Archive for the ‘Museums & conservation’ Category

Govan Stones

One of the information boards inside Govan Old Parish Church.

“Govan Young follows a group of local schoolchildren as they learn of the Viking invasion of central Scotland and the subsequent establishment of the medieval kingdom of Strathclyde. How will the children react when they discover that Vikings and kings walked on the ground below their feet?”

This 30-minute film shows how young people can become aware of – and fascinated by – the history and archaeology of their locality. It’s a hugely inspiring piece of work and has deservedly been nominated for various awards.

The link below will take you to Vimeo, where you can watch the film.

Govan Young

See also @govanyoungfilm on Twitter.

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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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“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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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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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 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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Govan Old textile screen

The Victorian stained glass windows of Govan Old, seen through the textile screen (photograph © T Clarkson)

On Saturday 19th July I attended a ceremony at Govan Old Parish Church – the grand unveiling of the Weaving Truth With Trust textile screen. I’ve mentioned WTWT in an earlier blogpost and have been following its progress since it started a couple of years ago. The project has involved a number of organisations and individuals who have given various kinds of support but the whole thing has been guided by the creative energies of a four-strong team comprising artists Geraldine Greene, Alexandra Bowie and Fiona Fleming with archaeologist Ingrid Shearer from Northlight Heritage.

WTWT is closely connected with the Govan Stones project which is working to raise the public profile of the early medieval sculpture housed inside the church. The screen was designed to reflect not only the craftsmanship that produced the stones but also the artistry of later times when Govan had a flourishing textile industry. ‘Weaving Truth With Trust’ was the motto of the Govan Weavers Society, an organisation formed in the eighteenth century to support local handloom weavers and their families.

The WTWT screen hangs on a frame fitted to an arched opening inside Govan Old, thus forming a stunning backdrop to the Dark Age hogback stones. Woven from lace, the screen is a delicate, translucent piece of artwork with an almost ethereal aura. It not only compliments the five hogbacks but offers a vivid contrast to their hard, solid presence.

Photographs from the event of 19th July can be seen at the WTWT Facebook page.

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