Archive for March, 2013

Govan Conservation Area

Fairfield shipyard offices

Last month I was delighted to receive a couple of beautifully designed postcards from Govan. They were a gift from Geraldine Greene, an artist involved in a number of Govan-based projects. One card shows the frontage of the former Fairfield Shipyard offices; the other shows a close-up of ornamental stonework on a building at Water Row. The images are screen-printed onto a sturdy material which has a wonderful texture and a kind of antique feel.
Govan Conservation Area

Ship’s prow and Zephyrs: ornamental stonework at Water Row.

These cards are limited editions so I feel very honoured by the gift. Geraldine tells me a third card was also produced but got distributed so quickly that there weren’t any left. She did however send me a digital copy (see below). It’s a view of the area known as Govan Cross, with the Aitken Memorial Fountain in front of the new parish church (‘new’ as in ‘built in 1883’).
Govan Conservation Area

Govan Cross: Aitken Memorial Fountain and new parish church.

All three cards were produced at The Portal, a community arts venue inhabiting six formerly derelict shops. The Portal is one of a number of projects undertaken by Central Govan Action Plan (CGAP), a key agency in Glasgow City Council’s plans for the regeneration of Govan. CGAP commissioned the three postcards, intending them to highlight the work currently being done to preserve Govan’s rich architectural heritage. One aspect of this work is the Govan Cross Townscape Heritage Initiative whose remit covers the features shown in two of the postcards. The THI is supported by the City Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund, and one of its aims is to ‘bring history to life, offer opportunities to learn about and promote Govan’s rich heritage, and provide training and job opportunities linked to the conservation of traditional buildings and historic environments’.
Govan Conservation Area

Screen-printing postcards at The Portal.

An important bedrock of the regeneration process is central Govan’s designation as a Conservation Area, a formal acknowledgement by the City Council that this is ‘an area of special architectural or historic interest, the character or appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance’. Conservation Area status puts Govan in a group with 22 other places around the city that are recognised as having unique heritage features worthy of protection. Raising awareness of this is one of the aims of the postcards, which mention the Conservation Area on the back (see image below).
Govan Conservation Area

Reverse of the Water Row postcard

The Govan Conservation Area comprises most of the central part of the town. It extends westward from the edge of the Riverside Housing Estate to the Victorian green space of Elder Park. Three of the four features associated with the early medieval period are included within it: the old parish church (‘Govan Old’) with its stunning collection of sculpture; the line of the processional pathway of the kings of Strathclyde; and the route to the ancient ford at the end of Water Row, leading to the royal residence at Partick on the north bank. The presumed site of the ceremonial mound known as Doomster Hill, now largely hidden beneath the Riverside Estate, lies just outside the Conservation Area but gets a mention in the appraisal document drawn up in support of the designation.

A page on the city council’s website defines a Conservation Area Appraisal (CAA) as ‘a vital tool to enable the active management of the conservation area. It identifies the area’s special features and changing needs through a process which includes researching its historical development, carrying out a detailed townscape analysis and preparing a character assessment.’

The Govan CAA gives a rather neat and useful summary of the town’s richly layered history, starting with the traditional view of its beginnings:
‘The origins of Govan as a settlement are believed to pre-date that of Glasgow, with the formation of a monastery by St Constantine around 564 AD on or near the site of Govan Old Parish Church….’
These words introduce the reader to a period when Govan was the principal royal settlement or ‘capital’ of the kingdom of Strathclyde (c.870-1050 AD). The archaeological excavations undertaken at the old parish church get a quick mention, as do the sculptured stones and the mysterious Doomster Hill. There then follows a tour through later times in which the royal capital dwindled in status to become a country village before re-emerging in the 19th century as one of the great industrial powerhouses of the world. Although necessarily brief, the historical summary in the Govan CAA gives a good overview of 1500 years of continuous settlement and activity around one of the most important crossing-points on the Clyde. Anyone interested in reading it can download a copy from this page at the Get Into Govan website.

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I am grateful to Geraldine Greene for sending me the two postcards and the other images used in this blogpost.

The cards are so nicely produced that I expect I’m not the only person who hopes to see more in the series. Perhaps Geraldine will design another three? I guess we’ll have to watch this space and keep our fingers crossed.

Geraldine is one of the project leaders on Weaving Truth With Trust, a heritage-related project closely associated with the Govan Stones.
Govan Weaving Truth With Trust

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Earl Siward

Earl Siward (from a painting by James Smetham, 1861)

The title of this blogpost should really be turned into a question: Did a man from Govan become king of Scotland? It takes us into a rather obscure period of Scottish history, a period less well-known than the age of Bruce or the Stewart monarchs, but I believe we can glean enough information to answer the question with a cautious Yes.

Our starting-point is the year 1018, when a great battle was fought at Carham on the River Tweed. On the losing side was an English army led by the Earl of Bamburgh, fighting on behalf of their half-Danish, half-Polish king Cnut (‘Canute’). The victors were the Scottish king Mael Coluim (‘Malcolm’) and his ally Owain the Bald, king of Strathclyde. It was a famous battle, possibly with far-reaching consequences, one of which may have been that the Tweed became the Border between England and Scotland.

Owain and his people weren’t Gaelic-speakers like their Scottish allies. They were known simply as ‘Britons’, and their language was basically a northern dialect of Welsh. It gave us place-names we still recognize today, such as Rhyn-frwd (Renfrew), Llanerch (Lanark) and Glasgu (Glasgow). But the people of the Clyde weren’t ‘Welsh’ in the sense of being ‘from Wales’. Even when their English enemies referred to them as ‘Strathclyde Welsh’, this simply meant that their speech sounded similar (in English ears) to the language of Wales. The Britons of Strathclyde belonged firmly to the North, just like the Scots. They called themselves ‘Britons’, but they also used another word: Cumbri (‘Cumbrians’) which translates roughly as ‘fellow countrymen’.

Carham-on-Tweed is the last battle in which the ‘Cumbrians’ or Strathclyde Britons are listed among the participants. Nor do we hear anything more of Owain the Bald, although there is no reason to believe that he died in the battle. Some historians think he may have been the last king of Strathclyde, and that the kingdom was taken over by the Scots soon after 1018. Others, including myself, see the kingdom continuing for another generation at least. At the heart of the matter is the identity of a mysterious figure called Mael Coluim who makes a brief appearance in history in 1054. In that year, the English king Edward (‘The Confessor’) sent one of his most able commanders, the Danish warlord Earl Siward, to Scotland. The campaign was noted in the contemporary Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

‘At this time Earl Siward went with a great army into Scotland, with both a fleet and a land-force, and he fought against the Scots, and put to flight their king Macbethad, and he slew all that were best in the land, and brought back much plunder, such as no man had ever obtained.’

Macbethad is the historical character behind Shakespeare’s villainous ‘Macbeth’. In reality, he was a wise ruler who knew how to play the tricky game of eleventh-century politics. Having married a woman of royal blood (probably after slaying her husband, his own cousin) he got close enough to the Scottish crown to make a bid for it. In 1040, he toppled King Donnchad (Shakespeare’s ‘Duncan’) and placed himself on the throne.

Fourteen years later, however, he had to face the onslaught of Earl Siward, described as ‘almost a giant in stature, and of strong hand and mind’. Despite being a competent warlord in his own right, and even with a bunch of tough Norman knights at his side, Macbethad was soundly defeated. He fled the battlefield, and probably went into exile, no doubt getting as far away from Siward as he could.


The 19th century actor Edwin Forrest as Macbeth

When the English counted the bodies on the battlefield they discovered Siward’s own son among the slain. A messenger was sent to bring the grievous news to the Earl.
‘Did he receive the mortal wound in front of his body, or behind?’ asked Siward.
‘In front,’ the messenger replied.
‘I rejoice wholly,’ said Siward, ‘for I would deem myself or my son worthy of no meaner death.’

The Scottish throne was now effectively vacant, but Edward the Confessor had already selected Macbethad’s replacement. The English chronicler John of Worcester, writing in the twelfth century but drawing on earlier sources, tells us that Siward ‘as the king had commanded, set up as king Mael Coluim, son of the king of the Cumbrians’ (Malcolmum, regis Cumbrorum filium, ut rex jusserat, regem constituit).

In 1054 the term ‘Cumbrians’ was synonymous with ‘Strathclyde Britons’, so Mael Coluim was a royal prince of Strathclyde. His name, however, is Gaelic rather than Welsh, so perhaps he was of mixed Cumbrian-Scottish parentage. His mother may have been a Scottish princess, maybe a daughter of the Scottish king Mael Coluim who had fought alongside the Britons at Carham in 1018. Did the Scottish Mael Coluim marry his daughter to his ally Owain the Bald? If so, then it is possible that the Cumbrian Mael Coluim of 1054 was Owain’s son, named in honour of his Scottish grandfather.

To be a son of ‘the king of the Cumbrians’, Mael Coluim must have been born when his father was still reigning on the Clyde, at a time before the kingdom of the Britons fell to the Scots. The capital of Strathclyde was Govan, where the royal family worshipped in an old church beside the river, and where they held important ceremonies on the huge mound called Doomster Hill. I think it very likely that Mael Coluim was born at Govan, or perhaps in the royal palace of Partick on the opposite bank, and that he recited his childhood prayers in the church where Govan Old stands today. He may have stood with his father on the summit of the Doomster Hill on days of great ceremony.

In 1054, he became king of Scotland. He was the second man of mixed Cumbrian-Scottish blood to achieve this status, but probably the only Govanite to do so.

Sadly, his reign lasted no more than a year, maybe even less. His position was severely weakened by the death of his patron and protector, Earl Siward, sometime in 1055. In the ensuing uncertainty Macbethad returned from exile, no doubt with help from anti-English factions at the Scottish court. Mael Coluim was removed from the kingship and was either assassinated or forced to flee. If he managed to escape Macbethad’s vengeance, he may have sought refuge with friends in England, perhaps with Siward’s former henchmen. Or he may have gone back to his father’s old kingdom on the Clyde, back home to Govan, to see out his remaining years in what was probably the land of his birth.

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The events of 1054 involving Mael Coluim ‘son of the king of the Cumbrians’ are discussed by Alex Woolf in his book From Pictland to Alba, 789-1070 (Edinburgh, 2007), pp.262-3 and by me in The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland (Edinburgh, 2010), pp.191-2.

To see why ‘Cumbria’ had the same meaning as ‘Strathclyde’ in early medieval times, check out this piece I wrote a couple of years ago, neatly reproduced by Diane McIlmoyle at her blog.

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