When most people think of the town of Govan, they think of its Clydeside location and its shipbuilding heritage. We suspect that rather fewer realise that Govan has an extremely long and rich history, and as a result is home to one of the best collections of early medieval sculpted stones in Scotland. "The Govan Stones" is the name given to 31 amazing carved stones on public display in Govan Old Church, right in the heart of the town. We cover the story of Govan Old Church in a separate feature about it: this page looks exclusively at the Govan Stones themselves.
During what historians really don't like being called the Dark Ages, Govan, and in particular the early church that stood on the site now occupied by Govan Old Church, was an important ecclesiastical centre within the Kingdom of Strathclyde. This was a Brittonic kingdom ruled from Dumbarton, on the far side of the River Clyde. These were turbulent times, as the power within what was to become Scotland shifted from one kingdom to another. The Kingdom of Strathclyde suffered from the attentions of the Vikings, and later became absorbed by the Kingdom of the Scots (along with the Picts) to form what eventually became recognisable as Scotland.
This turbulent history has left its mark in the form of carved stones of a number of different styles that were made in or around Govan over a period of several centuries. Many of these survived in a remarkably intact state into the modern era, where their rarity and significance were recognised in time for them to be rescued from the elements in the surrounding pear-shaped graveyard and placed on display within the church itself in 1926. What you see today is the result of a major project to apply modern display and lighting techniques to show the stones off to their best, which was completed in 2013. (Continues below image...)
It would probably be fair to say that The Govan Stones comprise three distinct groups of carved stones, plus one unique item. When you enter the church you are immediately greeted by the sight of the first group of three standing stones, whose form is nicely reflected by free-standing interpretive panels. Anywhere else, each of these stones would be a star in its own right, but here you get three together.
The Sun Stone is an upright cross slab which carries a depiction of a galloping horseman on its rear, beneath a cross, and a boss on the front from which writhe four snakes. It probably dates back to the 900s. The Jordanhill Cross, also sometimes called the Govan Cross, is a cross shaft that has been snapped off just below where the head would have been. This also carries a carving of a figure on horseback, and probably dates from the 900s or 1000s.
The third of these stones is called the Cuddy Stane, because the animal being ridden on it looks like a donkey (or cuddy). This has led some to suggest the rider is meant to be Christ, though he looks a little heavily armed for that to be the case. In all probability the carving is meant to be a horse, but it simply didn't turn out quite right.
The second group of stones are displayed standing against the inside of the walls of the church, and all bar one started life as recumbent (i.e. laying flat) cross slabs. The exception was designed to stand upright. What is particularly fascinating is the way that many of these stones, which probably originally date back a thousand years or more, have been recycled. Many carry inscriptions from later centuries, showing they were reused in burials in the 1600s and 1700s. It's easy to write this off as later vandalism of the old stones: but perhaps they have only survived so well because of their reuse. A further 16 recumbent cross slabs were recorded in the graveyard in the 1700s or 1800s, but have since disappeared.
The third group of stones can be found in the west transept, and in many ways form the highlight of the collection. Here you find five massive hogback gravestones. Hogbacks can be found throughout northern England and southern Scotland, but nowhere else are they quite as large as the five in Govan.
This type of tombstone turns up wherever there was significant Viking influence and the style is named after the shape, which presumably reminded some influential early antiquarian of a pig's back. It seems more likely that these stones are meant to resemble Viking longhouses and, presumably, the significance has something to do with the buried person being laid to rest in a comfortable environment. The likeness to houses is particularly clear from the carved depictions of the roofs on some of these stones.
The most unique item on view can be found in the chancel. This is a magnificent sarcophagus originally carved from a single piece of stone. It was found in the graveyard in 1855 when a grave was being dug to the south-east of the church and is thought to date to the 900s or early 1000s. It is said that there were three sarcophagi in the church in the 1700s. It is unclear what became of the other two, or how this one came to be buried in the graveyard.
Govan Old Church is dedicated to St Constantine and the sarcophagus was probably used to hold his relics. It seems most likely that St Constantine had served as a King of Strathclyde in the 600s, and was venerated because he had established an early monastery in Govan. There is an alternative story, that St Constantine was actually Constantine I, King of the Picts and Scots, who was killed in battle with Vikings in Fife in 877. This version is hard to square with sources that say that King Constantine I was buried on Iona and not in Govan. The truth is that no-one really knows: perhaps the phrase "Dark Ages" has some justification.
Given their importance and sheer splendour, it is surprising that The Govan Stones are not better known and more visited than seems to be the case. Scotland does have some truly magnificent collections of carved stones available to view, and The Govan Stones really must be included alongside the very best you can find anywhere in the country.