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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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The Thirteen Treasures of Govan

Govan - Assembly - public artwork

One of Matt Baker’s ‘Assembly’ sculptures (the curve of stone marks the approximate outline of the Doomster Hill)


Last Saturday, November 23rd, I visited Govan to participate in a day of very interesting events. The day was just one part of an entire weekend of talks, tours and conversation around a number of heritage projects under the Hidden Histories banner. My own involvement was with a project called ‘Re-imagining the Govan Heritage Trail’, which aims to re-vamp an existing trail by creating a number of smaller walks dealing with different aspects of the town’s rich history. The project has been initiated by artist Tara S Beall as part of a practice-based programme of doctoral research with the University of Glasgow and the Riverside Museum. Staff from the Museum are closely involved in the Heritage Trails project, together with representatives from other local organisations and community groups. I was invited by Tara to give input to a new trail dealing with ancient times and the period when Govan was a major royal centre in the kingdom of Strathclyde.

A week or more of events ran from 15th to 24th November. As well as the trails project, two others were also celebrated as part of the Hidden Histories venture: Women’s Histories & Protests on the Clyde and Isabella Elder – Great & Good (Mrs Elder was the wife of shipbuilding magnate John Elder). The busy schedule for Saturday 23rd included an afternoon walk along the Ancient Govan trail, followed by an evening of talks in Govan Old Parish Church.

The new trail is more than a tour of the area’s early history. It’s a quest for the ‘Thirteen Treasures of Govan’, a collection of objects dotted around the town or in the Riverside Museum across the Clyde. The idea comes from the legendary Tri Thlws ar Ddeg Ynys Prydain (‘Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain’), a list of magic items associated with figures famed in the lore of medieval Wales. Many of the Welsh Thirteen Treasures have a connection with North Britain, and a few have a connection with Strathclyde. These form a nucleus around which the Thirteen Treasures of Govan have been created.

Govan Heritage Trail

Cover of fold-out leaflet for the new heritage trail


The Thirteen Treasures of Govan are as follows. An asterisk indicates an item on the original Welsh list.
1. The Ring of Queen Languoreth, wife of Rhydderch Hael, king of Dumbarton.
2. The Cauldron of Dyrnwch the Giant. *
3. The Crozier.
4. The Whetstone of Tudwal, father of Rhydderch Hael. *
5. The Harp.
6. The Horn of Bran. *
7. The Chessboard of Gwenddoleu. *
8. The Canoe.
9. The Halter of Clyddno Eiddyn. *
10. The Cloak of Arthur. *
11. The Ship.
12. The Bell of of St Mungo of Glasgow (St Kentigern).
13. The Sword of Rhydderch Hael. *

The objective of someone embarking on the quest is to locate the Thirteen Treasures in their present-day locations, so that they can be pointed out to none other than Merlin, who will then be able to take them away for safekeeping. Some items are fairly easy to identify: the Canoe, for example, is a hollowed-out logboat retrieved from the Clyde and now displayed in the Riverside Museum. Others are concealed in more subtle ways: the Cauldron, upside down, is now represented by the upper part of the Aitken Memorial Fountain (an impressive piece of Victorian street adornment at Govan Cross). Merlin himself may have been a native of North Britain and is sometimes associated with Strathclyde. One legend says that he met St Mungo of Glasgow, while another has him being hunted by King Rhydderch, who is identified in one tradition as the father of St Constantine of Govan.

Aitken Memorial Fountain - Govan

The Aitken Memorial Fountain


The trail will give visitors plenty of entertainment, while introducing them to Govan’s rich heritage. Along the way, they will meet genuine relics from early medieval times, such as the ‘Viking’ hogback tombstones and the ornately carved Sarcophagus, as well as a reminder of the Doomster Hill which served as a ceremonial venue for the kings of Strathclyde. Items such as the Horn of Bran, represented on the trail by the siren of the Fairfield shipyard, connect the glories of the remote past with those of the shipbuilding era. Fairfields is now part of BAE Systems and its future has recently come under the spotlight in the UK media.

Last Saturday’s inaugural walk along the Ancient Govan trail was led by Tam McGarvey of the GaelGael Trust (a community heritage organisation who build wooden boats based on old Scottish vessels such as the birlinn or Highland galley). Tam guided an enthusiastic group of people from a starting point at the Riverside Museum to Govan on the opposite bank, via a ferry which was laid on especially for the weekend’s events (it’s usually a seasonal service). The tour was a great success, and Tam was an excellent guide. With his deep knowledge of local heritage he was able to make connections between different layers of history, drawing comparisons between the era of industrial greatness and its ancient precursor.

Riverside Museum

Tall ship ‘The Glenlee’ moored on the Clyde at the Riverside Museum


In the evening, a larger group gathered inside Govan Old Parish Church to hear three talks relating to local heritage. The first, on Ancient Govan and the Thirteen Treasures heritage trail, was given by me. The second was presented by public artist Matt Baker, who gave a virtual tour of his evocative heritage-related sculptures around the Riverside Housing Estate. One of Matt’s artworks is called Assembly and commemorates the long-vanished Doomster Hill – a place of assembly in the time of the kings of Strathclyde. The third presentation was a screening of archive films of old Govan, with a commentary by Liam Paterson from the Scottish Screen Archive. It was a very interesting evening, clearly enjoyed by everyone who attended. Tara and the team did a great job in bringing it all together.

Afterwards, a few of us ambled across the street to continue our conversations in a corner of Brechin’s Bar. Adjourning to this characterful old tavern seemed a good way to end what had been a fascinating and fruitful day of heritage events.

Govan Heritage Trail

Lapel badge for the new heritage trail

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Notes & links

I would like to thank Tara Beall for inviting me to participate in the project, and also Maria Leahy and Alice Gordon for audiovisual support during my presentation at Govan Old.

A project overview of ‘Re-imagining the Govan Heritage Trail’ can be found on the Hidden Histories website
- which also advertised Saturday evening’s programme and a schedule of the entire weekend’s activities.
The same site has a useful article by Frazer Capie of the Govan Stones Project on the ideas behind the Thirteen Treasures heritage trail.

Matt Baker’s public artworks in Govan can be seen at his website Sacrificial Materials.

To keep up-to-date with these and other projects, take a look at the Glorious Govan Facebook page or follow the Govan Beacon on Twitter.

Traditional boat-making and other craft activities undertaken by the GalGael Trust are described on their website.

The Scottish Screen Archive is part of the National Library of Scotland.

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Doomster Hill: how old?

Govan Doomster Hill

Govan in 1757, sketched by Robert Paul. Doomster Hill at left.


The Doomster Hill was a massive artifical mound that dominated the Govan landscape until its destruction in the mid-nineteenth century. The above illustration from 1757 shows it with a tiered or ‘stepped’ profile, a shape characteristic of sites used as assembly-places in the Viking period. It seems likely that it acquired this profile on the orders of the kings of Strathclyde, perhaps around AD 900 when the kingdom had close political contact with powerful Viking warlords in Dublin who had a man-made mound of similar shape. The Old Norse word for assembly is thing (pronounced ‘ting’) so it may not be too wide of the mark to speak of Govan’s ancient mound as a ‘thing site’. We can imagine it being used by the kings of Strathclyde as a venue for ceremonies and as a focus for public gatherings. It would have been part of an early medieval ‘ritual landscape’ which included not only a royal burial-ground and church (on a site now occupied by Govan Old) but also a processional pathway linking church and hill.
Govan Doomster Hill

The 1757 sketch was re-worked nearly 150 years later by T.C.F. Brotchie.


In the past couple of years I’ve developed a keen interest in the Doomster Hill. This has been boosted in 2013 by my participation in a community heritage project called ‘Some Thing Is Missing’ (‘STIM’ for short). STIM’s main objective is ‘to bring together young volunteers from various backgrounds to investigate the history and heritage in Govan surrounding the mysterious historical site at Water Row: the Doomster Hill‘. The Thing in the title is the assembly or parliament held on the hill in the time of the kings of Strathclyde. Sometime before 1850, this huge ancient monument was completely destroyed, so it is therefore Missing from Govan’s present-day landscape. I am one of several ‘expert witnesses’ who have been providing historical, archaeological and geographical background so that the STIM team members (known as ‘landscape detectives’) get an idea of the different contexts in which the Doomster Hill site has functioned over time. In a series of workshops we’ve been exploring the layers of history that have made this part of Govan so significant.

One layer that I had not previously studied in detail is the period before the emergence of the kingdom of Strathclyde in the fifth century AD. I knew of a people recorded by the Romans as Damnonii (or Dumnonii) who inhabited the Clyde valley in the Iron Age, but I had never ventured further back into the Bronze Age or earlier. It’s a knowledge gap I needed to fill. Fortunately, at the first STIM workshop in July this year, Ingrid Shearer of Northlight Heritage gave an excellent introduction to prehistoric settlement in the lands around the River Clyde. This whetted my appetite to learn more, especially about the origins of the Doomster Hill itself. Ingrid and other archaeologists have surmised that the hill could have been a prehistoric barrow adapted and re-shaped by the kings of Strathclyde. An old report of bone fragments being dug out of the summit in the 1830s seems to support this theory, and my own discussions with Ingrid have persuaded me that it is probably correct.

Govan Doomster Hill

The Doomster Hill: a prehistoric burial-mound?


At the beginning of September, I returned to Govan for another STIM workshop with the landscape detectives. This involved a morning session in which we examined the history of Viking Age assembly sites, followed by an afternoon walkabout around the western edge of the Riverside Housing Estate (where the Doomster Hill once stood). The detectives told me of an earlier walkabout in the same area with Ingrid Shearer and prehistorian Kenny Brophy, an account of which is available at Kenny’s blog. I’ve posted a link at the end of this post. Suffice to say, I’m now even more convinced that Govan’s ancient hill was already thousands of years old when the kings of Strathclyde turned it into a thing site. Interestingly, Kenny observes that the early medieval arrangement of hill, church and royal pathway might simply have maintained a ritual landscape whose origins reach far back into the remote past. He notes that Govan’s two historical eras of greatness – as a royal capital in the Viking Age and as a major shipbuilding centre 800 years later – may have been preceded by an even older one that we can barely glimpse today:
‘ … it seems very likely that the Doomster Hill started life not 1200 years ago, but perhaps more than 4000 years ago, a massive Neolithic or Bronze Age burial mound. If this were to be the case, then Govan had a third era of greatness, as a centre of power and pilgrimage in prehistory.’

Govan Doomster Hill

The Doomster Hill re-shaped as a stepped mound or thing site, c.900 AD. Did it still contain a prehistoric burial, traces of which were rediscovered in the 1830s?



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Links:

Kenny Brophy’s blogpost

Some Thing Is Missing: the landscape detectives have a project blog, a Facebook page and a Twitter account. The project is based at Fablevision on Water Row, overlooking the Doomster Hill site.

The Doomster Hill gets a mention at the website of the international Thing Sites project.

Northlight Heritage is involved in a number of projects at Govan including the recent redisplay of the Govan Stones.

My online article on the Doomster Hill gives a historical summary of the site.

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Centres of power

In the past few days I’ve been working up a new post for my other blog Senchus. I’ll be looking at a controversial topic: the famous battle of Brunanburh, fought in AD 937 at an unidentified location somewhere in what is now northern England. The victor at Brunanburh was Athelstan, king of the English, a grandson of Alfred the Great. The leaders on the losing side were King Anlaf (‘Olaf’) of Dublin, King Constantin of Alba (Scotland) and King Owain of Strathclyde. In the blogpost I’ll calculate the distances travelled by the respective armies to a couple of places suggested as the site of the battle, and then mark the routes on a map. I’ll take the starting-point for each army as the leader’s principal centre of power or ‘royal capital’.

The map below represents an early stage in the exercise. It shows the ‘capitals’ of the main protagonists in the Brunanburh campaign: Winchester, chief power centre of the West Saxon dynasty who ruled most of Anglo-Saxon England in the tenth century; Dublin, headquarters of the most powerful Viking kingdom in the British Isles; Scone, home of the Gaelic-speaking kings of Alba; and Govan, the royal capital of Strathclyde. Two other places are also shown: York, the great stronghold of Anglo-Scandinavian Northumbria; and Bamburgh, an ancient coastal fortress in Bernicia (the northern part of Northumbria) held by a hereditary line of English lords.

Each of these places was a hub of political authority and military strength, and each played a role – directly or indirectly – in the sequence of events leading up to the Brunanburh campaign. Five of the six – Winchester, Dublin, York, Scone and Govan – were the most important centres of power in tenth-century Britain and Ireland. Govan’s membership of this elite quintet has frequently been overlooked but cannot be denied. Sculpture and archaeology confirm its status as one of the major royal capitals of the Viking Age.

AD 937

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