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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