The Bogle Stone at Govan

Bogle Stone at Govan Old
Most of the early medieval sculptured stones at Govan are recumbent cross-slabs, designed to be placed horizontally on top of graves. The basic decoration on these monuments is a cross surrounded by interlace patterns, with the cross itself usually being plain or – in some cases – decorated with more interlace. Most of the slabs have a plain border running around the edge.

All of the Govan cross-slabs were carved in the Viking Age (9th-11th centuries AD) as memorials to people of high status. All of them once lay in the graveyard of the old parish church (Govan Old) before being brought inside in modern times. A thousand years ago, Govan was the premier religious and ceremonial site in the kingdom of Strathclyde and it is likely that the ancient burial ground around the church was used not only by the kingdom’s nobility and senior clergy but also by the royal family. How many cross-slabs, hogback stones and free-standing crosses once stood there is unknown but more than 30 have survived – a remarkable figure at a site in the midst of so much modern urbanisation and heavy industry.

Govan cross slab

An example of an angle-knobbed cross-slab at Govan Old Parish Church.

A few of the surviving cross-slabs have an “angle knob” carved at each corner. The significance of these circular features is unknown but one plausible explanation is that they represent the corner-posts of a box shrine, a type of tomb in which the remains of an important person were interred so that the whole thing could be put on public display and suitably venerated. A cross-slab with similar angle knobs survives at Inchinnan, some miles west of Govan, which was also a major religious centre in Strathclyde. At both sites the stonecarvers may have been evoking the shape of a well-known shrine that was on public display somewhere within the kingdom. If so, this original “inspirational” monument is now lost, nor do we know where it was located or whose remains it contained. Assuming it existed, we might wonder if it housed the bones of a famous saint – perhaps even the mysterious Constantine to whom the parish church of Govan is dedicated. Constantine is presumed to have lived in the 6th century AD. The popular modern belief that his tomb is the richly carved sarcophagus discovered at Govan Old in 1855 has no basis in ancient tradition and is actually little more than a guess.

Long after the kings of Strathclyde had passed into distant memory, the ancient gravestones at Govan were re-used by a number of local families as memorials to their own deceased relatives. These families were regarded as having special status within the community, either because they held ancestral rights to farmland or because they were successful in their chosen trade. They began to re-use the ancient stones as a way of displaying their importance and prosperity. By associating themselves with the ornate sculpture of a remote past they were reinforcing their own social position. This kind of monumental recycling occurred during the 1600s and 1700s, a period when the main economic activities in Govan were farming and handloom weaving. The weavers were important folk and had their own guild – the Govan Weavers Society – which organised the annual Govan Fair (held from 1756 onwards). Local historian T.C.F. Brotchie, writing around 100 years ago, described the Govan weavers as “bonnet lairds” – people of prominence and importance in their own neighbourhood. It is likely that some of the recycled cross-slabs were placed above weavers’ graves.

Recycling took the form of a new inscription overlaying the ancient carvings. This usually gave the initials of the deceased person, sometimes with the year of their death. In only one instance is the full name shown, the stone in question being one of the angle-knobbed slabs. It was used as the grave-marker of a man called William Bogle.

Govan stones - Bogle stone

Victorian cast of the Bogle Stone. Photograph from Sculptured Stones in the Kirkyard of Govan (1899).

Who this person was, where he lived and when he died are unanswered questions. His inscription is sometimes thought to belong to the 1700s, but the style of the “W” appears on a slab re-used in 1634, so maybe William’s burial is also from around that time. People with the surname Bogle were fairly numerous across Lanarkshire in the 17th and 18th centuries and there were several branches of the family in Glasgow. One branch was associated with a place called Bogleshole near Cambuslang while another became wealthy merchants who later took part in Scotland’s trade with North America. Identifying the branch to which our William belonged is a matter of guesswork, not least because the records of births, marriages and deaths from Govan Old are incomplete and there is no register of burials for the period when the cross-slabs were recycled. However, he presumably lived within the parish of Govan at the time of his death. He may have been a weaver whose labours had elevated him to a position of status on the social ladder, earning him the right to be buried beneath one of the ancient carved stones.

Bogle Stone at Govan

Stone at Govan Old

Cross-slab recycled in 1634, showing a similar W to the one on the Bogle Stone.

I tentatively suggest that our William Bogle might be the one mentioned in an old document as the husband of a woman called Jonet Sheills. Jonet died in 1667 and was prosperous enough to leave behind a testament or will for the distribution of her possessions. She originally came from Partick on the north bank of the Clyde but she and William lived across the river in the Gorbals – an area formerly known as Little Govan – where William worked as a weaver. Gorbals was part of Govan parish until 1771.

While this identification is not certain (and would, in any case, be difficult to prove) it does seem to me quite possible. I’d like to delve a bit further among the various genealogical records to see if I can unearth more information about the mysterious William Bogle, not only out of curiosity but also because his story is part of the longer tale of the ancient monument on which his name was inscribed.

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Notes & references

JR Allen & J Anderson, The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1903). Part III, p.466.

Rosemary Cramp, ‘The Govan recumbent cross-slabs’, pp.55-61 in Anna Ritchie (ed) Govan and its Early Medieval Sculpture (Stroud, 1994) [at p.56]

Catherine Cutmore, ‘An Archaeological Study of the Memorial Stones in the Kirkyard of Govan Old Parish Church’ Annual Report of the Friends of Govan Old (1997), 8-18.

Betty Willsher, ‘Govan Old Parish Church Graveyard’ Annual Report of the Friends of Govan Old (1992), 16-23.

Information on Jonet Sheills, wife of the Gorbals weaver William Bogle, came from a register of testaments for 1564-1800 which I found online.

The initials “R D” above William’s name show that this stone has been re-used at least twice.

I’ve written a couple of earlier blogposts on recycled cross-slabs: the Bellahouston Stone and Govan Cross-Slab 32.

As with the Bellahouston Stone, the name “Bogle Stone” has been coined by me as a way of identifying a monument that would otherwise be known only as a number on a list. I think such names make the Govan stones less anonymous by giving them a bit of character and personality.

And finally…. in Scottish folklore, a bogle is a kind of hobgoblin.

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Catching up

It’s been fifteen months since I last posted anything on this blog. My absence could imply that not much has been happening as far as Govan’s heritage is concerned, or that I’m no longer involved with the projects there, or that my interests have moved on to other things. None of these explanations would be true. In fact, my long silence has been entirely due to having less time for blogging during this period, mainly because I was embroiled in writing a new book. I was also caught up with various other commitments unrelated to history and archaeology.


Things are now slowly returning to normal. The new book (Scotland’s Merlin) is finished and published and finally off my plate. I’m starting to squeeze out a bit more time for social media activity (such as blogging and tweeting) and catching up with stuff that has been on the back burner since last summer. The catch-up includes dealing with a backlog of news about Govan, some of which will no longer be news at all. So this blogpost is a quick update to get the rusty wheels at Heart of the Kingdom turning again. What follows is a brief summary of my involvement with events and activities at Govan in the past 12 months or so….

Govan Fair 2015

Govan Fair 2015: my article on the theme of “Congregation” for the programme.

Friday 5th June 2015 saw me attending the Govan Fair for the first time. It was the third consecutive year I’d written an article for the printed programme, so I felt it was high time I showed my face. The whole thing was fabulous and it was great to meet up with a number of friends I hadn’t seen in a while. In the early evening I joined architect Andrew McAvoy and his family in the circus tent to watch the crowning of the Queen of the Fair. The ceremony was attended by the First Minister of Scotland, the Provost of Glasgow and other dignitaries. Afterwards, the grand parade along the main street was a special highlight – a colourful pageant of floats, bands, dancers and walkers, with the venerable Sheep’s Heid borne aloft at the front. The weather stayed fine and the sunshine held right through to the end.

Govan Fair 2015

Govan Fair 2015: the coronation ceremony.

Govan Fair 2015

The Sheep’s Heid leading the parade.

My next trip to Govan was in November, when I was invited to give a lecture at the old parish church. The topic was my book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age, published in 2014, which deals with the period when the Govan Stones were carved (9th-11th centuries). I was very pleased that the audience was larger than I or the organisers had expected. Many familiar faces were present and it was nice to catch up with them. Also good to meet a lot of interesting new people and make a number of useful contacts.

Strathclyde & the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age

Travelling to Govan means a journey of more than 200 miles so it’s not something I can do on a whim. Hence, I don’t make the trip as often as I’d like, and I usually try to avoid tackling it in the winter. But this year I turned up in the middle of February, to attend another lecture at the church. The speaker was Victoria Whitworth, renowned expert on early medieval sculpture, who shared her incisive theory on the origins and purposes of hogback gravestones (five of which stood barely a few feet away). Victoria challenged my own preconceptions and left me thinking that we actually know a lot less about these enigmatic monuments than the old consensus would have us believe. Her suggestion that the distinctive shape represents a human body is certainly persuasive and seems to me to provide a better explanation than ‘Viking house’ or other theories.

Govan hogbacks

Three of the Govan hogbacks (or “bodystones”?)

I’ll end with news of the recent publication of a graphic novel entitled Quest for the Thirteen Treasures of Govan and Glasgow. This has been produced to accompany a heritage trail which includes various places in Govan as well as the Riverside Museum across the Clyde. The storyline follows Merlin the wizard and his mini-dragon companion as they seek the fabled Thirteen Treasures, some of which are cunningly disguised as architectural features in the modern townscape. I blogged about the trail in 2013 when it was in its early stages. A separate blogpost on the graphic novel is in the pipeline but I’ve mentioned it here because it’s another of the projects I’ve been involved with in the past 12 months.

Thirteen Treasures of Govan

And that’s the end of this update, which heralds a long-overdue return to blogging about Govan.

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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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