I’ve been very fortunate to make a lovely new friend here in Glasgow. She is a church organist, and invited me along to a service she was playing for, at Govan Old Church. This church is very unusual. I’d seen it from the bus and the train. It sits proudly on the south bank of the River Clyde, not far from the famous shipyard. The area of Govan is associated with a proud industrial history and a community that has more recently fallen on very hard times. My friend explained to me that in the Middle Ages, Govan was a separate town, which rivalled its neighbour Glasgow in strategic and political importance. The church reflects both Govan in its 19th-century industrial heyday, as well as its much earlier history: what treasures lie within!
It’s a very large church, with impressive stained-glass windows, as you can see here:
The current church was built in 1888, but it’s believed that there has been a place of worship here since the 6th century.
It also houses some extremely important carved stones, both upright, as the ones along this wall…
… and also a number of Viking carved stones called “hogbacks”:
My friend told me that no-one exactly knows what these “hogback” stones represent, but it’s believed that they are perhaps meant to be thatched rooves, to lie upon a grave. The British Museum in London is going to be including one of the Govan stones in an exhibition called “Vikings Life and Legend” this spring.
In case you’re wondering what Vikings have to do with the West of Scotland, in brief, the Vikings raided and colonised the West coast of Scotland starting in the 9th century. The Book of Kells was taken to safety in Ireland from the Isle of Iona during the Viking raids. The Outer Hebrides were part of the Viking Kingdom between the 9th and the 13th centuries (see this potted history).
I didn’t visit Govan Old church primarily to see these amazing stones; in fact, I was there for the short morning service, which they hold from 10 to 10:20 a.m. every day. It took place in a beautiful side chapel, and was very moving indeed.
There was a special atmosphere in Govan Old Church, which I find hard to describe. No doubt having seen all these layers of history around me, I was especially aware of how ancient many of the words we use in our Christian services are. I could imagine the early Christians saying the Lord’s Prayer.
The only thing I wondered about was whether, like modern Glaswegians, they prayed at such a clip! The good people of Glasgow talk quickly, and often delightfully – and I have never yet been able to keep up with them saying the Lord’s Prayer in a church service. Nevermind that, I hope to go back to another morning service at Govan Old soon.
May 2015: Jo Woolf of the Hazel Tree has written an excellent, and very thorough, post about the Govan Stones here.