A History of Govan to the 12th Century

We know that people were in the Govan area c. 3, 000 BC because of the evidence of a Stone-Age canoe found at Kingston Dock. We also know from the (now gone) Iron-Age mound at Govan Cross, and the name ‘Govan’ itself (old Welsh, meaning ‘place of the ironworkers’), i that pagan Celts lived and worked there c. 1, 000 BC. ii The Romans reached this district of the ‘Damnonii’ in AD 81 iii and, after building a wall from the Clyde to the Forth (AD 142),iv they withdrew c. AD 190 and left Govan to its own devices.

After the Romans 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 now inhabited Dal Riata (West Scotland); the Anglians (Saxons) who had migrated from Germany, and who lived in the south east of England; the Picts (an amalgamation of various tribes v), who lived in north and east Scotland, and finally the Scandinavians (or Vikings) from Norway, Sweden and Denmark. As Christianity slowly replaced these peoples’ pagan worship, they built their first churches upon the same spot as Druidic colleges and sacred places vi which is probably what happened at the site of Govan’s Old Church where Druidic remains have been seen. Christianity arrived late to the Govan area because the earliest written record near this site is a note on the death of Glasgow’s patron saint St. Kentigern or ‘Mungo’ in AD 612. vii

When the King of Scots (Constantine 1) allied himself to the Viking King of Dublin, this helped lead to the capture of the Strathclyde Britons capital at Dumbarton Rock c. AD 860. At this time Govan was not just the pre-eminent religious centre of the area, but also held the King of Strathclyde’s royal church and palace – across the river from the royal estate in Partick. This was also the time when the Scots took over the Strathclyde kingdom and it is almost certain that the property at Govan was Constantine’s reward. Another reason for thinking this is that it was from this time that Govan blossomed into the largest centre in Europe for the production of stone carved Celtic Crosses and carved memorial tombstones – Christian and Viking. The church that stands on the site today, Govan Old Parish Church, contains an extraordinary collection of 27 Celtic crosses, a sarcophagus (see below) and 5 hogback tombstones, which were all carved c. AD 800-1100. When the Vikings had first arrived in Scotland (c. AD 800) they brought with them their longhouses, which rose in a curve like a hog’s back – just like their stone memorials (‘Hogbacks’) which are little houses to contain the souls of the dead. 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 style. viii

Although ‘Saint Constantine’s Sarcophagus’ (at Govan Church) is thought to date from the 550’s, this may in fact be King Constantine’s own coffin from the late 800’s ix for while the Saint’s identity remains uncertain, the sarcophagus shows an armoured horseman out hunting stags with his dogs, which are well known symbolry for Royal hunting scenes. When King David 1 shifted cult patronage in the 12th century to St. Kentigern in Glasgow, he did so because Govan held too many memories of the old royal house, and Govan’s production of crosses and hogbacks ceased. x

© Brian Thom McQuade MA, First Draft (for GalGael), 1/7/2004