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Archive for March, 2012

Doomster Hill Govan

Govan in 1757, looking south across the Clyde from Partick. The Doomster Hill is on the left, with the cottages of Water Row in the centre and the parish church on the right.

Back in February I went to Govan for a meeting with Matt Baker, an artist who is closely involved with a number of creative projects relating to the regeneration of the area. Matt’s main focus is the Riverside Housing Estate on the south bank of the Clyde, directly opposite the new Glasgow transport museum. The houses of the Riverside occupy a site steeped in Govan history. Here, in the 19th and 20th centuries, stood one of the great shipyards that made Govan a world-famous centre of shipbuilding. Here, too, stood the Doomster Hill, a huge artificial mound built in ancient times as a venue for public ceremonies. It was largely because of the Doomster Hill that Matt and I arranged our meeting, for both of us have a keen interest in this now-vanished feature of the Govan landscape.

Although no trace of the hill survives, its size and shape can be discerned from old sketches made before its destruction in the 19th century. It must have been an impressive feature, a major landmark for the people of this part of Clydesdale. Its tiered or ‘stepped’ design suggests that it was meant to be used in a hierarchical way, to reinforce the social order. This was undoubtedly one of its key functions in the early medieval period, when Govan was a place of importance in the kingdom of the Clyde Britons. During a public ceremony in the 10th century we can imagine the king of Strathclyde standing on the summit of the hill, surrounded by his leading henchmen and the chief clergy of the realm, looking down on the warrior-nobility assembled on the tier below, and on the ordinary folk gathered on the lower ground around the base. The power and authority of the monarch would thus be emphasised in a strikingly visible way, as he stood in this high place to perform the formal rituals of kingship: lawmaking, gift-giving and the dispensing of justice.

After the fall of Strathclyde in the 11th century and its absorption into the kingdom of Scotland the ceremonial mound at Govan lost its royal significance but continued to be used in a local context. Its later name ‘Doomster Hill’ indicates that it was a venue where ‘dooms’ (laws) were enacted, presumably at courts answerable to local lords appointed by the Scottish kings. Eventually it fell into disuse, becoming a place associated with folklore and legend. Children pressing their ears to the grassy slopes of the hill believed they could hear fairies moving around inside.

The industrialisation of Govan In the 19th century meant that the old hill soon found itself surrounded by a growing urban sprawl. A reservoir for a nearby dye-works was dug on the summit but the greatest threat came from the shipbuilding industry that sprang up beside the River Clyde. The expansion of the shipyards meant that the hill soon became an obstacle to progress. Sometime around 1850 it was demolished and the site was levelled. The destruction was so complete that no trace of this enigmatic feature survives today, nor can its exact position be deduced. All that can be said for certain is that the Riverside Estate now occupies a part of Govan where the Doomster Hill once stood.

One of Matt Baker’s current projects at the Riverside is the aptly-named Assembly, a public artwork using landscaping and sculpture to mark three possible locations of the Doomster Hill. A couple of days ago Matt posted a preview of this fascinating project at his blog. The preview has an extract from a ‘Govan timeline’ (a document he and I have been working on) together with images of his designs for the artworks. One photograph shows one of the three stone bases upon which the sculptures will be mounted. The bases are curved to represent the outline of the Doomster Hill and are being built with cobbles salvaged from the industrial complex that formerly occupied the site. Assembly is therefore an apt name for this project, recalling not only the great public gatherings of ancient times but also the summoning of workers to the shipyards that were once the lifeblood of modern Govan. The project itself fits neatly into Matt’s overall vision for his work at the Riverside Estate by ‘re-invoking the power and significance of the land that people live on’.

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Govan and the kings

The early medieval sculpture at Govan is usually dated to c.850-c.1100. This was the time when the kingdom of Strathclyde flourished as a major political power until its conquest by the Scots in the middle of the 11th century. The kingdom rose in the aftermath of the Viking raid on Alt Clut (Dumbarton Rock) in 870, a catastrophic event that almost destroyed the realm of the Clyde Britons. Arthgal, the last king of Alt Clut, was taken captive by Vikings and subsequently murdered. But his dynasty survived by moving its power-base further inland, to an ancient religious and ceremonial centre at Govan near the confluence of the rivers Clyde and Kelvin. Arthgal’s son Rhun (pronounced ‘Rhinn’) was probably the first king of the new or reborn realm of Strat Clut, Strathclyde. Rhun’s position may have been strengthened by his marriage to a daughter of the powerful Pictish king Cinaed mac Ailpin (‘Kenneth macAlpine’), unless the marriage was simply arranged by Cinaed to symbolise his domination of the Clyde Britons.

If Rhun was indeed the first king of Strathclyde, then he was surely also the first king to rule from Govan. We can’t be certain who succeeded him. One of his sons by Cinaed’s daughter was Eochaid, a man with a Gaelic name who seems to have ruled the Picts in the 880s. It is possible that another son was Dyfnwal (pronounced ‘Duv-noowal’) who ruled Strathclyde in the early 10th century. Dyfnwal was the father of Owain (pronounced ‘Oh-wine’) who led the Clyde Britons at the great battle of Brunanburh in 937. By then, the Picts and Scots had already merged to form the Gaelic-speaking kingdom of Alba, the precursor of the kingdom of Scotland. Strathclyde remained independent through the 900s, retaining a native language similar to Old Welsh. Its inhabitants were described by contemporary English chroniclers as Straecledwealas, ‘Strathclyde Welsh’, and as Cumbrenses, ‘Cumbrians’.

Strathclyde was absorbed into the kingdom of Alba sometime around the middle of the 11th century. The identity of the last king of the Britons is unknown but the last one mentioned by name in the historical sources is Owain the Bald who fought as an ally of Alba at the battle of Carham in 1018. Either Owain or an anonymous successor was probably the father of Mael Coluim, another Strathclyder bearing a Gaelic name, who briefly held the throne of Alba in 1054. English writers in the following century referred to Mael Coluim as ‘son of the king of the Cumbrians’, implying that he was a prince of the Clyde Britons. It is possible that the unidentified ‘king of the Cumbrians’ was the last monarch of an independent Strathclyde and the last Welsh-speaking king at Govan.

The following chart represents my attempt to reconstruct a royal genealogy for Strathclyde. It begins with Arthgal, the last king to rule at Dumbarton, and ends with the mysterious Mael Coluim of 1054. I believe that all the kings who followed Arthgal were closely associated with Govan and that many of them – and their families – were buried in what is today the graveyard of the old parish church. It is even possible that some of the finely carved monuments now preserved inside Govan Old are the tombstones of these people.

Note The above genealogy is essentially the one shown in my book The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland. It is based on a table presented by Dauvit Broun on page 135 of his article ‘The Welsh identity of the kingdom of Strathclyde, c.900-1200’ Innes Review vol.55 (2004), 111-80.

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