This week in the Heritage Centre we have been researching Early Medieval Govan.
In particular, we have been looking at Doomster Hill – an early medieval court hill, which is believed to have been located somewhere between Govan Old Parish Church and Water Row. A court hill is a designated place where legal proceedings were conducted. Indeed, the term ‘Doomster’ is believed to derive from ‘Dempster’ – the name given to the legal officer who pronounced sentence, whose origin is in Celtic law. Its height and prominence in the small early medieval village of Govan marked it out as a place of public assembly, where public business may have been conducted; and lends credence to the view that the site would have been appropriated by the Kings of Strathclyde as the chosen spot to hold court between c.900-1100 AD, following the sack of Dumbarton Rock by the Vikings in 870.
As Govan experienced enormous economic and physical development in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries with the birth of shipbuilding and industry, much of the physical evidence of the parish’s early medieval history was destroyed. However, recent archaeological excavations coupled with historic art and maps has enabled us to build a picture of what Doomster Hill looked like and postulate as to its role in the community. Below is an engraving by Robert Paul dating to 1758 in which you can see Govan Old Parish Church and part of Water Row. To the left of the picture you can see Doomster Hill. Paul has detailed two important features: first the large stepped feature at the base of the hill, which at other sites is indicative of a link to royalty; and secondly the proximity of the hill to other Govan landmarks. The engraving is also useful as it shows the size of the Hill, and its dominance over the surrounding residences. The size of the Hill has led archaeologists to believe that Doomster Hill played an important role in early medieval community life, and also to link the name of Govan directly to this landmark. It is believed that the name ‘Govan’ has its origins in an early British dialect. The hypothesis states that gwo/go means ‘small’ and ban ‘hill’. Given Govan’s relatively flat topography, it seems reasonable to suggest that the parish could have taken its name from this ancient, manmade landmark.
During the industrial development of the area, a dye works came to exist around Doomster Hill, which led to a reservoir being dug into it to provide a water source. Writing in 1845 shortly before the Hill was leveled completely, Reverend Leishman of Govan Old Parish Church noted that during the digging of the reservoir fragments of human bone and shards of oak had been discovered. This led him to hypothesise that the Hill had once been the burial site of an ancient and long forgotten hero - an account which has captured the minds of modern historians and archaeologists and provided added impetus to locating the Hill once and for all.
Robert Paul, 1758. Section showing a view from the North bank of the Clyde looking South.