Water Row

Govan Riverside by Tom Manley - click to enlarge
Although this post is about Govan I’m uploading it here rather than at Heart of the Kingdom, chiefly because Senchus reaches a wider readership.

Many of you will already be aware that Govan was once the principal centre of power or ‘royal capital’ of the kingdom of Strathclyde. Some of you may have visited the place in recent years, perhaps to view the impressive collection of early medieval sculpture in the old parish church. If so, you’ll be familiar with the modern townscape: the main street running past the former Fairfields shipyard to the shopping centre at Govan Cross; the impressive Victorian architecture of the Pearce Institute; the green oasis of Elder Park. You might even have parked your car on the open ground between Govan Cross and the Clyde, flanked on one side by a housing estate and on the other by a little lane called Water Row which ends abruptly at the river.

Water Row, Govan

Water Row, Govan (© Tim Clarkson)


Although Water Row looks fairly unremarkable today, it runs over one of the most historically significant spaces in Scotland. Deep beneath the cobblestone surface lies the intersection of two ancient routeways that once traversed this ground. From the one side came the processional path of the kings of Strathclyde, linking their principal church and cemetery to a huge ceremonial mound known in later times as the Doomster Hill. From the other came an even older route, its origins lost in antiquity, which for uncounted centuries guided travellers to an important ford on the Clyde. Its alignment is still followed today by Water Row, a name originally given to a group of cottages – demolished long ago – that once flanked this key approach to the river.

In the early nineteenth century, 700 years after the end of the kingdom of Strathclyde, the Industrial Revolution turned the village of Govan into a bustling town. Rapid expansion led to the demolition of Doomster Hill but Water Row retained its importance, its course now leading to a ferry that replaced the ancient ford. A dye-works, the first industrial complex in Govan, rose up on the eastern flank of the old lane. This was eventually absorbed by the first of the shipyards that were soon to make the town world-famous as a major centre of shipbuilding.

With such a richly layered heritage the area comprising Water Row and its margins is clearly a zone of considerable historical and archaeological importance. This is why a campaign has arisen against plans by Glasgow City Council to cover the old lane in tarmac and to turn the adjacent open ground – where once lay the massive outer ditch of the Doomster Hill – into a car park. The campaign started at the beginning of May, in the aftermath of an event celebrating renowned Scottish artist George Wyllie (1921-2012). Things have moved on since then, and the campaign now has its own website and Twitter account. In the past few weeks, the campaign’s public profile has risen considerably, with media coverage via the architectural journal Urban Realm and the Evening Times and Sunday Post newspapers. Campaigners have raised their concerns with the City Council and have come forward with alternative ideas about how the site could be developed.

With the car park still scheduled to go ahead, and with a layer of tarmac due to be laid over Water Row very soon, time seems to be running out for this heritage-rich piece of land. Campaigners fear the resurfacing will seal the layers of accumulated history, hiding them for the foreseeable future and preventing investigation by archaeologists. Moreover, a car park will bring little direct benefit to the people of Govan, who could instead make use of the space for something community-based and tangible.

The article in the Sunday Post spoke of ‘the end of the line for historic Water Row’ but the campaign isn’t over yet and – as the saying goes – where there’s life there’s hope. So I encourage everyone who reads this blogpost to visit the campaign website and have a look around. Among various items of interest are a summary of what the campaign is seeking to achieve, together with innovative proposals for alternative use of the land (drawn up by architects Ann Nisbet and Andy McAvoy). Elsewhere on the website you’ll see a set of old illustrations of Water Row and an article by me on the long-vanished Doomster Hill.

Those of you who are on Twitter can keep in touch with the campaign via the Water Row account.

The article in Urban Realm was written by Tom Manley who also designed an excellent postcard which he distributed at the recent Big Launch, a special event held on 20th July to unveil artworks by Matt Baker and ts Beall along Govan Riverside next to Water Row. The image on the front of these cards appears at the top of this blogpost. Here’s the text on the back:

Designed by Tom Manley

(click on image to enlarge)

For a broad overview of the history of Govan, from the period of the kings of Strathclyde through the shipbuilding age to the post-industrial era, see the illustrated ‘timeline’ at the Govan Stones website or view it as a photostream on Flickr.

[I am grateful to Tom Manley for letting me use his postcard images, and to Rosalind Morrison at the Sunday Post for giving permission to reproduce the article from 15th July]

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2 comments on “Water Row

  1. […] can be found at http://www.waterrow.org & Matt Baker’s blog Sacrificial Materials and on Senchus-the blog of historian Dr Tim Clarkson […]

  2. That card is excellent – says everything.

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