Govan Old Church stands, partly contained by its pear-shaped graveyard, just to the north of Govan Road in the centre of Govan. A strip of open land to the west of the Pearce Institute leads past the war memorial to a gate in the southern end of the graveyard. The church lies directly ahead, partly obscured by an avenue of trees along the path leading to the main doorway at its southern end.
Govan Old Church ceased to be an active parish church in 2007, when the congregation became part of Govan and Linthouse Parish. Today the church is best known as the location of The Govan Stones, one of the best collections of early medieval sculpted stones in Scotland. You can find out about the Govan Stones from our separate feature about them. On this page we trace the story of Govan Old Church itself.
The church you find today was built between 1883 and 1888 to an Early English gothic design by the renowned architect Robert Rowand Anderson. The minister at the time was the Reverend Dr John Macleod and the building that emerged was influenced by churches he had visited in Italy. Externally the church is rather plainer than originally intended. Before the funding ran out, the plan had been to build an elaborate tower and spire on the west side of the church, and install a line of sculptures across the south facade. (Continues below image...)
While the exterior of the church was compromised by availability of funds, it seems that the magnificent interior fully lived up to John Macleod's hopes and aspirations for it. This is a lovely church, beautifully and moodily lit, and the effect is stunning. Most visitors will find themselves focusing on the fabulously displayed Govan Stones as soon as they enter, and with good reason. But it is worth spending at least part of your time looking past the stones to the church itself.
A particular triumph is the remarkably complete collection of stained glass windows, many of which were made by the English stained glass designer Charles Eamer Kempe and installed soon after the church opened in 1888. Because the church is aligned north-south, windows on both sides of the nave and chancel get the sunlight at different times of the day, bringing variety to the resulting light show within the building.
The church's north-south alignment appears to have been the result of a constraint imposed by the presence of large numbers of graves within the graveyard. This was also the reason why the current church punches through the north wall of the much older graveyard that surrounds it. The effect of this can seem a little odd. When we visited the north end was surrounded by a building site. This sense of incongruity is nothing new. An aerial photograph of 1932 shows the church's north end closely surrounded by part of an active shipyard.
The constraints imposed by the graves in the graveyard, the odd pear-shape of the graveyard itself, and the presence of The Govan Stones, which were moved into the church for safekeeping from the graveyard in 1926, all give very strong clues that Govan Old Church is far more than just another Victorian addition to the cityscape. In fact the church that opened its doors in 1888 was just the latest, and presumably last, in a long series of churches on the site that date back some thirteen hundred years to around the year 700.
It is thought that Christianity first came to the area in the 600s, when a monastery was established in Govan by a King of Strathclyde called Constantine. No trace of this has ever been found, but it seems that King Constantine later became venerated as St Constantine. The first church for which any archeological evidence has been found was a (presumably) thatched timber building surrounded by an oval graveyard that would have been protected on all but its northern side (which may at the time have formed the south bank of the River Clyde) by a large ditch. It is thought that the early church or churches here was/were dedicated, perhaps not surprisingly, to St Constantine, and it is likely that there were stone carving workshops nearby. It is probable that the amazing stone sarcophagus on view in the chancel was used to hold St Constantine's relics, suggesting that the early churches on the site would have been places of pilgrimage.
Fast forward over four centuries to the 1130s, and the original wooden church (or succession of wooden churches) had been replaced by a stone Norman building of fairly modest size, placed a little to the west of the site previously used, but still within the graveyard. This building would serve the parish largely unchanged until the Reformation. In 1651 the stone church was extended by the addition of an aisle, which turned it into a "T" shape. This was in turn replaced in 1762 by a stone rectangular church, which reused some earlier foundations and walls. In 1826 a new church was built on the same site, which was oblong in shape and had a spire at its southern end.
Rather incredibly, the much larger church built on the same site between 1883 and 1888, which stands today, did not reuse any part of the 1826 church. Instead the earlier church was taken apart and rebuilt on a new site elsewhere in Govan as the Elder Park Church. It continued in use as a church until 1970, when it became a boys' club. It was later burned down and subsequently demolished.
Though the best of the Govan Stones were taken into the church from the graveyard in 1926, there remain many fascinating gravestones on view outside the church. These include a number showing the traditional post-Reformation symbols of mortality. There is also a rather fine standing stone cross near the gateway into the graveyard that in terms of design and moss coverage could easily pass as Pictish. We suspect from the absence of any reference we've been able to find to it that it is in fact rather more recent in origin.