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Posts Tagged ‘hogbacks’

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.

ScotlandsMerlin_cover300

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.

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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 hogback 5

Govan hogback (No.5)


This Friday, 12th December 2014, at the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) in Edinburgh, Dr Victoria Whitworth will be speaking about the hogback stones at Govan, Meigle and Inchcolm. I’m sorry to miss this lecture as it promises to be a fascinating discussion of a particularly enigmatic type of monument. Dr Whitworth, an expert on the Viking Age sculpture of Britain and Ireland, is a lecturer in the Centre for Nordic Studies at the University of the Highlands and Islands. Her book Dying and Death in Later Anglo-Saxon England was published in 2004 and reissued as a paperback in 2012. In addition to her academic research she also writes historical fiction set in Viking times and has already produced two novels (The Bone Thief and The Traitors’ Pit).

Friday’s lecture is free and runs from 1.00pm to 2.00pm. The venue is the Conference Room at RCAHMS which is located at 16 Bernard Terrace (postcode EH8 9NX). Further details can be found at the Eventbrite booking page.

Victoria Whitworth has her own website as well as a staff page at UHI. She can also be followed on Twitter.

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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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Govan hogback

Govan hogback (known as ‘Govan 2’) inside the old parish church.


One of the famous Govan hogbacks is going to the British Museum. There it will join other artefacts in an exhibition called Vikings: Life and Legend which runs until June. The loan is temporary, of course, so the stone will eventually come home. No doubt it will attract many admirers during its stay in London, especially among people who have never seen a hogback gravestone before. Although all hogbacks are impressive, those at Govan are truly awesome, being the largest examples of the type.

The 400-mile journey is the longest ever undertaken by one of the Govan stones.

Not since the year 935, when King Owain made a couple of trips to Wessex, has the South of England received such an esteemed visitor from the ancient capital of Strathclyde.

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Check out these media reports:
BBC News
The Scotsman
STV News
The Herald
and the exhibition webpage:
Vikings: Life and Legend at the British Museum

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A tantalising preview of the re-displayed Govan hogbacks appeared recently on Facebook, courtesy of the Weaving Truth With Trust project. These amazing monuments – shaped like Viking houses – look really impressive in their new positions. The WTWT team is designing a textile screen to hang in the arch behind them.

The other stones have also been moved, and their new information boards are almost complete. Soon, the old parish church of Govan (‘Govan Old’) will open its doors to visitors for the summer season.

This is the third largest collection of early medieval carved stones in Scotland still in its place of origin. Only St Andrews and Iona have more. So, if you admire the Celtic art of the Picts and Scots but haven’t yet seen the unique sculpture of the Strathclyde Britons, make 2013 the year you visit Govan.

More information will be posted here in due course. In the meantime, click the link below to see the hogbacks in their new settings.

Weaving Truth With Trust – The Govan hogbacks re-displayed

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Govan hogback

Govan hogback (Govan 12)


The hogback tombstones inside Govan Old Parish Church are the most distinctive monuments at the site. For many visitors they are what makes the Govan sculpture unique and different. Surprisingly, given the usual interpretation of the hogbacks as representions of Viking houses, this type of monument is not found in Scandinavia. A few examples are found in other parts of Scotland but the five at Govan form the country’s largest single group. The type is found also in northern England, in what was once the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, with a small number in the English midlands (the old kingdom of Mercia). Some of the Northumbrian examples are older than those at Govan and seem to represent the beginnings of the hogback style, with Yorkshire being the most likely place of origin.

The first Northumbrian hogbacks were carved in the late 9th century, at a time when Viking warlords had seized power at York after ousting the last Anglo-Saxon kings. English authority was restored by the powerful kings of Wessex in the middle of the following century but the period of Scandinavian rule had left its mark. Thus, by c.950, people of Norwegian and Danish origin were settled across many parts of Northumbria. The wealthiest settlers were probably the first folk to request tombstones in the hogback style. They would have commissioned these distinctive memorials from skilled English stonecarvers in Yorkshire and elsewhere.

Govan hogback

Govan hogback (Govan 11)


How and why the hogback style came to be adopted by the stonecarvers at Govan is unknown. People of Scandinavian origin almost certainly lived in Strathclyde alongside the native Britons, either through inter-marriage or because of some special skill (soldier, sailor, merchant, craftsman). Some may have come from Northumbria in the time of the Viking kings of York, bringing with them a preference for tombstones in the hogback style. Alternatively, the incomers may have been Northumbrians of English ancestry who happened to admire the hogback and who were rich enough to commission them for dead relatives. A third option is that the hogbacks were carved for indigenous Clyde Britons, perhaps for those who had visited Northumbria and seen similar tombstones there. The five Govan hogbacks are the biggest and heaviest examples of the type and must have been very expensive. Too expensive, perhaps, for all but the topmost tier of society. Indeed, it is possible that one or more of them marked the graves of the royal family of Strathclyde.
Penrith hogback

Penrith hogback


Penrith hogback

Penrith hogback


In a future blogpost I’ll look more closely at the sculptural details on the Govan hogbacks. Here, I simply want to compare them with a group of four Northumbrian examples at Penrith in Cumbria. The greater size and bulk of those at Govan is the most striking difference, but it is also interesting to note the similarities. At both Govan and Penrith, for instance, we see the characteristic ‘roof tile’ pattern reminiscent of long wooden houses in the Viking homelands of Scandinavia. If such structures were built in 9th-century Northumbria they may have provided English craftsmen with models for the tombstones of a new Scandinavian elite.
Govan hogback

The oldest Govan hogback (Govan 2)


All the Govan hogbacks were carved in the 10th century, the earliest (known as ‘Govan 2’) being similar in shape to the four at Penrith: it is fairly slim, with steep sides. Govan 2 was probably carved c.950, whereas its bulkier neighbours belong to the latter part of the century. At both Govan and Penrith no hogback is in its original position: the Govan group was moved inside for protection and is now displayed in the old parish church; the Penrith stones sit in the churchyard as integral parts of the mysterious ‘Giant’s Grave’.
Giant's Grave Penrith

The Giant's Grave at Penrith


For a brief summary of the Govan hogbacks I recommend Anna Ritchie’s booklet, published in 1999, which is a useful introduction to the Govan sculpture as a whole (and excellent value too).

All photographs in this blogpost are copyright © B Keeling.

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