A History of Govan for Radio

Today, I’m going to tell you about the history of Govan from the earliest of times, right up to the present. Many hundreds of thousands of years ago, Govan was once covered by a large inland sea. This accounts for the shells, marine organisms, beach lines and other sedimentary deposits found in the locality. I remember that when I was a wean that I sometimes dug up cockles and shells on the hillside at the back of the old railway and I always thought that these had been buried there by people who had been on bus runs to Saltcoats. Well, now I know better!

At any rate, due to natural occurrences, the land beneath this great inland sea rose and, as the water disappeared, the area was first formed into a flat, marshy site before volcanic activity gave it its irregular features. Now, the Govan area along the River Clyde is low and flat, and varies in height from 19 to 24 feet above sea level. In the northern section of Govan Parish’s old territory, across the River, it climbs to a height of 214 feet while on this side of the River, in the south; it is 137 feet at Titwood, 165 feet at Ibrox, and 170 feet at Haggbowse. Beds of fine clay and sand have been found in Govan, Linthouse, and Shieldhall and at different heights above sea level in other parts of the district. 1

We know that Stone-Age boat people were in the area about 5, 000 years ago because, although the first written mention of the River Clyde was not until the Roman writer Tacitus wrote his ‘Agricola’ in AD 98, we also know from the evidence of Stone-Age canoes, such as the one found at Kingston Dock and another in the Kelvin, that people were moving around in the Govan area c. 3, 000 BC. We can also tell from the evidence of ancient stones found in Govan Old Parish Church, that people were worshiping in the area about 3,000 years ago while the name ‘Govan’ itself, which is an ancient Welsh word meaning ‘smiths’ or ‘place of the ironworkers’ ), that a settled, iron working community were living in Govan c. 1, 000 BC.

The people who ha settled down in the area were Druid-worshiping Celts whom the Romans knew as the ‘Damnonii’ and, although they were ruled by kings, or tribal chiefs, Julius Caesar says that the real power lay in the hands of their priests. He thought that this priesthood originated in Britain before it had spread to the continent, and it was their great power over the tribes that the Romans tried to eradicate when first, they invaded Gaul under Caesar, and then Britain in AD 43 under the emperor Claudius. However, the Romans never reached the Govan area until AD 81, when the emperor Domitian sent his general Agricola up north to Scotland. Even so, it wasn’t until AD 142 that the Romans built a turf wall from the Clyde to the River Forth. This lasted only about 50 years before it was abandoned about 50 years later and Govan and Scotland, or Caledonia (as the Romans called it), was left to its own devices.

Whether or not the Romans eradicated Druidic-led worship in the Govan area, pagan worship would have continued until Christianity (which entered Britain with the Romans), had replaced it. The earliest written reference to Christianity in the United Kingdom comes from Origen of Alexandra who died around AD 254 and we also know that 3 British bishops were present at the Synod of Arles in AD 314. This means that there must have been some sort of Christian organisation by that time in Britain.

The first established ‘Church’ in Britain was the Celtic Church, which basically developed local rules to suit local conditions and interpreted the Scriptures as it thought best. Many of the earliest religious sites were built upon the same spot as Druidic colleges and sacred pagan places which is probably what happened at the site of Govan’s Old Parish Church where at least one ancient standing stone still remains –although this was later transformed into the shaft of a Celtic Cross. One of the earliest Celtic churches in Scotland was the ‘White House’ of St. Ninian (c. AD 370-432) at Whithorn in Galloway, which he built when founding the first known monastery in the British Isles

However, Christianity came late to the Govan area because the earliest written record of Christianity near Govan is a note on the death of Glasgow’s patron saint St. Kentigern or ‘Mungo’ (dear beloved) in AD 612. Although there are many myths and fabrications about his life, we do know that he founded a new Celtic church beside the Molindinar Burn in Glascu (‘the green hollow’), when he was asked to become the bishop of Glasgow c. AD 580. The city itself was not a cult centre – this existed at Govan, which remained the pre-eminent religious centre in the area until the 12th century (see below).

After the Romans had left Britain for good (AD 410), 5 separate groups began to fight for territory in what came to be known as Scotland. These were the Britons of Strathclyde, who lived in the Clyde valley and further south; the Scots (or Gaels), who had come over from Ireland and who now inhabited Dal Riata (West Scotland); the Anglians (Saxons) who had migrated from Germany, and who lived in the east of England; the Picts (an amalgamation of various tribes ), who lived in north and east Scotland, and finally the Scandinavians from Norway, Sweden and Denmark.

The Picts, who are often thought of as the original inhabitants of Scotland, were a Celtic people who lived mainly in the north and the east of Scotland sometime between the 3rd and the 10th centuries AD. The first literary mention of them as ‘Picts’ comes from the Roman writer Eumenius who called them by the name ‘Picti’ in AD 297 and, although scholars thought that this meant ‘painted people’ they now believe that what Eumenius meant was ‘someone who owned land or a property’. Both St. Ninian (400’s) and St. Columba (AD 565) spread Christianity among the Picts before they became the most powerful group in northern Britain c. AD 700. In AD 843 they united with the Scottish king Kenneth MacAlpine and then seemed to disappear as a people around the year 900.

The Norwegian Vikings first appeared in Scotland just before AD 800 when they colonised the Pictish islands of the Orkney’s and the Shetlands. From there they moved southwest down the mainland of the Scottish coast until they eventually set up colonies in the West of Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man. At the same time as this was happening, other Vikings (the Swedes and the Danes) were attacking the shores of England before they settled down there also. In fact, it was the Viking threat to the Scots and the English that helped the unification of both these countries. For instance, when the Picts felt surrounded by the Vikings in the north, west and southeast, this was one of the reasons that they joined forces with the Dal Riadan Scots under Kenneth MacAlpin in AD 843 and eventually carved out a new land called Scotland, or the Land o the Lea.

The Vikings were pagans who brought with them their own religion and burial culture, which included burying people either in boats or under them. They also brought their distinctively shaped longhouses, which rose in a curve – akin to a hog’s back, and this is why they are known as hogback longhouses. These distinctly shaped structures were believed to be Viking in origin because of certain parallels with houses in Scandinavia however, they are also found in Germany and Holland. The largest known group of these structures are the remains of those found inside the circular fortresses at Aggersborg, Trellesborg and Fyrkat.

Each of the buildings had long, curved walls about 100 feet long, which swung in at both ends and terminated in straight gables. Their shingle-covered ridgeback roofs came down over the walls and their weight was held by external, inwardly sloping posts (see fig. 1). As dozens of them were found in each of the above fortresses, it seems reasonable to assume that they were barracks for the fighting men who lived there. Although hogback tombstones perhaps reveal the shape of Viking houses in Scotland and the north of England, the stone memorials that they left behind were probably brought about by a mingling of cultures in these isles. In fact, by c. AD 850, a warrior force of Gall-Gaedhill ‘Foreign Gaels’ (natives and Vikings), were recorded on both sides of the Irish Sea and this shows the degree of integration that was taking place among the natives and the Vikings

Shortly after the death of Kenneth MacAlpin, his successor Constantine 1 allied himself to Olaf, the Norwegian King of Dublin. This helped lead to the 4-month siege and capture of the Strathclyde Britons capital of Dumbarton Rock on the Clyde, and Viking hegemony over the area c. AD 860. A medieval account of the siege says that the Vikings took away 200 boatloads of prisoners and, whether this is believed or not, Dumbarton Rock and the surrounding area was denuded of its population.

As Govan sits on the ancient crossing point between the Highlands and the Lowlands, the West of Scotland and the East, and having a navigable river that leads out to the open sea, it seems very likely that the Vikings kept this area as the new capital of (the Scots) Strathclyde, and gave it to their ally, Constantine 1. Another reason for thinking this is that it was from the capture of Dumbarton Rock that Govan blossomed into the largest centre in Europe for the production of stone carved Celtic Crosses and carved pagan memorial tombstones. It was here in Govan that Christian and pagan Vikings came together in mind, body and soul, and set aside their arms in a spirit of peace and harmony.

At this time Govan, was not just the pre-eminent religious centre of this area, but also the possessor of the King of Strathclyde’s royal church, palace and hunting grounds in Partick. As this was the time when the Scots took control of the Strathclyde kingdom, it is almost a certainty the Strathclyde King’s Palace and estates at Govan were Constantine’s reward for helping Olaf of Dublin. Although the remains of the so-called ‘St. Constantine’s Sarcophagus’ (which was found on the site of the royal church), is thought to date from the 550’s, I think it is a lot older and may be in fact the King of Scot’s (Constantine 1) own sarcophagus from the late 800’s.

While the Saint’s identity remains uncertain, I feel that the sarcophagus is more likely to be a cult reliquary for a royal burial because it depicts an armoured horseman out hunting stags with his dog, which is well known medieval symbolry for a Royal hunting scene.

In AD 1136 a new Norman stone church was built on the older monk’s enclosure at Govan’s Old Parish Church and dedicated to Saint Constantine. A few years later King David 1 of Scotland granted the lands and Church of Govan to the See of St. Kentigern where it became a Prebend in the Cathedral of Glasgow c. 1153. The king had shifted cult patronage away from Govan towards the Cathedral area because he wanted to, not just downgrade Govan’s Celtic religious connections, but also its memories of an older Royal House. The upshot of this was that, once Govan had lost its royal and religious connections to the past, its importance dwindled away, and its production of Celtic stone Crosses ceased.

The church that stands on the site where these Crosses were made, Govan Old Parish Church, contains an extraordinary collection of 27 Celtic crosses and 5 hogback memorial tombstones, which were carved sometime between the 800s and the 1100s. Although the Vikings left cultural markers all around Britain, perhaps their most splendid legacy is the hogbacks mentioned above. Many of them have Christian connections and they are the largest and the heaviest of any type of hogback known. Their sculptural styles show connections with Cumbrian, British, Scottish, Pictish, Irish, Saxon and Scandinavian art – in fact, they can be seen as the first expression of a truly national, or European style (see plate 1).

Most of the 32 highly decorated works are still intact and all of them were found within the grounds of Govan Old Parish Church. The Crosses are carved in the traditional style while the hogbacks are long, slim stones, which are steeply pitched and covered from half way up with what appears to be rectangular ‘roof-tiles’ – which is what they probably are – if they represent houses for the souls of the departed. Beneath the ‘roofs’ is the familiar motif of interlaced fretwork while the heads of stylised beasts frame the ends and face each other across the concave roof (see plate 3).

During the reign of William the Lion the Church at ‘Guvan’ must still have been very important because it was mentioned 3 times by Pope Alexander 111 in 1172, 1174, and 1179. In 1319, because the See of Glasgow was vacant, King Edward 11 of England appointed Johannes de Lund to the prebend of Govan in the Church of Glasgow. The Norman church lasted until after the Reformation in the 16th century when it was pulled down and replaced by another.

The former Parish of Govan was very large and covered areas on both banks of the Clyde. On the north side of the river, its boundary included Maryhill, Whiteinch, Partick, Dowanhill, Hillhead and Kelvinside. On the south side there was Govan, Ibrox, Kinning Park, Plantation, Huchesontown, Laurieston, Tradeston, Crosshill, Gorbals, Govanhill, West and East Pollokshields, Strathbungo and Dumbreck. This large area along both sides of the Clyde gives some indication of Govan’s former importance as the royal home of the former kings of Strathclyde. During the 16th century, many families from outside the Parish were granted permission to settle in the lands at Govan. For instance, Maxwell of Nether Pollock settled in what is known today as the Pollock Estate.

From the 16th until the 19th century, Govan was a coalmining district with pits in the Gorbals, Ibrox, Bellahouston, Broomloans, Helen Street, Drumoyne and at Craigton. In fact, Teucherhill started life as a mining village in the 16th century. These mines were finally closed near the end of the 19th century. Other industries during this time were salmon fishing, hand loom weaving, pottery, agriculture and silk making. Handloom weaving was introduced into Govan around 1800 hundred (although the Govan Weavers Society had been in existence since 1756 ) and by 1839 there were 380 weavers in Govan who earned from 5 to 8 shillings a week. If you take a walk up the Craighton Road, heading towards Edmiston Drive, you can still see some of these Govan Weavers’ cottages on your right hand side.

Some of these cottages were built around the times of Rabbie Burns and if you have any romantic inclinations at all, then as you walk by these wee cottages you might very well think of this.

The silk mill in Govan was built in 1824 on the west side of Water Row before it was demolished in 1901. With the coming of the Industrial Revolution in the 19th centuries, the light industries disappeared and Govan became a shipbuilding town, with its first shipyard being built in 1840 at Water Row. As Govan grew larger it became a burgh in 1854 and it adopted Govan’s Coat of Arms, along with the motto ‘Nihili Sine Labore’ or ‘Nothing Without Work’. Before that year, Govan had one policeman – now it gained a dozen. Was this a sign of things to come?

By 1901 Govan had grown so much that the burgh itself had a population of 91,000 people while the Greater Parish of Govan had a population of (wait for this) 340,088 persons! This was about a third of the total population of Glasgow and it was no wonder that the City had been trying for years to incorporate Govan into the City. Finally, the once independent village, town and burgh, became incorporated into the City of Glasgow in 1912. 14 By now, there were at least a dozen shipbuilding yards with associated heavy industries, throughout the Parish. As Govan had grown larger and larger, and as hordes of people had moved to work in the new industries, the old character, plan, and streets of the village were mostly swept away and replaced with miles of tenement-lined streets.

During the first half of the 20th century, Govan was known to the world as a centre of shipbuilding and an industrial manufacturing base. However, the decline of both after the 1950s meant a fall in the local economy, which left a legacy of derelict buildings and vacant land that undermined the location and devalued its true potential. Large-scale demolition in the 1960s and the 1970s only made the place look worse and soon, the only thing that Govan had left, its reputation, declined also.

In the past, a jealous king had taken Govan’s royal and spiritual connections away. By the year 2,000, its industry, its houses and its importance had been taken away too and it seemed that its very soul was about to disappear with the name ‘Govan’ being replaced by an anonymous digital number.
Yet, there’s a spirit here, or a feeling about the place that refuses to go away and now, in 2007, Govan has suddenly come to the forefront once again. Redevelopment and new housing means that people are moving back into Govan which is suddenly in the forefront of things again – this time as the film and TV capital of Scotland. Who would have thought 5 years ago that the BBC, STV, and some of the countries leading film and TV companies would all be based in Govan? Who would have thought 5 years ago that your very own Sunny Govan Radio would be right in the centre of this activity and broadcasting live to Govan, Glasgow, Scotland and the World? I wouldn’t, would you have?