Archive for January, 2012

Govan Sarcophagus
The famous sarcophagus at Govan was discovered on Friday 7 December 1855 by the sexton of the old parish church as he dug a new grave in the kirkyard. It lay a couple of feet below the surface, having been deliberately buried at some unknown date. Modern scholars now believe that it was carved around AD 900, that it orginally contained a human corpse and that it was created as a public monument to be displayed and viewed. Soon after it was unearthed, perhaps within days, it was moved to another part of the kirkyard and enclosed by wooden railings. During this process it sustained significant damage, especially to the two long side-panels containing the richest sculpture. The horizontal crack seen in the drawing above (and still visible today) is the most obvious of these injuries.

The first published report of the monument’s discovery appeared in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. The author, James Cruickshank Roger, had been elected to the Fellowship of the Society in 1854. He lived at Cross Bank Cottage in Govan. Although his paper was not published in PSAS until 1857 it had evidently been presented to the Society a year earlier: the date ‘January 12, 1856’, five weeks after the sarcophagus was found, appears at the end. As well as giving a full account of the discovery Rogers included detailed descriptions of other Govan stones – notably the hogbacks – whose existence had been known for some time. The sketches that originally accompanied the paper were not, however, published alongside it, as an editorial note explained:
‘Sketches of these different sculptured stones were exhibited, and presented to
the Society ; but, as drawings of them have since been included in the Spalding
Club volume of Sculptured Stones, collected and edited by John Stuart, Esq.,
it was not thought necessary to have them re-engraved.’

The work referred to here was the first volume of The Sculptured Stones of Scotland, a two-part study edited by John Stuart, at that time the Secretary of the Society of Antiquaries. It was published in 1856 by the Spalding Club of Aberdeen, another antiquarian body in which Stuart played an active role. Highly regarded by Stuart’s peers, and still consulted by today’s scholars, Sculptured Stones was a showcase for the artistic talents of Scotland’s early peoples. Its numerous illustrations provided 19th-century scholars with an impressive gallery of Pictish symbol stones and other monuments. Among these images was the one shown at the top of this blogpost, the earliest published illustration of the Govan Sarcophagus. It was drawn by the Aberdeen-based artist and lithographer Andrew Gibb who was soon to play a major part in the production of the second volume of Stuart’s Sculptured Stones. The absence of wooden railings in the picture suggests that Gibb sketched the sarcophagus not long after it was brought out of the ground, perhaps within days of the exciting discovery (unless he simply omitted the railings from the final version). Other drawings have been produced in the ensuing years but Gibb’s fine offering, executed in his distinctive style, remains our earliest representation of Glasgow’s oldest piece of sculptural art.

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James C. Roger, ‘Notice of a sculptured sarcophagus, and other sepulchral monuments, recently discovered in the churchyard of Govan’ Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland 2 (1854-7), 161-5.

John Stuart, The Sculptured Stones of Scotland [Part 1] (Aberdeen: Spalding Club, 1856).

R.M. Spearman, ‘The Govan Sarcophagus: an enigmatic monument’, pp. 33-45 in Anna Ritchie (ed.) Govan and its Early Medieval Sculpture (Stroud: Alan Sutton, 1994).

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The Sun Stone at Govan Old Parish Church

The Sun Stone at Govan (click to enlarge)

This is the most striking of the surviving cross-slabs at Govan. The main feature on the front is a cross with interlace patterns on the arms and shaft. Under each cross-arm a twisting serpent terminates in a head. Below the cross a square panel contains a human figure riding a strange, bear-like beast. Despite its odd appearance this animal might be a horse depicted in caricature, perhaps even one particular horse whose characteristics the sculptor wished to convey in the manner of a modern cartoon. Alternatively, the caricatured mount may have been intended as a comment on the rider himself. He is carrying a spear and wearing a sword: he is evidently a warrior. A curling adornment on the back of his head is usually interpreted as a pigtail.

Sun Stone, Govan

The rider on his strange beast

The reverse of the slab is dominated by a vivid design in the upper portion: four snakes protruding from a central boss. This is a Christian motif symbolising redemption and resurrection through the image of a creature that is ‘reborn’ each time it sheds its old skin. It is found elsewhere in Scotland in both Gaelic and Pictish contexts, respectively on crosses on Iona and Islay, and on a cross-slab at Nigg in Easter Ross. The same motif also appears on crosses in Ireland. At all these places the finely carved ‘snake-and-boss’ contrasts sharply with the crude version at Govan. What we see on the Sun Stone is a poor imitation of the design, an attempt by the craftsmen of Strathclyde to replicate the sophisticated artistry of the Gaelic world.[1] The same can be said of the Netherton Cross at Hamilton and the Dumb Proctor cross-shaft at Lochwinnoch, both of which contain crudely carved snake-and-boss ornament. All three were produced by craftsmen of the ‘Govan School’ stonecarving tradition.

Sun Stone, Govan

The snake-and-boss symbol on the Sun Stone

Below the snake-and-boss on the Sun Stone is a square panel of interlace described by one modern observer as ‘botched’.[2] The irregularity of the pattern has led another expert to remark that ‘the Govan sculptor has failed to achieve symmetry, or deliberately scorned it’.[3] A glance at the panel reveals its main flaw: on three sides the interlace makes two triangles as it threads back on itself, but on the right-hand side an extra triangle completely disrupts the weave.

The Sun Stone was probably a memorial to a high-ranking Strathclyde aristocrat and may have marked his grave in the burial-ground of the ancient church at Govan. The absence of an inscription means that we do not know his name but he is perhaps the rider depicted on the front face below the cross.

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[1] Ritchie (1999), 14, where the Sun Stone is seen as an instance of ‘the Govan patrons asking their sculptors to copy an image for which their talents were perhaps unsuited.’
[2] Macquarrie (2006), 5.
[3] Fisher (1994), 53.

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Fisher, Ian (1994) ‘The Govan cross-shafts and early cross-slabs’, pp.47-53 in Anna Ritchie (ed.) Govan and its Early Medieval Sculpture (Stroud: Alan Sutton)

Macquarrie, Alan (2006) Crosses and Upright Monuments in Strathclyde: Typology, Dating and Purpose Fourth Annual Govan Lecture (Govan: Society of Friends of Govan Old)

Ritchie, Anna (1999) Govan and its Carved Stones (Balgavies/Brechin: Pinkfoot Press)

[All photographs in this blogpost are copyright © B Keeling]

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Data summary
ECMS* Govan No.4 ‘The Sun Stone’
Current location: Govan Old Parish Church
Original location: (?) kirkyard of Govan Old
Dimensions: 1.85m x 0.55m x 0.18m
Material: sandstone
Date: 10th-11th century

* ECMS = J Anderson & JR Allen, The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1903)

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This 20-page booklet, published in 1999, is a good introductory guide to the early medieval sculpture at Govan Old Parish Church. Written by eminent archaeologist Anna Ritchie, it has drawings and photographs of the principal stones with concise descriptions of their carvings. The illustrations are of the highest standard and include definitive images produced for Historic Scotland by photographer Tom Gray and artist Ian G Scott.

The front cover shows Dumbarton Castle Rock with its distinctive twin-peaked summit. Like Govan, Dumbarton was a major centre of power in the kingdom of the Clyde Britons, functioning as a royal ‘capital’ for hundreds of years before being sacked by Vikings in 870. Govan rose to prominence in the ensuing period, attaining special status as a place of worship and burial for the elite families of the kingdom.

I recommend this booklet as an excellent introduction to the Govan stones and their historical context. It’s available direct from the Pinkfoot Press in Brechin (email below).

Bibliographical details:
Title: Govan and its carved stones
Author: Anna Ritchie
Date of publication: 1999
ISBN: 1874012229
Publisher: Pinkfoot Press  inbox@pinkfootpress.co.uk

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Govan Jordanhill Cross

Horseman on the Jordanhill Cross, Govan (Photograph © B Keeling)

In the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries, when the sculptured stones now preserved in the old parish church at Govan were being carved, the people of the area spoke a language similar to Welsh. This differed from the Gaelic of Ireland and Argyll, having more in common with the language of the Picts to which it was closely related. But the district around Govan was not Pictish. Its inhabitants in early medieval times were not Picts but Britons. They were descended from natives encountered by Roman armies during the invasion and conquest of Britain in the 1st century AD. The Romans used the name ‘Britons’ as an umbrella term encompassing all indigenous people of the island. Later, at the end of the 3rd century, another term Picti came into use to describe troublesome groups of Britons in the highland zone beyond the Forth-Clyde isthmus. Meanwhile, in the far northwestern coastlands, native communities in Argyll and the Hebrides adopted the Gaelic speech of Ireland and, by c.300, were no longer identifiable as ‘Britons’. These groups became known as Scotti (Scots), a name apparently bestowed by Rome on all Gaelic-speakers regardless of where they lived.

A different group of people, the Anglo-Saxons or ‘English’, came to Britain to fight for the Roman Army as mercenaries. After the collapse of Roman rule in the early 5th century they arrived in greater numbers, sailing across the North Sea from homelands in Germany, Denmark and Holland. Within two hundred years they had taken over many southern parts of Britain, seizing territory by force and establishing their own kingdoms. By c.700 only a few western areas remained in the hands of the Britons, the largest block comprising what is now Wales. In the North, the last independent kingdom of Britons lay in the lower valley of the River Clyde. Its main centre of power was Alt Clut, the Rock of Clyde at present-day Dumbarton. From this lofty citadel the kings of Alt Clut looked out on a realm surrounded on all sides by enemies: Scots to the west, Picts to the north, Anglo-Saxons to the east and south.

Kingdom of Alt Clut

The Britons of Alt Clut and their neighbours, AD 700.

The Britons of the Clyde were converted to Christianity in the 5th and 6th centuries. Missionaries from other parts of Britain, and from Ireland, preached among them and baptised the kings of Alt Clut. Old legends and traditions assert that the earliest churches were founded by saints such as Kentigern (Glasgow), Conval (Inchinnan) and Mirin or Mirren (Paisley). The first church at Govan is said to have been established by St Constantine, an obscure figure identified in later tradition as a disciple of Kentigern. More will be said of Constantine in a future blogpost.

The kingdom of Alt Clut was still in existence when the Vikings began raiding the British Isles at the end of the 8th century. In 870, a large Viking army from Dublin besieged the royal citadel on Clyde Rock and captured the king of the Britons. It is sometimes assumed that this led to the total collapse of the kingdom, and that it was seized by the Scots, but this is not what happened. The focus of royal power simply moved upstream, away from the Rock of Clyde. One new centre of royal authority began to develop on the south bank of the river, at an ancient crossing-point opposite the inflow of the Kelvin. Here, at Govan, and at other places along the valley, the old realm of the Clyde Britons rose again with renewed vitality. The kingdom received a new name, Strat Clut (Strathclyde) to show that its heartland was now the valley of the river rather than the headwaters of the firth. From here the kings of the Britons began to take back what they had lost. Their reconquest was swift, for their former foes in the Anglo-Saxon realm of Northumbria had already been ousted by Viking warlords. The rule of Northumbrian kings no longer reached across the Solway Firth as it had done in the 7th and 8th centuries. By the early 900s, the kings of Strathclyde held sway over large tracts of what is now South West Scotland, having ousted an English-speaking aristocracy from lands that had been Northumbrian for the previous two hundred years.

Within a couple of generations of the siege of Dumbarton the power of the Britons reached as far south as the River Eamont in present-day Cumbria. The latter has been a familiar name on modern maps since 1974 when the old counties of Cumberland and Westmorland were amalgamated but its origins are much older. It is a Latinised form of Old English Cumber Land (‘Land of the Cumbri’), a name we find in the 10th-century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Cumbri is simply a northern equivalent of Cymry (pronounced ‘Cum-ree’), a term still used today by the people of Wales when referring to themselves. Both terms derive from an older word combrogi which meant ‘fellow-countrymen’ in the ancient language of the Britons. The kings of Strathclyde, together with their subjects at Govan and elsewhere, considered themselves Cumbri, but to their Anglo-Saxon neighbours they were simply wealas (‘Welsh’) like their compatriots further south.

Kingdom of Strathclyde

Strathclyde: the kingdom of the Cumbri, AD 950.

Strathclyde remained a major political power to the end of the 10th century and was still playing an important role in the early 11th. Its kings took part in significant wars and in many other great events of the time. This was the period when the stonecarvers of the ‘Govan School’ produced the crosses, cross-slabs and hogback tombstones that we see today at places like Inchinnan, Lochwinnoch, Arthurlie and Govan itself. The folk who commissioned these monuments, like the craftsmen who carved them, were the people known to the Anglo-Saxons as Cumbras and wealas. To modern historians they are ‘Cumbrians’, ‘Strathclyde Welsh’ or ‘North Britons’. At some point around the middle of the 11th century their homeland was conquered by the Scottish kings of Alba and the native royal dynasty was expelled. By c.1150, the inhabitants of Clydesdale had given up their ancestral language in favour of Gaelic. They were no longer Cumbri but had become ‘Scots’ like their new political masters. Inevitably, as time wore on, the deeds of their forefathers began to fade from memory. Soon only the sculptured stones remained, a handful of monuments scattered across the land, to bear mute witness to a forgotten people.

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What’s in a name?

In choosing a name for this blog I wanted something that conveyed a sense of Govan’s importance in the early medieval kingdom of Strathclyde. I toyed with a few possibilities, mostly involving variations on the term ‘royal centre’, but none seemed to match the true significance of the place. Eventually, the solution was provided by an information board at the Riverside Museum, the new museum of transport on the north bank of the Clyde directly opposite Govan. The words at the top of this board gave me the phrase I was looking for.

Govan sign Riverside Museum

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