally by the Norse. In a survey of telephone directories in Great Britain he was able to show that in those areas originally populated by the Vikings the Skilling/Skillen name is still found with greater frequency than in other areas. He did not find Skillen to be a contemporary Norwegian name. This finding may support the hypothesis that the name was originally adopted by a group of Norsemen who resided in a settlement in a country other than Norway such as the Hebrides or Scotland. The reference to a Skillen in Sweden in 1830 could mean that someone with the name emigrated from another country in Europe, perhaps the British Isles, where a group of Norse settlers acquired the name many centuries before. The presence of the name in Sweden could mean that it is of Swedish origin. However it is interesting to observe that the name occurs consistently more often in Sweden than in Norway from the 1800’s through to the early 21st century. The important consideration is that the earliest references to the name may be attributed to the Norse who had settled in other areas of Europe and perhaps acquired the name in their new place of settlement.


There are no listings for Skilling in the 2005 Norwegian telephone directory. There are 77 listings for the name Schilling with 57 of these in East Norway. There was only one listing for Schillen. The presence of the name Skilling/Skillen in Scandanavia from the late 17th century through to the late 19th century certainly gives some credibility to the hypothesis that the name has a Norse origin. The absence of the name Skilling and the frequency of the name Schilling may suggest a revision of the name overtime. It does seem unusual that the name Skilling, reported as late as the 1850’s in Swedish vital records would suddenly disappear. Perhaps the name changed over time from Skilling to Schilling or the name simply disappeared in Sweden.

It is interesting to note that the Skillen name is found less frequently in Irish telephone directories in 2005 than it does in Canada or the USA. Of course a telephone directory only includes the names of persons who choose to have their name and number made public. In Ireland as a result of “the troubles” many persons choose to not list their telephone numbers. The name Skillen never occurred in Ireland with high frequency and emigration has probably decimated its presence over the years.

The Norse origin of the surname seems plausible since the Vikings occupied much of north-western Europe beginning with raids near the end of the 8th century. The Vikings came from Norway, Sweden and Denmark. They invaded and established settlements in Europe as far east as Russia and west to Ireland and north-west in Iceland and Greenland. The Vikings occupied the islands off the coasts of Scotland such as the Orkneys and the Hebrides and the Isle of Man. They invaded England where one half of the island came under the control of the Norse. The Vikings also occupied Normandy which is now a northern province of France. These Norse-Normans would invade and conquer the British Isles in 1066. One hundred years later a Norman lord in England was approached by an Irish nobleman to bring his army to Ireland to wage war with one of the Irish king’s enemies.

After the Norman invasion of Ireland the English crown took possession of the land. During the reigns of Henry 8th and especially during the time of Elizabeth 1st efforts were made to entrench the Protestant religion by establishing English settlements beginning in the 1550’s. Several private plantations were attempted in Counties Laos and Offaly on the western edge of the Pale, in the south west of Ireland in Munster province, in Newry in the south of County Down, in the Ards peninsula in the north east of County Down and in County Antrim.

Perhaps the Skillen name came to Ireland with the establishment of primarily Scottish settlements in County Down by Hamilton and Montgomery in 1605. Many thousands of Scots most of whom were Presbyterians from the lowlands came to settle in County Down.

In 1610 the English crown annexed all of the land of the province of Ulster with the exception of County Down and County Antrim which had already been turned over to Hamilton and Montgomery, and turned the most arable land over to British land developers who brought in settlers from England and Scotland to establish plantations.

The strong presence of the Skillen name in County Down from the 17th century onward suggests that the Norse/Norman name Skilling/Skillen came to Ireland from Scotland, perhaps from the north of England or the nearby Norse occupied Islands off the coast of Scotland. Perhaps the first Skillen arrived from Scotland some years after Hamilton and Montgomery began developing their plantations in 1605. The fact that the name does not occur with much frequency in the other counties of Ulster would seem to strengthen the idea that the first Skillen came from Scotland and settled in County Down.