A visit to the Govan Stones

“When you stand next to one of Govan’s enormous ‘hogback’ stones and run your hand over its scale-like surface, a horde of unanswered questions assail your mind like an invading army. What on earth do they represent? Who were they made for? What was their purpose?” – Jo Woolf, April 2015.


One of my favourite websites is an online magazine called ‘The Hazel Tree’. Its creator, Jo Woolf, is a talented writer and photographer based in Scotland. Jo gives her readers regular reports on her visits to places of interest – such as castles, stone circles and old churches – while also highlighting the natural world of trees, flowers and wildlife. Her photography alone is worth a look, but she also has a great way with words. I definitely recommend a look around The Hazel Tree, which is one of those websites with something for everyone.

Yesterday, Jo posted an article on the early medieval sculpture at Govan Old Parish Church, which she recently visited with her husband (the renowned wildlife artist Colin Woolf). The article is very eloquent and evocative – in pictures as well as text – so I’m giving it a special mention here at Heart of the Kingdom. One highlight for me was Jo’s account of the hogbacks, which clearly made quite an impression (as they tend to do on a first encounter). The above quote is an extract from her description of these enigmatic monuments.

Here’s a link to the article: The Govan Stones by Jo Woolf.

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Jo also runs a blog called Jo’s Journal. She can be found on Twitter at @TheHazelTreeUK.

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Changing perceptions

Govan Old Parish Church

Govan Old Parish Church, home of the Govan Stones. In the foreground, a modern replica of the tenth-century Jordanhill Cross (Photo © B Keeling).

Govan’s collection of early medieval sculpture was featured in an interesting blogpost a few days ago. The post in question can be seen at the Industry Engagement blog run by the University of Glasgow’s College of Arts. It describes the university’s involvement in the conservation and re-display of the carved stones at Govan Old Parish Church, highlighting partnerships with local agencies and with the community as a whole. It focuses on Professor Stephen Driscoll who led the archaeological excavations in the churchyard 20 years ago and who has since been a key figure in raising public awareness of the sculpture. Professor Driscoll’s work at Govan is a good example of how universities can engage closely with communities on projects relating to local heritage. This kind of ‘knowledge exchange’ is summed up neatly in the blogpost, in a quote from Ranald MacInnes, Head of Heritage Management at Historic Scotland, who refers to “the role universities can play in helping communities see their heritage’s potential fully realised”.

At the end of the post is a short video in which Professor Driscoll discusses the historical significance of the sculpture and its value as a heritage asset to the people of Govan.

Link: Changing the Perception of Govan’s Heritage

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Placemaking at Govan

Govan Graving Docks

The Graving Docks: nature has already reclaimed this forlorn, abandoned relic of Govan’s shipbuilding heritage (© Tom Manley).

Placemaking is a concept with which I was unfamiliar until a few years ago, when I started getting involved with some of the heritage projects at Govan. Many of these projects have a creative focus in which art, architecture, history and archaeology work together to produce something tangible and beneficial for local people. Placemaking is another ingredient which can be added to the mix, being essentially a holistic approach to improving the built environment. It can be defined as ‘a multi-faceted approach to the planning, design and management of public spaces. Placemaking capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, with the intention of creating public spaces that promote people’s health, happiness, and wellbeing.’ *

An insightful commentator on the role of placemaking at Govan is photographer Tom Manley. Tom’s background is in architecture, which will come as no surprise to anyone who has seen his brilliant images of historic buildings. But Tom also has an eye on the wider perspective and has maintained a focus on urban regeneration issues: how an area finds appropriate ways of transforming itself. In both photography and writing he has a knack for identifying the layers of memory that lie beneath or behind the frontages of an urban landscape. At Govan, this awareness has inevitably brought him into contact with the town’s ancient past, and with an era when the original riverside settlement lay at the heart of the kingdom of Strathclyde.

The kingdom’s most visible legacy is a collection of sculptured stones at Govan Old Parish Church. Completion of a project to re-display these impressive monuments has enabled better public appreciation of their carvings. The re-display has been further enhanced by a graceful textile screen created by the Weaving Truth With Trust project. Seeing the stones in their new settings is obviously recommended, but the next best thing is a browse through Tom Manley’s photographs.

Tom has also been active in a campaign to preserve the historic area around Water Row which includes an ancient river-crossing, an early medieval ceremonial pathway and the site of the Doomster Hill – a massive artificial mound, demolished in the nineteenth century. The hill was almost certainly used as a venue for public assemblies 1000 years ago.

Govan Water Row

Looking east from Water Row over the Doomster Hill site. On the left, across the Clyde, the Riverside Museum can be seen in the distance (© Tom Manley).

Tom’s recent thoughts on placemaking at Govan can be seen in an article in the architectural journal Edge Condition, in which he takes the reader on a photographic tour of landmarks and townscapes. Positive connections between place and people are highlighted alongside challenging issues such as economic decline, derelict space and poor urban planning, Reminders of an ancient past can be seen in two images of Matt Baker’s ‘Assembly’ artworks which mark the probable outline of the Doomster Hill, together with a view (shown above) of the east side of Water Row where the great mound once stood.

Tom’s article, presented as a ‘photo story’, eloquently captures the unique character of Govan. Well worth a look if you’re interested in the town’s multi-layered history, rich architectural heritage and strong sense of community. Click the link below to access the journal, then turn to page 74 for Tom’s article ‘Govan: a reconnection’.

Edge Condition, January 2015

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I am grateful to Tom Manley for permission to reproduce the two photographs.

Take a look at Tom’s website to see more of his work at Govan. One of his stunning images of the early medieval carved stones appears in my latest book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age.

* The quote at the top of this blogpost is from Wikipedia. See also the definition of placemaking at the website of PPS (Project for Public Spaces).

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Govan Stones in the Top Ten

Govan Old Parish Church

Govan Old Parish Church: a must-see for fans of Dark Age sculpture.

Back in November, the Celebrate Scotland website posted a list of the ‘Top Ten’ places to see Celtic and Pictish carvings. Although the list isn’t a league table or ranking, it’s interesting to see ‘Govan School’ sculpture in the first two slots. Heading the list is the Barochan Cross, finest of the Strathclyde crosses, which now resides in Paisley Abbey. A brief description of this imposing monument is accompanied by a nice photograph. Second on the list is the collection of 31 stones at Govan Old Parish Church, represented by a view of the enigmatic hogbacks. With the exception of the National Museums of Scotland at Edinburgh, all of the other sites on the list are further north and east in Pictish territory, or north and west in the ancestral homeland of the Scots.

I have yet to visit three of the Top Ten: the Kildalton Cross on Islay, the Orkney Museum at Kirkwall and the Timespan Museum in Sutherland. These are on my wish-list, as are ‘refresher’ visits to the rest. Needless to say, I’m planning to renew my acquaintance with the Govan Stones in 2015 – and probably with the Barochan Cross too.

Here’s a link to the Celebrate Scotland list…

Ten top places to see Celtic and Pictish carvings in Scotland

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Christmas, 935

From the late ninth century to the mid-eleventh, when Govan was the chief ceremonial centre of the kingdom of Strathclyde, the king and his family probably spent their Christmases there. As the second most important date in the Christian calendar, December 25th was an opportunity for Dark Age monarchs to display their religious credentials. It was a day when the entire royal entourage or court, comprising all the chief nobles and senior clergy of a kingdom, gathered together for a solemn mass. In Strathclyde, this Christmas service would normally have taken place in the ancient church where Govan Old stands today. The mass would have been followed by a suitably lavish festive feast, perhaps at the royal hall across the river in Partick. We know of one year, however, when the king of Strathclyde spent Christmas in another land, far from the familiar fields of his own country.

The king in question was Owain, whose reign spanned the 920s and 930s – one of the most turbulent periods in Britain’s history. We first hear of him in 927, when he attended a meeting of important leaders at the River Eamont near Penrith. The meeting was summoned by Athelstan, king of England, the most powerful ruler in Britain at that time. Athelstan’s ambitions surpassed even those of his illustrious grandfather Alfred the Great, for he wanted to be acknowledged as ruler of the whole of Britain, from Orkney to Cornwall. He wanted all other folk – English, Welsh, Scots, Viking settlers and Strathclyde Britons – to recognise him as their overlord. Needless to say, not everyone was happy to oblige, but it may have seemed easier to just go along with his lofty ideas, at least for a while. At the meeting beside the River Eamont in 927, a number of prominent rulers – King Owain of Strathclyde, King Constantin of Alba (Scotland), King Hywel (from South Wales) and the English lord Ealdred of Bamburgh (in Northumbria) – all gave their pledge to Athelstan. They seemingly swore an oath of friendship with him, promising not to get too cosy with his Viking enemies.

The pact of peace seems to have endured for seven years until, in 934, Constantin of Alba and Owain of Strathclyde incurred Athelstan’s wrath.They broke their pledge, so Athelstan marched north to reassert his authority. With him on this expedition were Hywel and other Welsh kings, each leading a warband to bolster the English army. In a remarkable display of military power, Athelstan led his troops as far north as Aberdeenshire, while his fleet raided in Caithness. Both Constantin and Owain eventually surrendered, the price of their defeat being an oath of allegiance to Athelstan. Like the Welsh kings they now became his vassals or ‘under kinglets’ (Latin: subreguli). Henceforth, their kingdoms had to send regular tribute-payments to England while they themselves were obliged to attend the English court. How often they travelled south is unknown but we know of at least a couple of occasions when they were among Athelstan’s entourage, either together or singly. In 935, for instance, they were both present at Cirencester in Gloucestershire, for their names appear in a list of witnesses to a charter (a document recording a grant of royal land) issued at the old Roman city. At the end of the same year, Constantin was strangely absent when the English court assembled in Dorset, at the city of Dorchester. This was in the heartland of Wessex, the ancestral domain of Athelstan’s family. Here the English king issued another land-grant, and Owain was present as a witness.

The charter in question was dated 21 December, just four days before Christmas, so we can be fairly sure that Athelstan had decided to spend the festive season in Dorset. His whole entourage – family members, chief nobles and senior bishops – would have been obliged to remain with him, regardless of where else they wanted to be. So, too, would the vassal rulers from other lands, the subreguli who owed allegiance. Constantin of Alba didn’t turn up, presumably because he had shaken off the English yoke, but Owain and Hywel and other kings were in attendance. No doubt Owain wished he was spending Christmas in Govan, celebrating the Nativity with his own friends and family, but it was not to be. However, at some point in the following year, he followed Constantin’s example by rejecting English overlordship. These two kings then formed an alliance with the Vikings of Dublin and began to plot Athelstan’s downfall. In the autumn of 937, the three allies invaded England in great strength. Athelstan responded by defeating their combined armies at Brunanburh, one of the most famous battles of the Dark Ages.

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Appendix: The Christmas charter

Charters were usually written in Latin by scribes attached to the king’s court. The majority are records of gifts of royal land to monasteries. A detailed description of the land being granted was normally followed by a list of witnesses who ‘agreed and subscribed’ the grant, each marking his attendance with a small cross. The first name on the list was the grant-giver himself (the king), followed by senior clergy, vassal-rulers (subreguli) and members of the nobility.

The charter issued by Athelstan at Dorchester on 21 December 935 recorded a gift of land to Malmesbury Abbey in Wiltshire. After Athelstan himself, the most important witnesses were the two leading clergymen in England: the archbishops of Canterbury and York. These were followed by the vassal-rulers, with Owain of Strathclyde moving into top spot in the absence of Constantin of Alba. Hywel, second in seniority, came next. After Hywel the other Welsh kings stepped forward to mark their presence, but I’ve not included them in the extract shown here:

Ego Æthelstanus, ierarchia florentis Albionis prædictus rex, cum signo sanctæ semperque venerandæ crucis coroboravi hunc indiculum et subscripsi. + Ego Wulfhelmus Dorobernensis ecclesie archiepiscopus consensi et subscripsi. + Ego Wulfstanus Eboracensis ecclesie archiepiscopus consensi et subscripsi. + Ego Eugenius subregulus consensi et subscripsi. + Ego Howel subregulus consensi et subscripsi. + ….

[Translation] I, Athelstan, king of flourishing Albion in possession of the office, confirmed and subscribed this document with the mark of the holy and always to be venerated cross. + I, Wulfhelm, archbishop of the church of Canterbury, agreed and subscribed. + I, Wulfstan, archbishop of the church of York, agreed and subscribed. + I, Owain, under-kinglet, agreed and subscribed. + I, Hywel, under-kinglet, agreed and subscribed. +….

The full text of this charter can be found at The Electronic Sawyer. Owain’s attendance at the English court is discussed in my book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age (p. 83) and in Alex Woolf’s From Pictland to Alba (pp. 167-8).

King Owain of Strathclyde

The British Isles in AD 935, showing places mentioned in this blogpost.

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Free lecture on hogback stones

Govan hogback 5

Govan hogback (No.5)

This Friday, 12th December 2014, at the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) in Edinburgh, Dr Victoria Whitworth will be speaking about the hogback stones at Govan, Meigle and Inchcolm. I’m sorry to miss this lecture as it promises to be a fascinating discussion of a particularly enigmatic type of monument. Dr Whitworth, an expert on the Viking Age sculpture of Britain and Ireland, is a lecturer in the Centre for Nordic Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands. Her book Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England was published in 2004 and reissued as a paperback in 2012. In addition to her academic research she also writes historical fiction set in Viking times and has already produced two novels (The Bone Thief and The Traitors’ Pit).

Friday’s lecture is free and runs from 1.00pm to 2.00pm. The venue is the Conference Room at RCAHMS which is located at 16 Bernard Terrace (postcode EH8 9NX). Further details can be found at the Eventbrite booking page.

Victoria Whitworth has her own website as well as a staff page at UHI. She can also be followed on Twitter.

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Dumb Proctor Lochwinnoch
Renfrewshire-based bookseller and publisher Chris Morrison recently sent me these two Victorian sketches of the Dumb Proctor, an early medieval monument now used as a grave-marker in the public cemetery at Lochwinnoch. The images come from Volume 2 of Archaeological and Historical Collections of the County of Renfrew, published in 1890.

In a blogpost last year I mentioned that the Dumb Proctor was originally a free-standing cross carved in the last phase of the Govan sculptural style. I also showed my own attempt at a reconstruction of how it might look today if the cross-head hadn’t been cut off. The 1890 book was referred to in passing but I didn’t cite it in the bibliography at the end of the post.

I am grateful to Chris for providing the sketches, which I’ve added to my file of notes on this enigmatic monument. The Dumb Proctor is one of a number of Govan-style stones for which I’m hoping to compile detailed ‘biographies’ relating to history, art, preservation, re-use and conservation.

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Blogpost (2013): The Dumb Proctor of Lochwinnoch

The Grian Press (Scottish local history)
Grian Books (rare & out-of-print items)

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