I sent this mail to the Eayrs mailing list in reply to a query: my correspondent (Barbara Eyre) suggested I post this as a blog entry as others might be interested. I do so below in minimally edited form: experienced family historians may want to give this post a miss!
Barbara had asked:
Got me thinking ... is it true that all the name variations for Eyre/Ayre come from one source ... or is that an urban legend of sorts? Just wondering if that means that all of us can claim an Ayr, or an Eayre, or an Eayrs at one point or another. Makes it difficult when looking through records. We might come across someone will similar information, but that last name is spelled differently ... is he truly one of mine or just someone with a similar name? That sort of thing.
To be helpful, Barbara, we have to have evidence at every stage of the way. It is true that before the 18th century spelling could be arbitrary, and often affected by such facts as the presence or absence of aspiration in a local dialect ('Hairs' or 'Eayrs' depended on how you spoke). The 's' on the end was a common denominator of a son, so 'Eayrs' could well be 'Eyre's son'. Or not. And people changed their names for other reasons: to start a new life, to escape the law, because immigration officials wrote down what they heard or, in some cases, what they felt like, etc.
So, Barbara, the only way we can progress is often painstakingly slowly. I once spent four days in the Lincolnshire Records Office, ruining my eyesight with roll after roll of semi-legible microfilm, comparing Parish and Bishop's transcripts, and finally got the single one word clue that led me to the Parish I wanted. Similarly, I once got a family vault opened in a privately owned cemetery to check whether the person buried as Edward might actually have been the Edmund I was looking for (the copper plate on the coffin showed that he was - correcting an expensively incised tomb stone was clearly felt not worth it).
So, to answer your question shortly, we can 'claim' what we want and put the information in our trees, but unless the data is sourced it is just anecdotal. No harm in that, I suppose, but I at least make a clear difference between what I can attest through documentation (which can also be erroneous, by the way) and what comes through hearsay. Fortunately most modern genealogical software allows you to source all your data, so this is not a major problem.
It has always been said that my mother's family descend from the famous explorer Captain Cook, - so much so that everyone in the family swears by it. I have spent some time looking at the known descent of Cook as well as my mother's ascent, and have not even found a regional connection, let alone one of name or blood. Will this shake the belief of my relatives? Not one jot, but then again they are not attempting a family history study.
And in that last word, 'study'. lies the key. Family history research, if done properly, requires academic rigour. We need to apply the same principles of research methodology as if we were conducting a scientific experiment.I was lucky: my father was a research scientist and taught me good principles, and as I teach study skills at university myself I have a good grasp of the discipline required. And practice makes perfect.
So, Barbara - the best advice I can give is not to start with preconceived ideas unless the evidence is strong; to work one step at a time; to accept that surname spelling is often arbitrary; not to speculate overmuch about whole swathes of surnames (look at the surname distribution lists and you will be surprised how well these map into different areas) and to forgive me for writing such a long post early on a Monday morning.