Around 1,000 years ago, Govan must have been an important religious centre in the early medieval kingdom of Strathclyde. Although no surviving contemporary writings attest to the presence of any monastery or church on the site at this time, the archaeological record tells a very different story – and during the Viking Age this area (today part of Glasgow) attracted large numbers of elite burials adorned with ornate gravemarkers. This wealth of early medieval artistry came to light once more towards the end of the 19th century, when dozens of carved stones were excavated, made the subject of plaster casts, and documented for a volume of images by Thomas Annan (a photographer best known for documenting living conditions in Glasgow’s slum districts). That book – for reasons that will soon become clear – remains invaluable to modern archaeologists.
Around two-thirds of the stones were ultimately brought inside Govan’s Victorian parish church, where they are still displayed today (see ‘Further information’ on p.51). Known as the ‘Govan Stones’, they comprise a sarcophagus carved with stylised animals; five ‘hogbacks’ (distinctive house-shaped gravestones that evolved from the blending of cultures in areas of Scandinavian settlement in north-east England and southern Scotland); two upright cross-shafts; two cross-slabs; and 21 recumbent slabs – stones that would have been laid horizontally to cover graves, adorned with intricate interlace patterns and cross motifs. There was not room for the remaining 14 stones, however, so they were instead displayed against the eastern boundary wall of the churchyard.
The church itself is also a reminder of Govan’s former prosperity, albeit of a rather more recent period: it represents a time when the Clydeside parish was a world-leader in shipbuilding, and its thriving population demanded a structure capable of accommodating a 1,300-strong congregation. A nationally significant example of Scottish Gothic Revival architecture, and also boasting some fine stained-glass windows, the church was designed by Sir Robert Rowand Anderson, a leading architect of his day who was also responsible for such prestigious buildings as the University of Edinburgh and the Scottish National Portrait Gallery. As Govan flourished, the church was soon surrounded by shipyards and workshops – and although the churchyard was able to maintain its traditional borders, the fate of one of its industrial neighbours was closely tied to that of the 14 Govan stones that had remained outside. In 1973, the adjacent Harland & Wolff shipyard was demolished – and the outdoor stones became ‘lost’. Whether they had been destroyed and carried off with the rest of the resulting rubble, or were simply covered over and their location forgotten as the border of the churchyard became gradually overgrown with grass and tree roots was not clear, but for almost half a century that was the last that would be seen of any of them.
Exploring the churchyard
By the 1990s, Govan was a very different place, beset by post-industrial decline, depression, and unemployment, and the parish church’s minister was keen to boost the community’s pride and sense of identity. He did this by engaging with the area’s more distant past, and Stephen Driscoll, Professor of Historical Archaeology at the University of Glasgow, led an excavation in the churchyard to find out more about the site’s religious story. The results were illuminating – the project established that there were burials going back to the 5th/6th century, and that the churchyard’s distinctive teardrop-shaped form, hinting at its antiquity and today marked by a wall, still preserved traces of its original boundary ditch (see CA 198).
Since then, Stephen has continued investigations in the churchyard for some 30 years, working to connect community and archaeology even as the story of Govan Old itself has changed dramatically. At the time of the 1990s dig, the church was still an active parish institution with a large congregation, but in 2007 ecclesiastical reorganisation saw the building decommissioned. Local groups sprang into action to protect the historic building and the carved stones that it housed, ultimately leading to the formation of the Govan Heritage Trust, a community-based charity that today owns both. The churchyard, meanwhile, is owned by Glasgow City Council, but fieldwork continues within it. As the burial ground is a Scheduled Ancient Monument, the investigations are purely non-invasive in nature: the churchyard has been divided into 200 squares, each 5m by 5m, and Stephen and his team have been gradually exploring these, using long iron probes to test what lies beneath the surface, locating buried stones and identifying their margins, before lifting only the covering turf to clean and document what lies beneath.
To-date, around 30 squares have been fully investigated – and there have already been significant developments. In 2019, three of the ‘lost’ stones were rediscovered (see CA 351), confirming that at least some of the outdoor stones had survived the 1970s – and the most recent work within the churchyard, which took place over a weekend in March, added another to this number. The new discovery was found face down, so no carvings were visible, but the team was able to identify it as one of the missing recumbent slabs (probably #37) by comparing its shape to the Victorian volume of Annan’s photographs. Discoveries like these raise hopes that more – perhaps all 11 – of the remaining ‘lost’ stones may still be waiting to be rediscovered within the churchyard.
The response of local volunteers to the churchyard surveys has been very enthusiastic, Stephen said. He would like to continue exploring more squares over the next 6-12 months, perhaps spacing the sessions out to one a month, in order to give as many people the chance to get involved as possible. In this way, he told me, he hoped to develop a feeling of connection between the local community and the Govan Stones. This is the wider aim of community involvement in the archaeological research: to return the decommissioned church to being a community hub/cultural centre, rather than simply a museum. ‘Essentially, we want to build a new congregation,’ he said. ‘The church used to be a place where people could come together, meet their neighbours – there will be people in Govan for whom this was their parish church, but over the last 30-40 years there has been quite a lot of turnover in the population, and – in all the time that I’ve been working in the churchyard – I have only met two or three people who live locally and have ancestors buried there.’ If family ties with the site are being lost, he added, then there needed to be another way to create a sense of community – and that lies through engaging with the archaeology.
To this end, the Govan Heritage Trust has been working to transform the parish church into a more visitor-friendly space, with facilities including toilets and a lift. The project had been in a good place before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, with the building design agreed, planning permission granted, and some £1.8 million raised to support the transformation – but, like so many undertakings at that time, plans suddenly had to be put on hold. Now that the initiative is able to continue, though, costs have risen dramatically, and the team is in the position of having to raise several hundred thousand pounds more in order to meet the same goals. They are confident about achieving this, Stephen said, and for now are focused on practicalities such as making the building sound and dry, and fixing the drainage, but ultimately they aim to redisplay and reinterpret the interior to present the Govan Stones in a new way, and to convert the lower floor so that it can be rented out: the other priority is to make the site self-sustaining, rather than relying on grants, and for it to play a role in helping to regenerate Govan.
Stephen is ambitious in this latter regard, visualising a new museum district incorporating other local cultural attractions. Glasgow’s strikingly modern Riverside Museum opened directly across the Clyde in 2011, and the Govan team enterprisingly set up a ferry to encourage visitors to this new attraction also to include the church and its stones in their itinerary. Their efforts bore impressive fruit: before the pandemic, around 15,000 people were visiting the church just during summer openings. Stephen’s hope is that the sites will continue to be visited together, especially after the completion of the Govan–Partick Bridge, which is set to link the two areas next year. ‘That will be transformative in terms of footfall,’ he said. ‘People can hop off the underground at Govan, walk five minutes to the church to see the stones, and then cross the bridge to the Riverside Museum.’
Another source of inspiration for the Govan Heritage Trust is their sister organisation, Govan Workspace, which is already leading the way locally in sympathetic reuse of historic buildings. Just down the road from the old church, an impressive building that was once the headquarters of a major shipbuilding enterprise is now Fairfield Heritage; one floor has been transformed into a community museum dedicated to the story of Govan’s role in the shipbuilding industry, while the rest of the structure is rented out to private tenants (see http://www.fairfieldgovan.co.uk). The Trust’s great hope is to ensure that Govan Old should also fulfil its potential as a community asset, Stephen said. ‘The church could be a centre for studying Scotland’s early medieval carved stones, which were such a key cultural contribution to early medieval Europe,’ he said. ‘The only other large urban collection of these stones is at the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, but this is a representative rather than region-specific collection, drawn from across Scotland. There are also collections in Whithorn and Iona, but they are harder to get to. This could be a really important educational resource.’
During the most recent investigations, Stephen added, the stones attracted the admiration of a local celebrity, Alex Kapranos of Glasgow rock band Franz Ferdinand, who tweeted: ‘I never knew about these. Amazing.’ This is brilliant, Stephen said – but Govan is determined not to be a hidden gem any longer.
All images: Stephen Driscoll, unless otherwise stated
To read more about the Govan Stones, Govan Heritage Trust, and ongoing plans for the parish church, see www.thegovanstones.org.uk.