Posts Tagged ‘Doomster Hill’

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 - Assembly - public artwork

One of Matt Baker’s ‘Assembly’ sculptures (the curve of stone marks the approximate outline of the Doomster Hill)

Last Saturday, November 23rd, I visited Govan to participate in a day of very interesting events. The day was just one part of an entire weekend of talks, tours and conversation around a number of heritage projects under the Hidden Histories banner. My own involvement was with a project called ‘Re-imagining the Govan Heritage Trail’, which aims to re-vamp an existing trail by creating a number of smaller walks dealing with different aspects of the town’s rich history. The project has been initiated by artist Tara S Beall as part of a practice-based programme of doctoral research with the University of Glasgow and the Riverside Museum. Staff from the Museum are closely involved in the Heritage Trails project, together with representatives from other local organisations and community groups. I was invited by Tara to give input to a new trail dealing with ancient times and the period when Govan was a major royal centre in the kingdom of Strathclyde.

A week or more of events ran from 15th to 24th November. As well as the trails project, two others were also celebrated as part of the Hidden Histories venture: Women’s Histories & Protests on the Clyde and Isabella Elder – Great & Good (Mrs Elder was the wife of shipbuilding magnate John Elder). The busy schedule for Saturday 23rd included an afternoon walk along the Ancient Govan trail, followed by an evening of talks in Govan Old Parish Church.

The new trail is more than a tour of the area’s early history. It’s a quest for the ‘Thirteen Treasures of Govan’, a collection of objects dotted around the town or in the Riverside Museum across the Clyde. The idea comes from the legendary Tri Thlws ar Ddeg Ynys Prydain (‘Thirteen Treasures of the Island of Britain’), a list of magic items associated with figures famed in the lore of medieval Wales. Many of the Welsh Thirteen Treasures have a connection with North Britain, and a few have a connection with Strathclyde. These form a nucleus around which the Thirteen Treasures of Govan have been created.

Govan Heritage Trail

Cover of fold-out leaflet for the new heritage trail

The Thirteen Treasures of Govan are as follows. An asterisk indicates an item on the original Welsh list.
1. The Ring of Queen Languoreth, wife of Rhydderch Hael, king of Dumbarton.
2. The Cauldron of Dyrnwch the Giant. *
3. The Crozier.
4. The Whetstone of Tudwal, father of Rhydderch Hael. *
5. The Harp.
6. The Horn of Bran. *
7. The Chessboard of Gwenddoleu. *
8. The Canoe.
9. The Halter of Clyddno Eiddyn. *
10. The Cloak of Arthur. *
11. The Ship.
12. The Bell of of St Mungo of Glasgow (St Kentigern).
13. The Sword of Rhydderch Hael. *

The objective of someone embarking on the quest is to locate the Thirteen Treasures in their present-day locations, so that they can be pointed out to none other than Merlin, who will then be able to take them away for safekeeping. Some items are fairly easy to identify: the Canoe, for example, is a hollowed-out logboat retrieved from the Clyde and now displayed in the Riverside Museum. Others are concealed in more subtle ways: the Cauldron, upside down, is now represented by the upper part of the Aitken Memorial Fountain (an impressive piece of Victorian street adornment at Govan Cross). Merlin himself may have been a native of North Britain and is sometimes associated with Strathclyde. One legend says that he met St Mungo of Glasgow, while another has him being hunted by King Rhydderch, who is identified in one tradition as the father of St Constantine of Govan.

Aitken Memorial Fountain - Govan

The Aitken Memorial Fountain

The trail will give visitors plenty of entertainment, while introducing them to Govan’s rich heritage. Along the way, they will meet genuine relics from early medieval times, such as the ‘Viking’ hogback tombstones and the ornately carved Sarcophagus, as well as a reminder of the Doomster Hill which served as a ceremonial venue for the kings of Strathclyde. Items such as the Horn of Bran, represented on the trail by the siren of the Fairfield shipyard, connect the glories of the remote past with those of the shipbuilding era. Fairfields is now part of BAE Systems and its future has recently come under the spotlight in the UK media.

Last Saturday’s inaugural walk along the Ancient Govan trail was led by Tam McGarvey of the GaelGael Trust (a community heritage organisation who build wooden boats based on old Scottish vessels such as the birlinn or Highland galley). Tam guided an enthusiastic group of people from a starting point at the Riverside Museum to Govan on the opposite bank, via a ferry which was laid on especially for the weekend’s events (it’s usually a seasonal service). The tour was a great success, and Tam was an excellent guide. With his deep knowledge of local heritage he was able to make connections between different layers of history, drawing comparisons between the era of industrial greatness and its ancient precursor.

Riverside Museum

Tall ship ‘The Glenlee’ moored on the Clyde at the Riverside Museum

In the evening, a larger group gathered inside Govan Old Parish Church to hear three talks relating to local heritage. The first, on Ancient Govan and the Thirteen Treasures heritage trail, was given by me. The second was presented by public artist Matt Baker, who gave a virtual tour of his evocative heritage-related sculptures around the Riverside Housing Estate. One of Matt’s artworks is called Assembly and commemorates the long-vanished Doomster Hill – a place of assembly in the time of the kings of Strathclyde. The third presentation was a screening of archive films of old Govan, with a commentary by Liam Paterson from the Scottish Screen Archive. It was a very interesting evening, clearly enjoyed by everyone who attended. Tara and the team did a great job in bringing it all together.

Afterwards, a few of us ambled across the street to continue our conversations in a corner of Brechin’s Bar. Adjourning to this characterful old tavern seemed a good way to end what had been a fascinating and fruitful day of heritage events.

Govan Heritage Trail

Lapel badge for the new heritage trail

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Notes & links

I would like to thank Tara Beall for inviting me to participate in the project, and also Maria Leahy and Alice Gordon for audiovisual support during my presentation at Govan Old.

A project overview of ‘Re-imagining the Govan Heritage Trail’ can be found on the Hidden Histories website
– which also advertised Saturday evening’s programme and a schedule of the entire weekend’s activities.
The same site has a useful article by Frazer Capie of the Govan Stones Project on the ideas behind the Thirteen Treasures heritage trail.

Matt Baker’s public artworks in Govan can be seen at his website Sacrificial Materials.

To keep up-to-date with these and other projects, take a look at the Glorious Govan Facebook page or follow the Govan Beacon on Twitter.

Traditional boat-making and other craft activities undertaken by the GalGael Trust are described on their website.

The Scottish Screen Archive is part of the National Library of Scotland.

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Govan Doomster Hill

Govan in 1757, sketched by Robert Paul. Doomster Hill at left.

The Doomster Hill was a massive artifical mound that dominated the Govan landscape until its destruction in the mid-nineteenth century. The above illustration from 1757 shows it with a tiered or ‘stepped’ profile, a shape characteristic of sites used as assembly-places in the Viking period. It seems likely that it acquired this profile on the orders of the kings of Strathclyde, perhaps around AD 900 when the kingdom had close political contact with powerful Viking warlords in Dublin who had a man-made mound of similar shape. The Old Norse word for assembly is thing (pronounced ‘ting’) so it may not be too wide of the mark to speak of Govan’s ancient mound as a ‘thing site’. We can imagine it being used by the kings of Strathclyde as a venue for ceremonies and as a focus for public gatherings. It would have been part of an early medieval ‘ritual landscape’ which included not only a royal burial-ground and church (on a site now occupied by Govan Old) but also a processional pathway linking church and hill.
Govan Doomster Hill

The 1757 sketch was re-worked nearly 150 years later by T.C.F. Brotchie.

In the past couple of years I’ve developed a keen interest in the Doomster Hill. This has been boosted in 2013 by my participation in a community heritage project called ‘Some Thing Is Missing’ (‘STIM’ for short). STIM’s main objective is ‘to bring together young volunteers from various backgrounds to investigate the history and heritage in Govan surrounding the mysterious historical site at Water Row: the Doomster Hill‘. The Thing in the title is the assembly or parliament held on the hill in the time of the kings of Strathclyde. Sometime before 1850, this huge ancient monument was completely destroyed, so it is therefore Missing from Govan’s present-day landscape. I am one of several ‘expert witnesses’ who have been providing historical, archaeological and geographical background so that the STIM team members (known as ‘landscape detectives’) get an idea of the different contexts in which the Doomster Hill site has functioned over time. In a series of workshops we’ve been exploring the layers of history that have made this part of Govan so significant.

One layer that I had not previously studied in detail is the period before the emergence of the kingdom of Strathclyde in the fifth century AD. I knew of a people recorded by the Romans as Damnonii (or Dumnonii) who inhabited the Clyde valley in the Iron Age, but I had never ventured further back into the Bronze Age or earlier. It’s a knowledge gap I needed to fill. Fortunately, at the first STIM workshop in July this year, Ingrid Shearer of Northlight Heritage gave an excellent introduction to prehistoric settlement in the lands around the River Clyde. This whetted my appetite to learn more, especially about the origins of the Doomster Hill itself. Ingrid and other archaeologists have surmised that the hill could have been a prehistoric barrow adapted and re-shaped by the kings of Strathclyde. An old report of bone fragments being dug out of the summit in the 1830s seems to support this theory, and my own discussions with Ingrid have persuaded me that it is probably correct.

Govan Doomster Hill

The Doomster Hill: a prehistoric burial-mound?

At the beginning of September, I returned to Govan for another STIM workshop with the landscape detectives. This involved a morning session in which we examined the history of Viking Age assembly sites, followed by an afternoon walkabout around the western edge of the Riverside Housing Estate (where the Doomster Hill once stood). The detectives told me of an earlier walkabout in the same area with Ingrid Shearer and prehistorian Kenny Brophy, an account of which is available at Kenny’s blog. I’ve posted a link at the end of this post. Suffice to say, I’m now even more convinced that Govan’s ancient hill was already thousands of years old when the kings of Strathclyde turned it into a thing site. Interestingly, Kenny observes that the early medieval arrangement of hill, church and royal pathway might simply have maintained a ritual landscape whose origins reach far back into the remote past. He notes that Govan’s two historical eras of greatness – as a royal capital in the Viking Age and as a major shipbuilding centre 800 years later – may have been preceded by an even older one that we can barely glimpse today:
‘ … it seems very likely that the Doomster Hill started life not 1200 years ago, but perhaps more than 4000 years ago, a massive Neolithic or Bronze Age burial mound. If this were to be the case, then Govan had a third era of greatness, as a centre of power and pilgrimage in prehistory.’

Govan Doomster Hill

The Doomster Hill re-shaped as a stepped mound or thing site, c.900 AD. Did it still contain a prehistoric burial, traces of which were rediscovered in the 1830s?

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Kenny Brophy’s blogpost

Some Thing Is Missing: the landscape detectives have a project blog, a Facebook page and a Twitter account. The project is based at Fablevision on Water Row, overlooking the Doomster Hill site.

The Doomster Hill gets a mention at the website of the international Thing Sites project.

Northlight Heritage is involved in a number of projects at Govan including the recent redisplay of the Govan Stones.

My online article on the Doomster Hill gives a historical summary of the site.

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Medieval Govan

Medieval Govan (Copyright © Donald Watson)

My recent blogpost on the Barochan Cross socket-stone was accompanied by photographs kindly supplied by Donald Watson. Donald has also sent me the above image which represents his own evocation of pre-industrial Govan (c.1500 AD). It is a fascinating picture, not least because it incorporates the four principal features that confirm Govan’s status as a centre of royal power in early medieval times: the old parish church with its carved stones; the Doomster Hill; the ceremonial path of the kings; the ancient crossing-point on the Clyde.

Like Robert Paul’s well-known engraving of 1757, Donald’s picture is a view of Govan from the north side of the river. It gives a clear impression of the relationship between the various natural and man-made features and allows us to imagine how they would have interacted in the ‘ritual landscape’ of the kings of Strathclyde.

The historical significance of Water Row,whose conservation is currently under threat, is immediately apparent from the picture, which highlights the key role played by this ancient thoroughfare in defining the geographical identity of Govan. Water Row is the lane leading down to the river-crossing in the centre of the picture.

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The Ghost Of Water Row

(© Tom Manley Photography)

One month ago, in the early evening of Monday 5th November, a group of people assembled in the churchyard of Govan Old Parish Church (known as ‘Govan Old’). They came there to begin a ceremonial procession to Water Row, the oldest street in the town, the last surviving portion of an ancient route that once connected the northern and southern banks of the River Clyde. The procession was the first in a trio of ceremonies that evening, the others being the official opening of the Govan Fairway and the installation of the Ghost Of Water Row. An additional feature was the Govan Incident Room, an innovative project closely related to the three main events.
Govan: Water Row

The old cobblestone surface of Water Row (Photo © Tim Clarkson)

The proceedings opened with an introduction by Andy McAvoy of Edo Architecture, a Glasgow-based practice run by Andy and Ann Nisbet. Over several months, Ann and Andy had designed and constructed the Ghost Of Water Row, a three-dimensional representation of a group of buildings – now long-vanished – that once flanked the old route to the river. But the Ghost is more than a symbolic structure: it is a work of architectural art, with walls and roof of patterned lace and a framework of pale Scottish spruce.
The Ghost Of Water Row

(© Tom Manley Photography)

After welcoming the 40 or 50 folk who had gathered for the procession, Andy introduced Eileen Reid, daughter of renowned trade-union leader Jimmy Reid whose funeral had taken place at Govan Old in 2010. Eileen was soon to lead the procession to Water Row, carrying as a totem the Big Question Mark. This is the iconic symbol of Glaswegian artist George Wyllie who sadly passed away this year at the age of 90. George’s strikingly original public artworks made many statements – and asked many questions – about the past and future of Clydeside, so his symbol was a fitting banner for the evening’s events.
Govan Old Churchyard

The churchyard of Govan Old, with a replica of the 10th century Jordanhill Cross in the foreground (Photo © B Keeling)

Before the procession began, the gathering heard a brief speech, given by myself, on the history of the route from the churchyard to Water Row. I spoke of the ceremonial path of the kings of Strathclyde linking the church to the Doomster Hill, a huge artificial mound utilised as a parliament hill and ritual venue 1000 years ago. The ceremonial landscape of church, path and hill constituted one of the foremost centres of power in Viking Age Britain. Traces of the path were discovered by archaeologists in the 1990s, in the southeast corner of the churchyard, with an alignment pointing towards Water Row and the Doomster Hill, but the great mound itself is long gone.
Govan: Water Row

Govan of the kings: church, parliament hill and ceremonial path.

Govan in 1839

Govan in 1839: Water Row and the river-crossing.

After saying a few words about Water Row, highlighting its historical significance as the last relic of Govan’s ancient connection with the river, I ended with an overview of the layers of history that followed the fall of the kings: the medieval village that sprang up around the crossing-point; the thriving community of weavers who survived until the 19th century; the great expansion of Govan in the shipbuilding era. I also mentioned that our gathering coincided with the centenary of a significant event: the loss of Govan’s independence on 5th November 1912 when it officially became part of the City of Glasgow.
Govan in 1930

Govan, c.1930: Water Row in the centre; old parish church at top left.

And so we set off on our processional journey. It was a fine autumn evening. Lantern-bearers accompanied us as we made our way out of the churchyard. Turning off the main road we entered Pearce Lane which marks the course of the royal pathway. This soon brought us to Water Row where the Ghost awaited us, its white walls illuminated from within. Gathering in the glow we listened as Andy McAvoy gave an evocative speech about the design and construction of the Ghost and what it represents. Andy spoke of the old ferry slipway that formerly lay at the end of Water Row, and of the cottages that once stood there. He observed that the withdrawal of the ferry service in 1966 severed Govan’s ancient connection with the north bank of the Clyde.
The Ghost Of Water Row

The Ghost Of Water Row: looking north across the Clyde to the Riverside Museum. Note the lanterns from the procession (© Tom Manley Photography)

Our attention next turned to the Fairway, a celebration of the fairground community that has dwelt in Govan for more than 100 years. As one of the oldest such communities in Europe, the ‘Showpeople’ are an integral part of the history of Govan. Their yard alongside Water Row maintains a long continuity of human settlement around the approach to the ancient crossing. We joined them for the grand unveiling of impressive new gates at the entrance to their yard, and listened to a speech by community leader Jimmy Stringfellow. A screen in front of the gates played a short film by local company Fablevision featuring Jimmy and members of his family talking about their heritage. The evening’s ceremonies ended with hot refreshments generously provided by the Showpeople.
Govan Fairway

Watching the Showpeople’s film in front of the new gate (© Tom Manley Photography)

Meanwhile, at the other end of Water Row, near Govan Cross, the Govan Incident Room was busy with investigations into what was missing from this part of the town. Witnesses to the lost heritage of the shipbuilding era were interviewed, and forensic evidence of the Doomster Hill was analysed, by chief investigators Kathy Friend and Susan Pettie. Like the Ghost, the Incident Room is an ongoing project that will continue to keep a spotlight on what happens in the area around Water Row – and on what Govanites would like to see happening.
The Ghost Of Water Row

The Ghost Of Water Row: looking south towards Govan Cross (© Tom Manley Photography)

Finally, after a successful and enjoyable series of celebrations, the crowd dispersed. The Ghost of Water Row was carried into the Showpeople’s yard for temporary storage, but plans are already afoot to bring it out for future events. Discussions and chinwags begun earlier in the evening resumed at Brechin’s Bar. The mood was positive, for the historical importance of Water Row had been highlighted and acknowledged. Hopes were high that Glasgow City Council might now postpone its plans for a car park on the site, at least until alternative uses for the land have been explored in consultation with local people.

But then, a few days later, the machines and materials arrived…..

Govan: Water Row

(© Tom Manley Photography)

Work on the new car park commenced in the ancient heart of Govan….
Govan: Water Row

(© Tom Manley Photography)

That was several weeks ago. Since then, the case for preserving and conserving the heritage of Water Row has been re-stated, and new voices have given their support. What is needed now, most urgently, is a pause, a breathing-space. There are hints that the situation may indeed be moving in that direction. A period of consideration and reflection would allow the future of this part of Govan to be examined carefully and openly, so that any development is guided not by short-term planning but by what local people actually want to see there.

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I am grateful to Tom Manley for letting me use his photographs in this blogpost.

A news report on the Ghost of Water Row appears in the architectural journal Urban Realm. See also a recent article by Tom Manley at the website of the Water Row Action Group (WRAG), and Edo Architecture’s flyer for the event of 5th November. Edo’s own blogpost on the Ghost has a good selection of photos by Tom Manley and Julia-Kristina Bauer.

To keep abreast of the latest news, visit the WRAG website or follow @Water_Row on Twitter, hashtag #waterrow.

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Today, 10th August, is the feast-day of St Blane, abbot of the monastery of Kingarth on the Isle of Bute, who died in 590. It is also the anniversary of a battle that took place in the year 756, a grievous military setback for the powerful Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. The circumstances surrounding this battle were described by a contemporary English chronicler :

In the year from the Lord’s Incarnation 756, King Eadberht in the eighteenth year of his reign, and Unust, king of the Picts, led an army to the town of Dumbarton. And hence the Britons accepted terms there, on the first day of the month of August. But on the tenth day of the same month perished almost the whole army which he led from Ouania to Niwanbirig, that is, to the New City.

Eadberht (pronounced ‘Yad-bert’) was one of Northumbria’s greatest warrior-kings. He had already enlarged his kingdom by conquering parts of Ayrshire, probably at the expense of the Clyde Britons whose kingdom was ruled at that time from Dumbarton Rock. Over on the northeastern frontier of his realm, Eadberht faced a lurking menace in the shape of the aggressive Pictish king Unust (Oengus in Gaelic). Both had tried, on separate occasions, to gain territory from the Britons, but in 756 they decided to pool their resources for a joint attack on Dumbarton. Their aim, no doubt, was to neutralise the Clyde king Dyfnwal so that he could no longer defend his lands from being plundered or annexed.

On 1st August, so the chronicler tells us, the combined Anglo-Pictish army marched to Dumbarton and forced the Britons to surrender. King Dyfnwal (pronounced ‘Duv-noo-wal’) would have had little choice but to pay homage to Unust and Eadberht. Separately, he might have been tempted to take each of them on – his father had famously defeated Unust at Mugdock in Strathblane six years earlier – but together the allies must have looked invincible. Dyfnwal’s capitulation would have involved a formal ceremony with rituals such as gift-giving and oath-pledging. It would have been staged at a prominent ceremonial site within his kingdom, and no site was better suited for this purpose than the Doomster Hill at Govan. My guess is that this is where the formal surrender took place on Sunday 1st August, 756.

Nine days later, on Tuesday 10th, the feast-day of St Blane, the Northumbrian army was ambushed after leaving Ouania. The latter is an artificial Latinised form of a place-name that is believed to be the original form of the name Govan. Early medieval chroniclers often rendered unfamiliar place-names into Latin because this was the language they used in their writings. Here, Ouania is simply an invented Latin form of a place-name that probably looked strange to an English chronicler reporting the events of August 756. The main language of Clydesdale in early medieval times was Cumbric, a Celtic language closely related to Welsh. In Cumbric the original name of Govan was something like Gwovan, which in Welsh would be Goban (go + ban = ‘little hill’). Interestingly, the English chronicler seems to have devised the pseudo-Latin name Ouania not from Cumbric Gwovan but from a different word Ouvan (the ‘u’ in Ouania represents the spoken letter ‘v’). Experts in Celtic place-names suggest that Ouvan may have been the Pictish name for Govan, in which case the chronicler presumably got his information on the campaign of 756 from a Pictish source. This is consistent with his spelling of Unust which is almost certainly the original Pictish form of the king’s name.

What the chronicler seems to be saying is that the Anglo-Pictish force separated after receiving Dyfnwal’s surrender, each army then returning home to Northumbria and Pictland respectively. Both Eadberht and Unust may have begun their homeward journeys at Govan, from where the Picts could easily ford the Clyde to pick up one of the main routes to Fife or Perthshire (via Strathblane or the Kelvin Valley). From Govan the Northumbrians likewise had a choice between an eastward route through English territory in Lothian or a southeastward one along Clydesdale to the headwaters of the Tweed. The chronicler doesn’t say which route Eadberht chose but does indicate that a place called Niwanbirig, the New City (or Fortress), lay somewhere along it. Before reaching Niwanbirig the Northumbrians were attacked and, in the ensuing battle, were almost wiped out.

Frustratingly, we don’t know where Niwanbirig was. The name is Old English (i.e. ‘Anglo-Saxon’) and on a modern map would appear as Newbury, Newburgh, Newbrough or Newborough. There’s a Newbrough near Hexham in Northumberland and some historians think this is the place Eadberht was aiming for when he left Govan. The problem with this theory is that Newbrough probably didn’t exist in Eadberht’s time. Equally frustrating is the chronicler’s failure to identify the attackers who ambushed the English army on 10th August. Were they Northumbrian rebels led by one of Eadberht’s ambitious rivals at home? Were they Picts sent treacherously by Unust to slay his former ally? Or were they Britons from the Clyde, hell-bent on avenging the humiliation of their king? It’s a puzzle to which we may never know the answer.

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Notes & references

* The Dyfnwal mentioned here was an earlier namesake of the tenth-century king who appears in Jim Ferguson’s story The Bride of King Dyfnwal (see previous blogpost).

* The chronicle describing these events was compiled at a Northumbrian monastery in the beginning of the ninth century, using information from older sources. Neither the author nor the place of compilation are known but the text was later incorporated into the History of the Kings attributed to the twelfth-century writer Symeon of Durham.

I examine the events of 756 on pages 153-6 of my book The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland.

James Fraser deals with the same topic on pages 316-8 of his book From Caledonia to Pictland: Scotland to 795.

For a detailed study of the place-names, see Thomas Owen Clancy’s article on the Friends of Govan Old website.

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Govan and the Doomster Hill in 1757

Glasgow-based writer and poet Jim Ferguson has written an excellent short story about one of the queens of Strathclyde. The setting is Govan in 975, the year when the elderly King Dyfnwal died while making a pilgrimage to Rome. Dyfnwal was a major player in the volatile politics of tenth-century Britain, having commenced his reign in the years following the famous battle of Brunanburh (937). His moment of greatest crisis came in 945 when an Anglo-Welsh army under the command of King Edmund of Wessex invaded Strathclyde. During the campaign two of Dyfnwal’s sons were taken captive and blinded by English soldiers. Meanwhile, the Scots of Alba – whom Dyfnwal’s father had aided against the English at Brunanburh – stood on the sidelines as Strathclyde was ravaged. Jim Ferguson’s story makes reference to these events in a way that brings us closer to the people involved. Through the eyes of Dyfnwal’s queen we see Govan as it was a thousand years ago, at the height of its first era of greatness, when it was the capital of a powerful kingdom. We see a landscape still recognisable today, even after the dramatic changes wrought by the industrial era. Thus, when the queen of Strathclyde looks out from the summit of the now-vanished Doomster Hill, her gaze takes in the ancient church (where the gravestones of her people are still preserved) and the great river that connects Govan’s past with its present and future.

Jim’s story was written for the public art project Nothing About Us Without Us Is For Us and read aloud beside the Clyde at the main NAUWU event on 28 April 2012.

The Bride of King Dyfnwal by Jim Ferguson

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Related links:

Jim Ferguson’s website

NAUWU main event

King Dyfnwal appears as a character of folklore in the English county of Cumbria where he is known as ‘King Dunmail’. Diane McIlmoyle provides a good summary of these traditions at her Cumbrian blog.

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Govan, c.1930: the shipbuilding yard on the site of the Riverside Estate

In a previous blogpost I mentioned a long-vanished feature of the Govan landscape: the Doomster Hill, the ceremonial mound of the kings of Strathclyde. It belongs to a category of monument that includes Tynwald Hill on the Isle of Man, the Thingmote of Viking Dublin and other ‘parliament hills’ of the early medieval period. In Scotland, the group is also represented by a recently discovered mound at Dingwall and the famous Moot Hill of Scone.

In the mid-1800s the Doomster Hill was destroyed to make space for a shipbuilding yard and no trace of it now survives. Eventually, in the late 20th century, the shipyard itself was demolished, a casualty of the decline of heavy industry on the Clyde. Today, the site of the hill lies under the Riverside Housing Estate.

On Saturday 31st March 2012, on a piece of ground at the edge of the Riverside, an event of profound significance took place. After an interval of 1000 years, the ancient ‘parliament’ of Govan was remembered – and symbolically re-convened – by a gathering of local people. This was more than a nod from present-day Govanites to their ancient heritage. It was an affirmation of continuity, a demonstration of the link between past and present in a part of Govan that has witnessed more than its fair share of change.

A report of the event by Matt Baker, with photographs by Ben Rush, can be found by following this link.

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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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