Saturday 28 October 2023 was the oipportunity for a trip to Glasgow. Govan Old Stones had tweeted to say they were closing at the end of the month for a winter break, so why not visit now? I went Hexham, Carlisle, then the Glasgow & South Western via Dumfries – a beautiful (if long) ride. Then the Glasgow Subway to Govan. Govan Old Church is just down the road – a road with stunning (and uncared for) Victorian architecture on one side, and a 1960s grotty block on the other. The church itself closed in 2007 and is now a museum – with the website at http://thegovanstones.org.uk/. There is also a lot on the Wikipedia page at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Govan_Old_Parish_Church. The current church was built 1884-1888, designed by Robert Rowand Anderson (who trained under George Gilbert Scott).
There have been at least six churches on this site over the past 1,500 years. The distinctive teardrop-shaped outline of the churchyard is bounded by a wall along the line of a ditch dating back to at least 800 AD. It is amazing this survived when the whole area around became part of the industrial complex that was Govan in Victorian times. Time Team excavated here in 1994 – all the Time Teams are currently on the Channel 4 streaming service and we are working our way through them (I like being retired). One of the display boards on the path through the churchyard suggests what the site would have looked like around 1000 AD. Doomster Hill was used by the Kings of Strathclyde as a focus for royal ceremonies and public assemblies. It survived until the mid-1800s.
The Church only has stepped access and one small loo – there is building work starting to make flat access, better loos, workspace areas to rent out and (I think) a café. Inside there was a nice welcome and a chance to wander round the stones that are on display. Many of them were originally outside, part of this major religious centre.
To quote a display board: “The Govan stones were the work of skilled and knowledgeable craftsmen. They show artistic styles and influences from across Britain and beyond. … Many of the carvings show crosses, although few remain intact. These crosses are often decorated with interlace and knotwork, a style common in early medieval art. Such carving was not simply for decoration. It also probably had some religious meaning. Perhaps, it represented the many snares to ward off the devil, or maybe its flowing and intricate designs were intended to help worshippers meditate in prayer. … Artistic styles from nearby areas have influenced the decoration of the stones from Govan. The ‘sun stone’, one of the earliest carvings, has a snake headed boss from which it gets its name. This has similarities with cravings from the important early monastery of Iona in Western Scotland. … [It] also features a horse and rider, a common motif on Pictish sculpture from further north in Scotland.”
The animal on The Cuddy Stane has long ears, so must be donkey (known locally as a cuddy). Is it Christ on Palm Sunday?
The Jordanhill Cross was originally a cross, and is a beautiful bit of carving.
There are various other stones dotted around the church, some of which have been reused.
Another display panel tell us that “This Kingdom was ruled from nearby Dumbarton Rock in the 6th-9th centuries. … By the 9th century [it] was hemmed in by powerful neighbours. Standing between the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria to the south of the kingdom of the picts and the Gaelic kingdom of Dal Riata in the north, Strathclyde was a contested land. Finally, is was attacks by the Vikings that led to the first collapse of the kingdom, In AD870 Dumbarton Rock was besieged for four months before falling. [Then] a new kingdom arose, centred on Govan and Partick. … It was only in the 12th century, when King David founded a cathedral nearby at Glasgow, that Govan finally began to lose its political importance.”
The church displays a wonderful collection of Viking hogback tombstones. These date from the 10th and 11th centuries.
The Sarcophagus is beautiful – you can explore a 3D image at http://thegovanstones.org.uk/the-stones/
The building itself is worth an explore, though my phone photos are not very good. The organ was being played – though it could have done with a tune. It must have been an amazing place of worship in the days it was full – though now we want warm churches I hate to think how much it would cost to heat. There is a photo of recent ministers, and I wonder what they would make of the fact their church is now a museum – I know that the work of the church is much bigger than any building, and I’m sure Christians are hard at work in Govan, and I am well aware that a museum telling the story of the area’s Christian past is a force for good – but I left with mixed feelings.