The Govan Stones of Govan Old Parish Church

 

The ‘Govan Stones’ form one of the largest collections of early medieval, monumental sculpture in Scotland, and are found in Govan Old Parish Church. The collection originally comprised 47 sculptures, art historically dated to between 900 and 1100 AD. Since the nineteenth century however, 16 have been lost – they are thought to have been destroyed in the 20thcentury during the redevelopment of shipyards. Of the remaining 31, there are 4 monumental crosses; 26 grave markers (including 5, distinctive ‘Hog-back’ stones) and 1 unique, monolithic ‘sarcophagus’.

The Hogbacks are the oldest of the surviving sculpture, one dating to around AD 900. The shape and decoration of these indicates an affinity with Norse settlements in Britain such as Cumbria, where similar sculpture has been identified. There is debate as to where the Scandinavian influence could have originated. It could have come from the Viking sack of Strathclyde stronghold, Alt Clut (Dumbarton Rock) in 870. Indeed, some believe that Govan may have been subjected to Norse rule following this; and that people of Norse descent populated the parish thereafter. The Hog-backs were carved to resemble roof tiles or an upturned boat. The stone upturned boat is symbolic of the wooden boats upon which the dead were cremated at sea in Scandinavian culture; and the style of ring-knot employed on the stonework links Govan to carving schools in Galloway and Cumbria. Thus, while the Hog-back sculptures were made of local stone, their decorative style enables us to deduce that they were commissioned by an individual with Norse taste.

While the monuments are all Christian, the crosses and the sarcophagus exhibit powerful secular imagery. The sarcophagus is decorated with images of mounted horsemen and stag hunting, which suggest a secular patron; and interlace on each end panel are indicative of Pictish, Irish and Anglian influences. The fact that the sarcophagus is decorated on all sides could imply that it was intended for public display rather than burial – suggesting that it was a reliquary rather than a tomb.

A plinth designed by Rowand Anderson in 1908 claims that the sarcophagus belonged to St Constantine, who flourished in the 6thcentury in South Western Britain. So whether this sculpture was a tomb or a reliquary, its scale and ornate decoration suggests that the site of Govan Old Parish Church was an important ecclesiastical centre. This idea is reinforced by the presence of multiple free standing crosses – Govan is the only site in the Kingdom of Strathclyde to have more than one.

The Govan Stones establish a tangible link between Govan and the Kingdom of Strathclyde. The decoration on the stones indicates that they were secular and therefore not all the grave-markers of clerics. This is significant as it reinforces the argument which says that Govan was the ecclesiastical centre for the Kings of Strathclyde. The volume of important burials also shows that the church was flourishing in Govan in the 11thcentury under the gaze of the royal estate across the Clyde at Partick.

The monuments are made of local stone, indicating a strong school of carving at Govan. The size of the collection and the prestige of those buried beneath the monuments indicates that the church at Govan was the pre-eminent religious site in the Kingdom of Strathclyde, and so we can infer that it enjoyed royal patronage.

Below left to right: photograph showing the imagery of the Govan Sarcophagus; the Hog-back sculptures inside Govan Old Parish Church; late nineteenth century drawing of the Govan Sarcophagus in its previous location in the grounds of Govan Old Parish Church.