Posted by: christinelaennec | February 4, 2014

Govan Old Church, Glasgow: full of surprises

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:

Altar and windows, Govan Old Church, Glasgow.

Altar and windows, Govan Old Church, Glasgow.

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…

Govan Old Church, Glasgow.

Govan Old Church, Glasgow.

… and also a number of Viking carved stones called “hogbacks”:

Viking stones - humpbacks??

Viking “hogback” stones

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).

Viking ??? Govan Old Church, Glasgow.

Viking “hogbacks” and other carved standing stones in Govan Old Church, Glasgow.

Govan Old Church, Glasgow.

Govan Old Church, Glasgow.

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.

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Responses

  1. What a lovely church and an inspirational place of worship. I’ve never been to Glasgow (Edinburgh tends to beckon me more), but I’m beginning to see, via your posts, that city’s singular charms!

  2. Thanks for sharing some views and history of the beautiful church, Christine! One of the spots I have gotten tripped up on when saying the Lord’s prayer in different churches is that not all tag on ” for Thine is the kingdom…” and my voice interrupts the silence around me if I don’t stop in time 🙂

    • Gracie, I have never encountered so many versions of the Lord’s Prayer as here in Glasgow! Trespasses, debts, sins; temptations, time of trial… So I have been the “lone voice” a few times as well.

  3. Lovely post as always-going to St Andrews Cathedral next Monday and really looking forward to that. Glad to see you and The Dafter were out and about-it would be wonderful if she were well enough to join our Spring Coffee and Chat.

  4. Beautiful church. How come I have never heard of it before?

  5. That is fascinating about the ancient stones. It looks a really interesting place.

  6. What a surprising place to find in Govan, I would never have suspected it. I keep coming across references to hogback stones, they’re intriguing, and these ones look most interesting.

  7. What a beautiful church! And how lovely to have a service everyday! I’ve never seen or heard of a hogback, but now I know! Will keep an eye out in the future (not over here, but over there!!!). I only associate Govan with, would it be, an underground sign? I feel like if I walked far enough I would be in Govan from the West Side? But I do get that “shady” feeling when I think of it.

    • Heather, if you were in the West End of Glasgow, you would have to either walk over a bridge or through the Clyde Tunnel to get to Govan, which is on the other side of the river. Walking through the Clyde Tunnel would indeed be “shady”!

  8. Lovely church! Have never heard of hogback stones but enjoyed your photos. especially the one that looks to have a boar on the stone! and the stained glass is beautiful.

  9. What a magnificent church – thanks for taking us on a tour, Christine. Churches in Europe are some of my favorite places on the planet. ❤

  10. Thank you all for your interesting comments and reactions. Mary in TN, you aren’t the only one to see a “boar” in the carvings, hence the original name of hogback.

    Catriona, I hope you really enjoy your trip to St. Andrews. The Cathedral ruins is a breathtaking place. Yes, and wouldn’t it be nice if she could…

  11. A lovely post, Christine, and thank you for your kind words and the link. The service sounds delightful but I would probably have the same problem keeping up with the Lord’s Prayer! 🙂

  12. Great article Christine, also enjoyed reading about Mrs Milne. It caught my eye as my grandmothers maiden name was Milne. They too were from the nth east Scotland, places like aberlemno and other places i plan to visit when i get back. Im coming up on 30 years away from the homeland.
    You may want to look into the work of Barry Dunford, sacredconnections.com.
    I think you find some of findings interesting.
    I look forward to reading more of your writings
    Regards
    Ian

    • Thanks very much for your kind words, Ian. I hope you get back to Scotland soon, and thank you for the recommendation.

  13. Nice write up on the stones Christine. There is a great blog on early medieval Govan at http://earlymedievalgovan.wordpress.com You do not have to go back to the middle ages to find the town of Govan though, it was a seperate town right up until 1912 when it was annexed to Glasgow.


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