The origin of the name SKILLEN is uncertain but preference is given to a Nordic root. One authority, O’Hart, gives Norse or English as the origin. The name was probably carried by the Norse into northern France and retained by them even after they adopted the customs and language of the Normans. The English and French surname of Skillen may have been derived from the Old Norman SKILAMAOR, meaning “the trustworthy and honest man”. The name was brought into England with the Norman Conquest of 1066. Early records of the name mention Skilamann who appears in the year 1095. In Norse the name Skilling is the plural of Skillen, as in one Skillen tribe and several Skilling members.
In Ireland the name originally occurred most commonly in the Mourne area of County Down. In the 1830’s the name was almost exclusive to County Down with very infrequent occurrences in Cork. The name is found in the northern part of County Down by the late 18th Century, especially in Belfast. Although not evident in Downpatrick in the 1830 it occurs there frequently by 1860. Records reveal that Irish immigrants with the name Skillen arrived in the English colonies of America by the early eighteenth century. Many of these Skillen immigrants were Presbyterians.
It is unknown when the surname Skillen was introduced to County Down. The first Skillen could have come from England before 1600 or later in the eighteenth century from Scotland as settlers on the large plantations.
The name is almost exclusively identified in Ireland with Protestant denominations although with intermarriage there are occurrences of Catholics bearing the Skillen surname. In Canada the children of Francis Skillen, baptized Church of Ireland and Mary Kerns, baptized Roman Catholic, were raised in the church of their mother. The Catholic descendents of Francis and Mary are an anomaly amongst the other settler branches of the Skillen family in Canada. Most of the Skillen settlers to British North America were probably Scots-Irish or members of other Protestant sects. Some of those colonists came to Canada as New Empire Loyalists. A prominent New Empire Loyalist family of Skillens settled in St. Martins, New Brunswick. Other branches of the family came directly from Ireland and settled in the Eastern Townships of Quebec and in Ontario. Francis Skillen and Mary Kerns came with two children to the Lower Gatineau valley in western Quebec in 1834. Two Skillen twin brothers came to the Gatineau valley near Low Quebec in the mid to late 19th century but one moved to Western Canada and the other is reported to have gone down east. There were members of another Skillen family that came to Bytown and later worked as stone masons on the parliament buildings. While the Skillen surname is found rather infrequently in Canada it is represented in almost every province with highest frequency in Ontario and British Columbia.