Govan Stones

Hogback gravestone at Govan

Hogback gravestone at Govan Old (photograph © B Keeling)

The Riverside Museum, Glasgow’s new museum of transport, opened on the north bank of the Clyde at the end of June. I haven’t been there yet, but it looks to be a state-of-the-art attraction and well worth a visit. In its first three weeks it attracted 210,000 visitors – a quarter of the total number anticipated for the entire first year.

This is all good news for the carved stones of the Kingdom of Strathclyde. The main collection of these fascinating monuments is housed in the old parish church at Govan, known as ‘Govan Old’, directly across the river from the new transport museum. A regular ferry service now operates between the museum and Water Row, a street in Govan, which is only a short walk from the church. The good folk at the museum are doing their bit to make visitors aware of the unique collection of Celtic sculpture on the other side. They’ve installed signboards inviting people to look across at Govan Old, a Victorian structure on the site of the main religious and ceremonial centre of the Strathclyde kings. In fact, they’ve even made a replica of one of the imposing hogback tombstones which are Govan’s best-known – and most enigmatic – early medieval relics.

The Govan collection is an impressive reminder of the role played by the North Britons in early Scottish history. The sculptural style represents the artistic tradition of a long-vanished kingdom that had its own language and culture. Sadly, despite their archaeological importance, the stones don’t have a correspondingly high profile in today’s tourism and ‘heritage’ sectors. They are far less well-known, for instance, than their Pictish counterparts, even though both sculptural styles have much in common. The Strathclyde carvers were certainly influenced by what they saw on Pictish stones, yet this important link does not seem to be widely known. Hopefully, things will start to change with the opening of the Riverside Museum across the Clyde, and with the old parish church being the subject of a consultation exercise regarding its future use and management. We may yet see Govan Old take its rightful place alongside the Pictish museums at Meigle and Rosemarkie as a famed repository of Celtic sculpture.

A view of Govan Old from the Riverside Museum, and close-ups of the signboards, can be seen in these pictures at Tweetdeck.

The early medieval sculpture at Govan is the main topic at my other blog Heart of the Kingdom.

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This post is part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde series:

Kingdom of Strathclyde

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12 comments on “Govan Stones

  1. badonicus says:

    Historic Scotland really should make more of this site … as should the rest of Britain. I look forward to visiting it one day when I go to visit a friend in Glasgow.

    • Tim says:

      I recall hearing last year about a possible link-up with Historic Scotland but I think it’s just one of various options on the table. At the moment, the stones are in the care of the parish, which puts a big burden on limited resources. On the plus side, the regeneration projects around Govan will hopefully include a long-term plan for the church, perhaps involving the Riverside Museum or the new ‘Folk University’.

      The stones are well worth a visit, Mak. In previous years they’ve only been accessible on certain days between June and September. Since the opening of the Riverside and the new ferry across the Clyde the access-times may have been extended. Earlier this year, the parish advertised for extra tour-guides (all are volunteers) which is an encouraging sign. My advice to anyone planning a visit is to contact the church via the parish website.

  2. esmeraldamac says:

    Ah, that looks like it would be worth a trip north! We have hogsback stones in Penrith church yard, as you probably know. Around here they usually describe them as, ‘viking’.

  3. Tim says:

    They do seem to represent Scandinavian houses, hence the usual perception of them as Viking tombstones. Trouble is, there aren’t any in Scandinavia itself. Current thinking now points to an origin-centre in Northumbria, or rather the part of old Northumbria ruled by Viking kings based at York. The Penrith hogbacks, and others in northern England, are less bulky than the Strathclyde ones, so it looks as if the original Northumbrian style was modified by the sculptors of the ‘Govan School’ after they borrowed it c.950-1000.

    I’m planning to write a blogpost about the Strathclyde hogbacks in the near future. With an origin in the Scandinavian homelands now off the table, but Viking influence obviously somewhere in the mix, these strange stones begin to look even more mysterious.

    • Tim says:

      The Penrith hogbacks mentioned by Diane stand beside the parish church in the town centre. To see what I mean when I describe them as ‘less bulky’ than the Strathclyde ones, take a look at this picture of the Giant’s Grave at Diane’s Cumbrian History blog.

    • It just occurred to me that maybe these hogback stones were originally a Norse way of marking a Norse grave with a stone that looks like home. No need to make stones to self-identify Danes in Denmark where they are all Danes. So the stone would only have meaning to people far from home and eventually it just became a popular style or a way of claiming Norse kinship. Remember there were probably a lot of Norse women given in marriage bringing Scandinavian blood to native dynasties.

      • Tim says:

        I imagine you’re on the right track with this, Michelle. The hogback style is certainly Scandinavian, so the people who commissioned these monuments must have had some kind of Viking connection, and wanted everyone else to know about it. Everything points to the Viking kingdom of Northumbria (York) as the origin-centre of the hogbacks, with the first ones being carved in the first half of the 10th century. All the examples in England belong to a narrow spread of 30 years. The second half of the century, after York fell under West Saxon control, is when hogbacks began to appear in Scotland – at Govan and other places. To me, this suggests the northward movement of a displaced Scandinavian elite, not only from York but from west of the Pennines in Lancashire/Westmorland. One group of exiles might have found refuge with the Strathclyde Britons, and in this context I’m reminded of a theory voiced by Anna Ritchie:

        ‘The five hogbacks at Govan are likely to represent two or three generations of people with Scandinavian links.’

        This appeared in the published version (2004) of her Govan Lecture which looked at hogbacks in various parts of Britain. In the same publication she noted the current belief among art historians that the Govan hogback style came not from Yorkshire but from Cumbria (i.e. the modern county). This leads me to wonder if an elite family of Scandinavian origin, displaced from lands in Westmorland near the Strathclyde border at Penrith, settled in Clydesdale as honoured guests of the Britons. Between c.950 and c.1025 (the date-range of the Govan hogbacks) several generations of this family may have been buried at Govan, and also at Luss near Loch Lomond (site of another ‘Govan School’ hogback).

        On the point about inter-dynastic marriage, I expect you’re right again. With so much co-operation between Strathclyde and the Vikings in the 10th century, we should probably envisage a few politically-useful weddings to seal the deals. This raises the possibility that the hogbacks don’t commemorate exiled Scandinavian families but instead mark the graves of Viking women whose husbands were high-ranking Britons.

        • I suppose these women may have also brought high status retainers with them. Mixed marriages would have also been refuge for visitors, not necessarily exiles. The woman’s kin could also have gotten high status jobs in the kingdom. They might be more loyal to the ruler than local rivals.

          • Tim says:

            Yes, I think any ‘foreign’ bride would bring along her own servants/retainers. Even if there were only a small number of these ‘foreigners’ at first, the bride might have become a hub for ambitious, adventurous individuals from her homeland. As you say, not necessarily exiles. One theory sees Vikings taking key positions in the Strathclyde aristocracy after the fall of Dumbarton in 870 and being responsible for the Scandinavian influences there. In this scenario, the elements of Viking culture come from 9th century Dublin or the Hebrides rather than from 10th century Northumbria or Cumbria. It’s certainly a possibility, even if it doesn’t quite work for the Govan School hogbacks (which plainly have a Northumbrian origin c.950 or later).

            The idea of a ‘foreign’ bride creating new career opportunities for her old friends back home could also apply to Rhieinmellth of Rheged. I think this has been suggested somewhere.

  4. Cate says:

    I’ve just stumbled across your blog (search term: Pictish saints) in connection with a topic on the Picts that I’m researching for my Primary 4 class later in the year. Looks like a veritable hidden treasure hoard here–thank you!

    • Tim says:

      Hello Cate. I hope you find a few interesting things at this site. On the subject of Pictish saints, I’m guessing this means ‘Picts who became saints’ rather than ‘saints who worked among the Picts’. If so, then four names spring to mind: St Serf of Culross, St Curetan of Rosemarkie, St Drostan of Deer and St Talorcan of Fordyce. Any or none of them might have been native to Pictland and all are pretty obscure. More is known about some of the non-Pictish saints who worked among the Picts but even these are quite enigmatic at the best of times.

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