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Strathclyde crosses

Just a quick note to say I’ve uploaded a new post about the sculptured crosses of the Govan School at my Strathclyde blog. It’s basically a whistle-stop tour of this type of monument, with most of the surviving examples listed. Click the link below to take a look.

Strathclyde & the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age: Strathclyde crosses

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The Bellahouston Stone

Bellahouston Stone Govan
A number of the early medieval cross-slabs at Govan were re-used as tombstones by local families in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They were usually carved with the initials of the deceased and, in some cases, with the date of death. This kind of re-use inevitably damaged the carved patterns from ancient times.

One of the re-used slabs has a rounded end which forms a curving arch around the head of the cross. Within the arched space is a post-medieval inscription: BELLIY HOUSTONS. Although no initials or date are visible, this stone was almost certainly re-used by the Rowans, an old Govan family whose residences included the Bellahouston estate on a road leading out to Paisley. Members of the Rowan family were very prominent in the local community from the 1600s onwards, right through to the nineteenth century. They played leading roles in important institutions such as the parish church and the Weavers Society.

The date of the inscription is unknown but it was probably carved after 1726. In that year, the Bellahouston estate came into the possession of the Rowans when James Rowan of Marylands purchased it. The ancient stone at Govan was presumably used as a memorial for this branch of the family, perhaps marking the grave of James himself. The original decoration on the stone, comprising a cross with interlace patterns, was probably carved in the tenth century. A detailed description appears in The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (ECMS), a magisterial survey of Dark Age sculpture published in 1903:

‘On the cross a three-cord plait, double-beaded. On the background of the cross (above the top arm) the modern inscription BELLIY HOUSTONS; (on each side of the arm) a three-cord plait; (on the left of the shaft) a chain of rings with bands passed through them at right angles, double-beaded; (on the right of the shaft) a four-cord (?) plait, double-beaded; and (below the bottom of the shaft) triangular interlaced work No.732, double-beaded.’

ECMS included illustrations of some of the Govan cross-slabs but not the Bellahouston one. The illustrations were reproduced from photographs in Sir John Stirling Maxwell’s Sculptured Stones in the Kirkyard of Govan (1899) which included the entire Govan collection. Interestingly, the images in Sir John’s book didn’t depict the actual monuments but plaster casts of them. The picture below shows the cast of the Bellahouston Stone alongside Sir John’s map of the kirkyard, on which I’ve marked the slab’s nineteenth-century location.

Bellahouston Stone Govan

Defacing ancient sculpture would now be considered an act of vandalism or, to give it a modern label, a ‘heritage crime’. Three hundred years ago, the Rowan family and their contemporaries would have taken a different view, one which was neatly explained by Catherine Cutmore in her study of the Govan gravestones:
‘The re-use of sites and monuments is a very ancient custom. People can draw on the power of the past and ancient rights in order to maintain their own power, especially in times of social stress. Monuments can be used in a similar way. They are visible evidence of earlier people and earlier power. ….The re-use of the older monuments was an effective way of expressing ancient ties to the land and emphasising status.’

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Notes

The name ‘Bellahouston Stone’ has been coined by me as a convenient header for this blogpost. The cross-slab is simply designated ‘Govan No.6′ in ECMS and ‘No.24′ by Sir John Stirling Maxwell. I think ‘Bellahouston Stone’ sounds less anonymous. It gives the slab a bit of individuality, like the names given to Pictish stones.

Reference: Cutmore, Catherine, ‘An Archaeological Study of the Memorial Stones in the Kirkyard of Govan Old Parish Church’. Society of Friends of Govan Old Annual Report (1997)

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Weaving Truth With Trust

Govan Old textile screen

The Victorian stained glass windows of Govan Old, seen through the textile screen (photograph © T Clarkson)


On Saturday 19th July I attended a ceremony at Govan Old Parish Church – the grand unveiling of the Weaving Truth With Trust textile screen. I’ve mentioned WTWT in an earlier blogpost and have been following its progress since it started a couple of years ago. The project has involved a number of organisations and individuals who have given various kinds of support but the whole thing has been guided by the creative energies of a four-strong team comprising artists Geraldine Greene, Alexandra Bowie and Fiona Fleming with archaeologist Ingrid Shearer from Northlight Heritage.

WTWT is closely connected with the Govan Stones project which is working to raise the public profile of the early medieval sculpture housed inside the church. The screen was designed to reflect not only the craftsmanship that produced the stones but also the artistry of later times when Govan had a flourishing textile industry. ‘Weaving Truth With Trust’ was the motto of the Govan Weavers Society, an organisation formed in the eighteenth century to support local handloom weavers and their families.

The WTWT screen hangs on a frame fitted to an arched opening inside Govan Old, thus forming a stunning backdrop to the Dark Age hogback stones. Woven from lace, the screen is a delicate, translucent piece of artwork with an almost ethereal aura. It not only compliments the five hogbacks but offers a vivid contrast to their hard, solid presence.

Photographs from the event of 19th July can be seen at the WTWT Facebook page.

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A date for the diary

Govan Sarcophagus

Detail from the Govan Sarcophagus (9th century AD)


If you’ve not yet feasted your eyes on the early medieval stones in Govan Old Parish Church, a great opportunity is coming up in a couple of weeks. No need to wait until the summer, when the church officially opens its doors for the main visitor season. Put this date in your diary: 12th April. Turn up in Govan on that day and see these masterpieces of Celtic sculpture in their newly re-designed settings.

The following details are from the Facebook page of the Govan Stones project:
On Saturday 12th of April, Govan Old invites you to a free open day for all the family, 12pm-4pm. Find out more about the story behind the Govan Stones, and see the beautiful stained glass windows in this hidden architectural gem. Teas and coffees will be served and fun activities for children will bring Govan’s early past to life.

Govan Old Parish Church

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Govan Old Parish Church cross slab
The collection of carved stones at Govan Old Parish Church is one of the great treasures of Dark Age Celtic sculpture in Britain. With an impressive thirty-one monuments, the Govan collection is the third largest in Scotland. Sadly, this figure represents only two-thirds of the total seen by visitors 100 years ago. At that time, the stones were still outside, in the churchyard, mostly dotted around among later memorials. Only the Sarcophagus and three others had any kind of protection, being housed in a small outhouse in the south-east corner of the churchyard. The total number of stones was forty-six, of which sixteen have since been lost. The missing ones were all of the same type: the recumbent cross-slab, designed to be placed lengthways on top of a grave. They all had a large cross carved on the front, surrounded by Celtic interlace in the ‘chunky’ style favoured by the Govan stonecarvers. By the end of the nineteenth century, after a thousand years of exposure to the elements, many of the ancient carvings had worn away.

One of the lost slabs is shown in the illustration above, reproduced from Sir John Stirling-Maxwell’s Sculptured Stones in the Kirkyard of Govan, a photographic record published in 1899. Sir John numbered all the ancient stones in sequence, designating this slab as ‘Number 29′. Although he didn’t provide a written description, he gave us our only pictorial record of this unique monument. His privately published volume is, in fact, a definitive catalogue of all forty-six stones (plus the shaft of the ‘Govan Cross’ which had been moved to the garden of Jordanhill House in Partick). In 1903, a description of Number 29 appeared in Allen and Anderson’s magisterial survey of Dark Age sculpture, The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (usually abbreviated as ECMS). Sir John’s numbering system wasn’t followed by Allen and Anderson, who instead catalogued the slab as ‘Number 18′ in their own listing of the Govan collection. Here’s how they described its carvings:

‘The cross, devoid of ornament, and the top arm defaced by the modern initials W.I. On the background (to the left and right of the top arm, and above it) traces of interlaced-work; (to the left and right of the shaft) traces of interlaced-work; and (below the bottom of the shaft) sculpture defaced.’

The initials were probably applied in the seventeenth or eighteenth century and show that this slab was re-used at least once after the medieval period. Many of the ancient stones at Govan were recycled in this way, sometimes with the year of re-use as well as the initials of the deceased. The identity of ‘W.I.’ is unknown but he or she would have belonged to a prominent family in pre-industrial Govan.

Sir John Stirling-Maxwell published a plan of the churchyard (see below) showing the positions of all the stones at a date roughly in the mid-1890s. This enables us to imagine where cross-slab 29 lay in relation to other Dark Age monuments before the beginning of the twentieth century, by which time many of the slabs had been laid in a line along the churchyard’s eastern wall. It is unlikely that Sir John’s plan shows Number 29’s original position in early medieval times: old records of the parish indicate that ancient stones were often moved to suit the pattern of newer burials.

Govan Old Parish Church
Archaeologists date the carvings on the Govan cross-slabs to the period 900 to 1100 AD. The absence of secular motifs such as warriors and animals suggests that these were gravestones for the clergy – members of the local religious community – when Govan was a centre of royal power in the kingdom of Strathclyde, but it is also possible that they commemorated the warrior aristocracy as well. The names of the deceased are unknown, for no early inscriptions are visible on any of the Govan stones.

What happened to Number 29 and why is it missing? The answer to these questions brings us to one of the most tragic chapters in the long history of the Govan Stones.

In 1908, the Sarcophagus was removed from the outhouse in the south-east corner of the churchyard and brought inside the church, where it has remained ever since. The outhouse was becoming damp and dilapidated, and there was much concern about the condition of the other three stones left behind. Someone suggested moving all forty-six ancient stones inside the church for safekeeping but, unfortunately, this did not happen. Many of the cross-slabs and three of the five hogbacks still lay next to the churchyard’s eastern wall, exposed to the elements. Eventually, in 1926, the best-preserved stones – the hogbacks, the Sun Stone and the Cuddy Stane – joined the Sarcophagus inside the church. Two years later, the shaft of the Govan Cross was returned from Jordanhill House and also placed inside the church. Today it is sometimes known as ‘The Jordanhill Cross’ in memory of its period of exile on the other side of the Clyde. More stones were subsequently brought in from the churchyard, taking the total inside the church to twenty-six. The only ones still left outside were a cross-slab near the west door and another twenty slabs along the eastern perimeter wall.

Govan Old Parish Church

Hogbacks and cross-slabs against the east wall, c.1900.


In 1973, a huge factory building in the disused Harland and Wolff shipyard was demolished. Part of this structure stood near the east wall of the churchyard and, during the demolition process, a large amount of debris tumbled over the wall. The twenty ancient slabs lying on the grass were damaged, many of them severely, and only four survived. ‘Number 29′ was among the casualties. With its fellow-victims it is now little more than a ghostly photographic image in the pages of Sir John Stirling-Maxwell’s book.

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Notes

Much of the information in this blogpost comes from ‘The Govan collection in the context of local history’, a chapter by Tom Davidson-Kelly in Govan and its Early Medieval Sculpture, edited by Anna Ritchie (1994). Reverend Davidson-Kelly was formerly the minister of Govan Old and a key figure in the preservation and conservation of the ancient stones.

The initials W.I. carved on ‘Number 29′ can also be seen on one of the surviving cross-slabs (Stirling-Maxwell’s ‘Number 27′) with the date 1634. Maybe these two stones were re-used by the same family, to commemorate namesakes from different generations?

The photographs in the Stirling-Maxwell book don’t show the actual stones themselves but copies cast in plaster by a certain ‘Mr J.W. Small of Stirling’.

In this blogpost, I have referred to the lost cross-slab using the Stirling-Maxwell designation ’29’ rather than the ’18’ of ECMS. This is mainly to reflect the fact that Sir John has left us the only visual image of this vanished relic from the Dark Age kingdom of Strathclyde.

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Govan hogback goes South

Govan hogback

Govan hogback (known as ‘Govan 2′) inside the old parish church.


One of the famous Govan hogbacks is going to the British Museum. There it will join other artefacts in an exhibition called Vikings: Life and Legend which runs until June. The loan is temporary, of course, so the stone will eventually come home. No doubt it will attract many admirers during its stay in London, especially among people who have never seen a hogback gravestone before. Although all hogbacks are impressive, those at Govan are truly awesome, being the largest examples of the type.

The 400-mile journey is the longest ever undertaken by one of the Govan stones.

Not since the year 935, when King Owain made a couple of trips to Wessex, has the South of England received such an esteemed visitor from the ancient capital of Strathclyde.

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Check out these media reports:
BBC News
The Scotsman
STV News
The Herald
and the exhibition webpage:
Vikings: Life and Legend at the British Museum

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A year of progress

Looking back on the last day of 2013, I reckon this has been a good year for early medieval Govan. Awareness of the town’s history during the ‘Dark Ages’ has certainly increased, not only in Govan itself but further afield.

Highlights of the year include:

- the unveiling of the re-displayed stones at the old parish church, a project described in a post at my Senchus blog

- renewed local interest in the long-lost Doomster Hill, ceremonial mound of the kings of Strathclyde, via excellent work undertaken by the Some Thing Is Missing project team

- a new heritage trail exploring the town’s ancient past through the legendary Thirteen Treasures Of Govan

. . . . . all of which bodes well for 2014.

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