Although almost on my doorstep, I have to admit that I’ve only just discovered the magnificent carved stones housed in Govan Old Parish Church. Hundreds of years of history, belief and kingship set in stone and preserved for all to see in the heart of Glasgow. The Govan Stones are an exceptional array of early medieval Christian sculpture that show clearly the importance of this place to the Kings of Strathclyde.
According to tradition, the original church on this special site, dedicated to St Constantine, was founded early in the 6th century, built of wood, close to a holy well (a location much favoured by the Celts) and surrounded by an almost circular wall. The people who lived here at that time were neither Scots nor Picts, rather Old-Welsh-speaking Britons, part of a powerful kingdom ruled from Alt Clut – Dumbarton Rock. But then came the dreaded Vikings who sailed up the Clyde and in 870 AD the mighty fortress of Dumbarton fell to those ferocious Norse warriors.
However, Dumbarton’s loss was Govan’s gain as it was to Govan that the new kings of Strathclyde looked to establish their power base. Already an important religious site, Govan now grew as a political and administrative centre: the Christian and the secular powers in the kingdom very closely intertwined. A growing sign of that increased status and subsequent wealth is reflected in what became known as ‘The Govan School’ of carving, which flourished between 900 and 1100 AD. Swirling snakes, elaborate interwoven decoration, mounted warriors, biblical scenes, huntsmen and saints – it’s all there!
As are five massive Viking hogback grave markers, which are truly monumental! At first glance they look like huge humpbacked beasts, but on closer inspection you can see that some are carved to represent wooden-tiled roofs; copies, possibly, of the wooden houses of important Viking chiefs of settlements or bases further west, who recognised the immense spiritual prestige of St Constantine’s Church at Govan and who craved the recognition burial at such an important Christian site would give them. A “thin place” perhaps?
For me though, the most amazing piece is the Govan Sarcophagus, a stone coffin carved from a single massive block of solid sandstone – apparently the only one of its kind left today from pre-Norman Scotland. Just who was laid to rest within it can’t be known with absolute certainty, and theories and speculation come and go. But it is thought that it could well have been the final resting place of the 9th century Scottish king Constantine, son of Kenneth mac Alpin, or even Constantine’s own son, Donald.
One of the great things about history is that we are always learning more and more about what went on in the past. New archaeological discoveries, new research, and resultant re-assessment, often by younger historians, continually brings new evidence to light. Our knowledge and understanding of the past is not set in stone: but fortunately for us all the wonderful carvings here in Govan are!!