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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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Pictish warriors

Pictish warriors on a stone at Aberlemno in Angus (Photo © B Keeling)


The sculptured stones at Govan Old Parish Church are sometimes inaccurately described as ‘Pictish’, probably because their carvings share similarities with those we see on genuine Pictish stones in Perthshire and elsewhere. It is certainly true that the Govan stonemasons borrowed ideas from their Pictish counterparts, but the territory in which they lived was not part of Pictland, nor were its inhabitants Picts. At the time when the stones were carved (9th to 11th centuries AD) Govan was the royal capital of the kingdom of Strathclyde, the last surviving realm of the Cumbri or North Britons.

Before the Romans invaded Britain in the 1st century AD, the ancestors of the Cumbri and the ancestors of the Picts were members of an indigenous population that inhabited the whole of Britain. All of these natives were known to the Roman invaders as ‘Britons’. Among their most famous representatives in Roman times were the fierce Queen Boudica and the rebellious warlord Caractacus. But 400 years of Roman military occupation left its mark and, when Rome withdrew in the early 5th century, these ‘Ancient Britons’ were no longer seen as one people. A large proportion of those in the far north were now referred to as Picti, ‘Picts’, which probably means ‘The Painted Ones’. The rest continued to call themselves ‘Britons’ but began also to use another term, Combrogi, which later became Cymry and which means ‘fellow countrymen’. The present-day Welsh – last modern remnant of the native Britons – still use Cymry when referring to themselves in their own language, and their country is Cymru (pronounced Cum-ree). Their former fellow-countrymen in the north used a similar term, Cumbri, but little trace of them survives today in their ancient territories in southern Scotland. However, their name lives on in the English county of Cumbria which was the southernmost province of the kingdom of Strathclyde a thousand years ago.

The people who commissioned the Govan stones, and the craftsmen who carved them, were therefore not Picts but Cumbri or North Britons. They spoke a language that we now usually refer to as Cumbric, basically a northern dialect of Welsh. Cumbric and Welsh, like Gaelic, were members of the Celtic language family but belonged to a separate branch known today as Brittonic or Brythonic. At one time, the Picts also spoke a Brittonic language, but around AD 800 they began to adopt the Gaelic speech of the Scots of Argyll and, by c.900, they were even starting to call themselves ‘Scots’. Their country – ‘Pictland’ – became known as Alba, still used today as the Gaelic name for Scotland.

So, the Govanites of 1000 years ago were not Picts. Nor can the carved stones in the ancient royal church be accurately described as ‘Pictish’. In fact, we know of only two instances when Picts were seen at Govan. The first was in 756, when a combined army of Picts and Northumbrian English attacked the Britons of the Clyde. The invaders besieged the great Rock of Dumbarton (Dun Breatann, ‘Fortress of the Britons’) and forced its king to capitulate. It seems that the Anglo-Pictish army assembled at Govan to receive the formal surrender. The second instance came in the following century, after a Viking raid on Dumbarton in 870 prompted the royal dynasty of the Britons to transfer the seat of royal power to Govan. A king called Rhun (prounounced ‘Rhinn’) was probably the first to rule from the new centre. His queen, whose name we do not know, was a Pict, a daughter of the Pictish king Cináed mac Ailpín (‘Kenneth MacAlpin’). She almost certainly worshipped in the church at Govan and was probably buried in the kirkyard beneath a finely carved tombstone.

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Notes

The ‘Welshness’ of the kingdom of the Clyde Britons is not in doubt. As well as plenty of evidence in the form of place-names and the names of kings, we have written testimony from the time. To their neighbours in Northumbria, the Govanites of a thousand years ago were Straecledwealas, ‘Strathclyde Welsh’, an Old English term found in the 10th-century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Although I here describe the present-day Welsh as the ‘last modern remnant’ of the native Britons, this is not meant to exclude those people in Cornwall who proudly claim native British ancestry. It is, however, meant to apply to mainland Britain alone, and therefore excludes the Bretons (whose ancestors migrated to Brittany in the 5th century AD).

I’ve looked at the ‘ethnicity’ and cultural identity of early medieval Strathclyde in an earlier blogpost: People, Place & Memory. A fuller treatment of the topic can be found in my book The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland.

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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 Jordanhill Cross

Horseman on the Jordanhill Cross, Govan (Photograph © B Keeling)

In the 9th, 10th and 11th centuries, when the sculptured stones now preserved in the old parish church at Govan were being carved, the people of the area spoke a language similar to Welsh. This differed from the Gaelic of Ireland and Argyll, having more in common with the language of the Picts to which it was closely related. But the district around Govan was not Pictish. Its inhabitants in early medieval times were not Picts but Britons. They were descended from natives encountered by Roman armies during the invasion and conquest of Britain in the 1st century AD. The Romans used the name ‘Britons’ as an umbrella term encompassing all indigenous people of the island. Later, at the end of the 3rd century, another term Picti came into use to describe troublesome groups of Britons in the highland zone beyond the Forth-Clyde isthmus. Meanwhile, in the far northwestern coastlands, native communities in Argyll and the Hebrides adopted the Gaelic speech of Ireland and, by c.300, were no longer identifiable as ‘Britons’. These groups became known as Scotti (Scots), a name apparently bestowed by Rome on all Gaelic-speakers regardless of where they lived.

A different group of people, the Anglo-Saxons or ‘English’, came to Britain to fight for the Roman Army as mercenaries. After the collapse of Roman rule in the early 5th century they arrived in greater numbers, sailing across the North Sea from homelands in Germany, Denmark and Holland. Within two hundred years they had taken over many southern parts of Britain, seizing territory by force and establishing their own kingdoms. By c.700 only a few western areas remained in the hands of the Britons, the largest block comprising what is now Wales. In the North, the last independent kingdom of Britons lay in the lower valley of the River Clyde. Its main centre of power was Alt Clut, the Rock of Clyde at present-day Dumbarton. From this lofty citadel the kings of Alt Clut looked out on a realm surrounded on all sides by enemies: Scots to the west, Picts to the north, Anglo-Saxons to the east and south.

Kingdom of Alt Clut

The Britons of Alt Clut and their neighbours, AD 700.

The Britons of the Clyde were converted to Christianity in the 5th and 6th centuries. Missionaries from other parts of Britain, and from Ireland, preached among them and baptised the kings of Alt Clut. Old legends and traditions assert that the earliest churches were founded by saints such as Kentigern (Glasgow), Conval (Inchinnan) and Mirin or Mirren (Paisley). The first church at Govan is said to have been established by St Constantine, an obscure figure identified in later tradition as a disciple of Kentigern. More will be said of Constantine in a future blogpost.

The kingdom of Alt Clut was still in existence when the Vikings began raiding the British Isles at the end of the 8th century. In 870, a large Viking army from Dublin besieged the royal citadel on Clyde Rock and captured the king of the Britons. It is sometimes assumed that this led to the total collapse of the kingdom, and that it was seized by the Scots, but this is not what happened. The focus of royal power simply moved upstream, away from the Rock of Clyde. One new centre of royal authority began to develop on the south bank of the river, at an ancient crossing-point opposite the inflow of the Kelvin. Here, at Govan, and at other places along the valley, the old realm of the Clyde Britons rose again with renewed vitality. The kingdom received a new name, Strat Clut (Strathclyde) to show that its heartland was now the valley of the river rather than the headwaters of the firth. From here the kings of the Britons began to take back what they had lost. Their reconquest was swift, for their former foes in the Anglo-Saxon realm of Northumbria had already been ousted by Viking warlords. The rule of Northumbrian kings no longer reached across the Solway Firth as it had done in the 7th and 8th centuries. By the early 900s, the kings of Strathclyde held sway over large tracts of what is now South West Scotland, having ousted an English-speaking aristocracy from lands that had been Northumbrian for the previous two hundred years.

Within a couple of generations of the siege of Dumbarton the power of the Britons reached as far south as the River Eamont in present-day Cumbria. The latter has been a familiar name on modern maps since 1974 when the old counties of Cumberland and Westmorland were amalgamated but its origins are much older. It is a Latinised form of Old English Cumber Land (‘Land of the Cumbri’), a name we find in the 10th-century Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. Cumbri is simply a northern equivalent of Cymry (pronounced ‘Cum-ree’), a term still used today by the people of Wales when referring to themselves. Both terms derive from an older word combrogi which meant ‘fellow-countrymen’ in the ancient language of the Britons. The kings of Strathclyde, together with their subjects at Govan and elsewhere, considered themselves Cumbri, but to their Anglo-Saxon neighbours they were simply wealas (‘Welsh’) like their compatriots further south.

Kingdom of Strathclyde

Strathclyde: the kingdom of the Cumbri, AD 950.

Strathclyde remained a major political power to the end of the 10th century and was still playing an important role in the early 11th. Its kings took part in significant wars and in many other great events of the time. This was the period when the stonecarvers of the ‘Govan School’ produced the crosses, cross-slabs and hogback tombstones that we see today at places like Inchinnan, Lochwinnoch, Arthurlie and Govan itself. The folk who commissioned these monuments, like the craftsmen who carved them, were the people known to the Anglo-Saxons as Cumbras and wealas. To modern historians they are ‘Cumbrians’, ‘Strathclyde Welsh’ or ‘North Britons’. At some point around the middle of the 11th century their homeland was conquered by the Scottish kings of Alba and the native royal dynasty was expelled. By c.1150, the inhabitants of Clydesdale had given up their ancestral language in favour of Gaelic. They were no longer Cumbri but had become ‘Scots’ like their new political masters. Inevitably, as time wore on, the deeds of their forefathers began to fade from memory. Soon only the sculptured stones remained, a handful of monuments scattered across the land, to bear mute witness to a forgotten people.

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