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Posts Tagged ‘Strathclyde’

Meeting of kings at Eamont, 927

Athelstan receiving oaths at the meeting of kings in 927 (illustration by John Archibald Webb, 1866-1947)

From the late ninth century to the mid-eleventh, when Govan was the chief ceremonial centre of the kingdom of Strathclyde, the king and his family probably spent their Christmases there. As the second most important date in the Christian calendar, December 25th was an opportunity for early medieval monarchs to display their religious credentials. It was a day when the entire royal entourage or court, comprising all the chief nobles and senior clergy of a kingdom, gathered together for a solemn mass. In Strathclyde, this Christmas service would most likely have taken place in the ancient church where Govan Old stands today. The mass would have been followed by a suitably lavish festive feast, perhaps at the royal hall across the river in Partick. We know of one year, however, when the king of Strathclyde spent Christmas in another land, far from the familiar fields of his own country.

The king in question was Owain, whose reign spanned the 920s and 930s – one of the most turbulent periods in Britain’s history. We first hear of him in 927, when he attended a meeting of rulers at the River Eamont near Penrith on the southern border of his realm. The meeting was summoned by Athelstan, king of England, the most powerful ruler in Britain at that time. Athelstan’s ambitions surpassed even those of his illustrious grandfather Alfred the Great, for he wanted to be acknowledged as ruler of the whole of Britain, from Orkney to Cornwall. He wanted all other folk – English, Welsh, Scots, Viking settlers and Strathclyde Britons – to recognise him as their overlord. Needless to say, not everyone was happy to oblige, but it may have seemed easier to just go along with his lofty ideas, at least for a while. At the meeting beside the River Eamont in 927, a number of prominent rulers – King Owain of Strathclyde, King Constantin of Alba (Scotland), King Hywel (from South Wales) and the English lord Ealdred of Bamburgh (in Northumbria) – all gave their pledge to Athelstan. They seemingly swore an oath of friendship with him, promising not to get too cosy with his Viking enemies.

The pact of peace seems to have endured for seven years until, in 934, Constantin of Alba and Owain of Strathclyde incurred Athelstan’s wrath.They broke their pledge, so Athelstan marched north to reassert his authority. With him on this expedition were Hywel and other Welsh kings, each leading an army to bolster the English troops. In a remarkable display of military power, Athelstan led his combined forces as far north as Aberdeenshire, while his fleet raided in Caithness. Both Constantin and Owain eventually surrendered, the price of their defeat being an oath of allegiance to Athelstan. Like the Welsh kings they now became his vassals or ‘under kinglets’ (Latin: subreguli). Henceforth, their kingdoms had to send regular tribute-payments to England, while they themselves were obliged to periodically travel south to attend the English court. How often they did so is unknown but we know of at least a couple of occasions when they were among Athelstan’s entourage, either together or singly. In 935, for instance, they were both present at Cirencester in Gloucestershire, for their names appear in a list of witnesses to a charter (a document recording a grant of royal land) issued at the old Roman city. At the end of the same year, Constantin was strangely absent when the English court assembled in Dorset, at the city of Dorchester. This was in the heartland of Wessex, the ancestral domain of Athelstan’s family. Here the English king issued another land-grant, and Owain was present as a witness.

The charter in question was dated 21 December, just four days before Christmas, so we can be fairly sure that Athelstan had decided to spend the festive season in Dorset. His whole entourage – family members, chief nobles and senior bishops – would have been obliged to remain with him, regardless of wherever else they wanted to be. So, too, would the vassal rulers from other lands, the subreguli who owed allegiance to him. Constantin of Alba didn’t turn up, presumably because he had shaken off the English yoke, but Owain and Hywel and other kings were in attendance. No doubt Owain wished he was spending Christmas in Govan, celebrating the Nativity with his own family and friends, but it was not to be. However, at some point in the following year, he followed Constantin’s example by rejecting English overlordship. These two kings then formed an alliance with the Vikings of Dublin and began to plot Athelstan’s downfall. In the autumn of 937, the three allies invaded England in great strength. Athelstan responded by defeating their combined armies at Brunanburh, one of the most famous battles of the early medieval period.

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Appendix: The Christmas charter

Charters were usually written in Latin by scribes attached to the king’s court. The majority are records of gifts of royal land to monasteries. A detailed description of the land being granted was normally followed by a list of witnesses who ‘agreed and subscribed’ the grant, each marking his or her attendance with a small cross. The first name on the list was the grant-giver himself (the king), followed by senior clergy, vassal-rulers (subreguli) and members of the nobility.

The charter issued by Athelstan at Dorchester on 21 December 935 recorded a gift of land to Malmesbury Abbey in Wiltshire. After Athelstan himself, the most important witnesses were the two leading clergymen in England: the archbishops of Canterbury and York. These were followed by the vassal-rulers, in order of seniority, with Owain of Strathclyde moving into top spot in the absence of Constantin of Alba. Hywel came next, as Athelstan’s most important Welsh vassal. After Hywel, the other Welsh kings stepped forward to mark their presence, but I’ve not included them in the extract shown here:

Ego Æthelstanus, ierarchia florentis Albionis prædictus rex, cum signo sanctæ semperque venerandæ crucis coroboravi hunc indiculum et subscripsi. + Ego Wulfhelmus Dorobernensis ecclesie archiepiscopus consensi et subscripsi. + Ego Wulfstanus Eboracensis ecclesie archiepiscopus consensi et subscripsi. + Ego Eugenius subregulus consensi et subscripsi. + Ego Howel subregulus consensi et subscripsi. + …. …. ….

[Translation] I, Athelstan, king of flourishing Albion in possession of the office, confirmed and subscribed this document with the mark of the holy and always to be venerated cross. + I, Wulfhelm, archbishop of the church of Canterbury, agreed and subscribed. + I, Wulfstan, archbishop of the church of York, agreed and subscribed. + I, Owain, under-kinglet, agreed and subscribed. + I, Hywel, under-kinglet, agreed and subscribed. +…. …. ….

The full text of this charter can be found at The Electronic Sawyer. Owain’s attendance at the English court is discussed in my book Strathclyde and the Anglo-Saxons in the Viking Age (p. 83) and in Alex Woolf’s From Pictland to Alba (pp. 167-8).

King Owain of Strathclyde

The British Isles in AD 935, showing places mentioned in this blogpost.

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Centres of power

In the past few days I’ve been working up a new post for my other blog Senchus. I’ll be looking at a controversial topic: the famous battle of Brunanburh, fought in AD 937 at an unidentified location somewhere in what is now northern England. The victor at Brunanburh was Athelstan, king of the English, a grandson of Alfred the Great. The leaders on the losing side were King Anlaf (‘Olaf’) of Dublin, King Constantin of Alba (Scotland) and King Owain of Strathclyde. In the blogpost I’ll calculate the distances travelled by the respective armies to a couple of places suggested as the site of the battle, and then mark the routes on a map. I’ll take the starting-point for each army as the leader’s principal centre of power or ‘royal capital’.

The map below represents an early stage in the exercise. It shows the ‘capitals’ of the main protagonists in the Brunanburh campaign: Winchester, chief power centre of the West Saxon dynasty who ruled most of Anglo-Saxon England in the tenth century; Dublin, headquarters of the most powerful Viking kingdom in the British Isles; Scone, home of the Gaelic-speaking kings of Alba; and Govan, the royal capital of Strathclyde. Two other places are also shown: York, the great stronghold of Anglo-Scandinavian Northumbria; and Bamburgh, an ancient coastal fortress in Bernicia (the northern part of Northumbria) held by a hereditary line of English lords.

Each of these places was a hub of political authority and military strength, and each played a role – directly or indirectly – in the sequence of events leading up to the Brunanburh campaign. Five of the six – Winchester, Dublin, York, Scone and Govan – were the most important centres of power in tenth-century Britain and Ireland. Govan’s membership of this elite quintet has frequently been overlooked but cannot be denied. Sculpture and archaeology confirm its status as one of the major royal capitals of the Viking Age.

Original topographic map by Equestenebrarum via Wikimedia Commons

Original topographic map by Equestenebrarum via Wikimedia Commons.

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Netherton Cross
A detailed blogpost on the Netherton Cross is in the pipeline but, for the moment, here are three photographs to introduce the cross to those of you who haven’t seen it before.

Briefly, this free-standing sandstone cross is a product of the ‘Govan School’ – the stonecarving style of the Strathclyde Britons – in an outlying district 12 miles from the main sculptural centre at Govan. The low-quality carving and lack of intricacy suggest that it belongs to the later phase of the style, when the standard of craftsmanship was waning. A date of c.1050, around the time when the Strathclyde Britons lost their independence, would probably not be wide of the mark.

Netherton Cross
The cross formerly stood beside the River Clyde but is now in the grounds of the new parish church at Hamilton. Devotees of ‘Dark Age’ Celtic sculpture could quite easily walk past this enigmatic monument without being aware of what it is. On one side it has a central boss, flanked by two triangular shapes, above an interlace pattern; the other side shows a crudely carved human figure above a central boss which has two pairs of snakes uncoiling from it. Other patterns are difficult to make out but were identified in Victorian times and noted in antiquarian literature. I’ll describe all the carvings more fully at some point.

Although rather simple and unsophisticated, the Netherton Cross is one of my favourite examples of Strathclyde sculpture. It’s a hefty piece, with a weight and bulk that give it an impressive aura. This and the older example from Barochan are the only two free-standing crosses of the Govan School that still remain intact.

Netherton Cross

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The three photographs are copyright © B Keeling. Two of them appear in my book The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland.

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Arthurlie Cross

Copyright © Chris Morrison


Chris Morrison, proprietor of the Grian Press, recently sent me some photos of the Arthurlie Cross, an early medieval monument situated in a residential area of Barrhead in East Renfrewshire. Although only the broken shaft of the cross survives, the clarity of the interlace patterns makes this one of the finest examples of sculptural art from the old kingdom of Strathclyde. The carvings are in the distinctive style of the ‘Govan School’ and enable the monument to be dated to the 9th-11th centuries AD.
Arthurlie Cross

Copyright © Chris Morrison


I visited the Arthurlie Cross in 2010 and included three images of it in my book The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland, published in the same year. Readers of the book will recognize the illustration shown below, an excellent drawing of the cross by John Romilly Allen (1847-1907).

Arthurlie Cross
For the past couple of years I’ve been working sporadically on a ‘biography’ of the Arthurlie Cross, tracing its thousand-year history as a public monument and exploring the folklore that grew around it. During the 18th and 19th centuries it was used in a more practical way, first as a footbridge over a stream and, later, as a gatepost. The damage it suffered is visible today, most notably on one side where the carvings have been worn almost smooth by the passage of countless feet. In the 21st century we might feel tempted to roll our eyes at such heedless disregard of an ancient monument, until we remind ourselves that it is an integral part of the story. If the cross had played no useful role in the daily life of the local community, it might have been broken up as masonry for buildings.
Arthurlie Cross

Copyright © Chris Morrison


Arthurlie Cross

Copyright © Chris Morrison


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The Arthurlie Cross is located at the junction of Springhill Road and Carnock Crescent in Barrhead, East Renfrewshire.

I am grateful to Chris Morrison for the photographs. Take a look at the Grian Press website to see a good selection of books on Scottish local history, including reprints of older works. Chris also posts interesting historical info at the Hidden Renfrewshire Facebook page.

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Govan cross-slab 34

Early medieval cross-slab at Govan, re-used in modern times when it was inscribed with the initials A.R.I.R. From Stirling-Maxwell’s Sculptured Stones in the Kirkyard of Govan (1899).


There is little doubt that the kirkyard of Govan Old Parish Church was a burial ground for the kings of Strathclyde from the ninth to eleventh centuries AD. Some of the surviving carved stones may have marked the graves not only of the kings themselves but also of other members of the royal family – queens, princes and princesses.

Although we cannot identify any particular stone as a royal grave-marker, the chances are that the largest and most ornately carved examples represent this category: the hogbacks, the Sarcophagus, and perhaps some of the finer recumbent slabs.

In this blogpost I’d like to indulge in some idle musing on a specific question: how many queens of Strathclyde were buried at Govan? It’s a question that cannot be answered with any measure of certainty, but it’s probably worth a rough guess. I started to think about it a few weeks ago, while writing about a much earlier princess of the kingdom.

My starting-point is a list of kings who ruled the Clyde Britons from 870 onwards. In that year, the old royal stronghold at Dumbarton was sacked by Vikings and the centre of the kingdom moved upstream to Govan and Partick.

The following list can also be viewed in ‘family tree’ format in an older blogpost.

Artgal, son of Dyfnwal [slain by Vikings in 872 while being held captive in Dublin]
Rhun, son of Artgal [married to a Pictish princess]
Eochaid, son of Rhun [king of the Picts c.877 to 889, but may have ended his days in Strathclyde as king of the Britons]
Dyfnwal [possibly a brother, son or nephew of Eochaid]
Owain, son of Dyfnwal [fought at the great battle of Brunanburh in 937]
Dyfnwal, son of Owain [died 975. His queen is the subject of Jim Ferguson’s story The Bride Of King Dyfnwal]
Mael Coluim (‘Malcolm’), son of Dyfnwal [died 997]
Owain, son of Dyfnwal [died 1015]
Owain ‘the Bald’ [fought at the battle of Carham-on-Tweed in 1018]
Mael Coluim [a prince of Strathclyde, perhaps a son or grandson of Owain the Bald, he briefly replaced Macbethad (Macbeth) as king of Scotland in 1054. Possibly ended his days in Strathclyde as king of the Britons – maybe as their last king?]

If the bones of the above men lie in the churchyard of Govan Old, then it’s a reasonable inference that their wives are also buried there. This would give us a rough figure of 10 graves of queens, without taking into account the possibility that some kings were married more than once, and without allowing for other variables (such as burial in another cemetery). Unfortunately, we don’t know the names of any of these women.

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Note 1: Princesses
Queens would not have been the only royal females buried at Govan. The churchyard undoubtedly holds the graves of princesses – sisters and daughters of kings – but we cannot even venture a wildly approximate guess at their numbers. Some princesses would have been betrothed to men in neighbouring kingdoms via political marriages arranged by their respective families. Their graves presumably lie outside Strathclyde, and in some cases outside mainland Britain. Others would have been married to powerful noblemen within Strathclyde, in which case their graves could lie in distant corners of the kingdom, far from the church at Govan where they would have worshipped as children.

Note 2: Artgal’s queen
Assuming that King Artgal’s wife was captured at the siege of Dumbarton and taken as a high-value prisoner to Viking Dublin, she may have died alongside him when he was murdered there in 872. If, however, she was released alive (perhaps after being ransomed by her son Rhun) she may have seen out her remaining years at the new royal settlement in Govan, where her grave might even be the first female royal burial in the churchyard.

Note 3: Rhydderch’s wife
Rhydderch, son of the Dyfnwal who died in 975, is omitted from the above list of kings because the historical record suggests that the kingship passed to his brother Mael Coluim. No source calls Rhydderch a king, so I’m assuming his wife wasn’t a queen. In 971, this couple were hit by tragedy when their daughter was raped (and possibly murdered) by the Scottish king Cuilen, whom Rhydderch later killed in revenge.

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References

Alan Macquarrie, ‘The Kings of Strathclyde, c.400-1018’, pp.1-19 in A. Grant & K. Stringer (eds) Medieval Scotland: Crown, Lordship & Community (Edinburgh, 1993)

Tim Clarkson, The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland (Edinburgh, 2010), pp.159-93 [on the kingdom of Strathclyde]

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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.

Macbeth

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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Notes

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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Strathclyde sculpture: the Dumb Proctor
The main cemetery for the community of Lochwinnoch in Renfrewshire sits high on a hillside on the edge of the village, above the west bank of the River Calder. Among the numerous memorials and tombstones is a strange-looking object known as the ‘Dumb Proctor’ which stands like a sentinel among the graves of the Ewing family. The old Scots word ‘proctor’, a shortened form of ‘procurator’, refers (in most instances) to a religious official. This one is ‘dumb’ because it’s made of sandstone. It does indeed resemble a stooping, hooded figure. To local historian Derek Parker, who described the stone some years ago, it seemed like “a brooding monk silently summoning sinners to repentance”.

Strathclyde sculpture: the Dumb Proctor

‘a brooding monk’


The front of the stone is dominated by a large boss in the upper section, below which is a serpent. Beneath the serpent is a horseman, now much weathered, above a square panel containing five horizontal bars. A report from 1890 described a border of Celtic interlace but no trace of any such pattern is visible today. On the reverse is the lower part of a large human figure wearing a long tunic or robe.
Strathclyde sculpture: the Dumb Proctor
Although the Dumb Proctor was once regarded as mysterious, we now know that it is a Christian monument of the early medieval period. The serpent is the last survivor of a quartet which once formed a cross around the central boss. These creatures symbolize redemption and rebirth, the analogy being the periodic shedding of their old skin. Arranged in a cross-shape they display the Christianity of the wealthy patrons who commissioned the stone. Likewise, the large figure carved on the back may represent the Crucified Christ, by analogy with examples from elsewhere.
Lochwinnoch Dumb Proctor
The horseman, although now indistinct, conforms to a type seen on stones of the ‘Govan School’ of sculpture. Govan appears to have been the premier stonecarving centre in the kingdom of Strathclyde during the 9th-11th centuries. Artistic styles developed at Govan were disseminated throughout the kingdom, appearing on monuments in frontier regions such as Ayrshire and the shores of Loch Lomond. The area around Lochwinnoch must at one time have lain within the kingdom’s southwestern border, probably close to an interface between the Strathclyde Britons and the Gaelic-speaking Gall Gaidhil who had been colonising Ayrshire since the 9th century. Lochwinnoch lay on an important route connecting the core of Strathclyde to the Irish Sea coastlands. It is possible that the Dumb Proctor was originally placed as a wayside cross along this route, perhaps to mark a boundary. The horseman – a mounted warrior – indicates that this was a secular monument rather than an ecclesiastical one.

Lochwinnoch
The Dumb Proctor owes its current shape to alterations made since its discovery in the early 19th century. It was unearthed in a field on the old farm of the Ewings, who placed it in their garden before re-shaping it as a gravestone. How much of the monument was lost during this process is unknown, for there is no contemporary illustration from the time of discovery. Nevertheless, the surviving portion was correctly identified as the upper part of a free-standing cross as far back as 1890. More recently, Alan Macquarrie proposed that the cross-head was probably similar to others of the Govan sculptural style, such as the still-intact example from Barochan (now in Paisley Abbey). The device of four serpents emerging from a central boss is reminiscent of the Sun Stone at Govan.

A reconstruction drawing of the Dumb Proctor appears on page 17 in the published version of Alan Macquarrie’s Govan Lecture for 2005. This was redrawn by Ingrid Shearer for a new book by Derek Alexander and Gordon McCrae on the history of Renfrewshire. My own attempt at a reconstruction can be seen below. It’s how I imagine the Dumb Proctor might have looked today if it still had its cross-head (in which case I suppose it wouldn’t look much like a proctor at all).

Strathclyde sculpture: the Dumb Proctor

My ‘reconstruction’ of the Dumb Proctor.

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Notes & references

All photographs and illustrations in this blogpost are copyright © T Clarkson.

Alan Macquarrie, Crosses and Upright Monuments in Strathclyde: Typology, Dating and Purpose (Govan: Friends of Govan Old, 2006), pp.17-18

Derek Alexander & Gordon McCrae, Renfrewshire: a Scottish County’s Hidden Past (Edinburgh: Birlinn, 2012), pp.91-2.
[In my opinion, this book is an essential resource for anyone researching the kingdom of Strathclyde]

Derek Parker, ‘The Timeless Message of the Dumb Proctor’, Chatterbox, no.180 (2008)
[Chatterbox is a newsletter published by Lochwinnoch Community Council]

See also the entry for the Dumb Proctor on the Canmore database.

Allen and Anderson’s Early Christian Monuments of Scotland makes no mention of the Dumb Proctor, despite including Renfrewshire’s other surviving monuments of the Govan School. The Lochwinnoch volume of Archaeological and Historical Collections Relating to the County of Renfrew (the 1890 report mentioned above) had recognized the Proctor as an early Christian stone a dozen years before the compilation of ECMS. Were Allen and Anderson unaware of this?

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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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Fairlie Stone

Copyright © B Keeling


Just inside the entrance to the parish church at Fairlie, North Ayrshire, is a well-preserved example of ‘Govan School’ sculpture. This is the Fairlie Stone, the last surviving portion of a recumbent (horizontal) monument designed to cover a grave. Its carvings are remarkably similar to those on a recumbent cross-slab at Inchinnan, near Renfrew, and to other examples of the Govan artistic style. What we are presumably seeing at Fairlie is a section of one of the long sides of a broken cross-slab, the rest of the monument having disappeared without trace.
Fairlie Stone

Copyright © B Keeling


The carvings are clear and easily photographed. Viewed from right to left, we see the common Govan School motif of a beast biting its tail, then a larger beast with open jaws, and finally a man lying on the ground. The large beast seems to be about to attack the man, who has a round shield and a sword. Perhaps he is a casualty of war, lying slain or wounded on a battlefield, with wolves gathering around to devour him?
Fairlie Stone

Copyright © B Keeling


Fairlie Stone

Copyright © B Keeling


By analogy with similar sculpture we can date the Fairlie Stone to the 10th century, or possibly the early 11th. Like the Inchinnan cross-slab it comes from an old religious site, in this case a long-vanished chapel on the Kelburn Estate to the north of Fairlie village. The chapel may have stood on the site of an ancient church and cemetery where high-status local families buried their dead in early medieval times.

It is interesting to note the presence of this type of sculpture – the stonecarving style of the kingdom of Strathclyde – so far from the main centres of power and patronage at Govan and Partick. Indeed, some historians believe that much of Ayrshire lay under the authority not of the Clyde kings but of the fearsome Gall-Gaidhil (‘Foreign Gaels’), a people of mixed Gaelic-Scandinavian heritage who settled the western shorelands of northern Britain in the wake of the first Viking raids. But the Fairlie Stone, together with another example of Govan School sculpture 9 miles south-east at Kilwinning, suggest that either the Gall-Gaidhil commissioned Govan-trained stonemasons to carve their monuments, or that they themselves were vassals of the kings of Strathclyde.

Fairlie Stone

The geographical context of the Fairlie Stone.


Although we know little of the early history of the Fairlie stone, its discovery in modern times is well-documented. It was retrieved during the demolition of Chapel House, a farmhouse erected on the Kelburn Estate in 1745, where it had served as a lintel over a fireplace. At that time it had a coating of black lead, but it was later cleaned before being placed in the garden of St Margaret’s Manse in Fairlie village. From there it was transferred to St Margaret’s Church where it was embedded in a wall inside the entrance. Finally, it was removed again to be inserted in a similar position at St Paul’s Church, now the parish church of Fairlie.

While it lay in the manse garden of St Margaret’s, the stone was described by a local resident, Miss Hutcheson, in the 1894 volume of Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland. The description was accompanied by a photograph taken by Andrew Miller, another Fairlie inhabitant. Although the stone was noted 9 years later in the magisterial Early Christian Monuments of Scotland, it was evidently not viewed in person by the authors Joseph Anderson and John Romilly Allen, who instead cited Miss Hutcheson’s PSAS article as their source.

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References

Miss Hutcheson, (Untitled description of the Fairlie Stone), Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, vol.28 (1894) 234-6.
Full-text available online

John Romilly Allen and Joseph Anderson (1903) The Early Christian Monuments of Scotland (Edinburgh: Society of Antiquaries of Scotland) [pp.475 of Part III] Reprinted in facsimile by the Pinkfoot Press in 1993.

[I believe the photograph shown by Allen and Anderson to be Andrew Miller’s from the 1894 article but, because they don’t give Miller a namecheck, it appears uncredited like the photos taken by Allen himself.]

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Relevant links

The Fairlie Stone described at the Canmore database of RCAHMS

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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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