Around 500, according to tradition, the Christian missionary St Constantine arrives in Govan and builds a small wooden church next to a sacred well and in the shadow of the ceremonial hill. The first Christian Govanites are buried in the heart-shaped burial ground which now surrounds Govan Old Church. The people of Govan and the Clyde Valley in these early times are called 'Britons'. They're different from their neighbours, the Scots and Picts, and speak their own language. In this language the name Govan means 'little hill'.
The church and the ceremonial hill at Govan are part of the kingdom of the Clyde Britons which is ruled from Dumbarton Rock. The king of Dumbarton has just won a great victory over the Scots of Dalriada (now Argyll) and has become one of the most powerful kings in the British Isles.
A combined army of Picts and Northumbrians attacks Dumbarton and forces the Clyde Britons to surrender. The invaders are recorded as having forded the River Clyde at Govan, and the actual surrender may have taken place in a ceremony on the ancient hill of Govan.
Around the mid to late 800s the richly decorated Govan Sarcophagus is carved from a single block of stone. It is a high status burial monument, replete with interlace designs and figurative panels, including a scene portraying a mounted warrior hunting, a symbolic motif which combines ideas of military prowess with the Christian quest for salvation. Whether it was intended to hold the relics of a saint or the bones of a king is impossible to tell, but it is undoubtedly one of the most outstanding pieces of sculpture of its age.
A new power appears in the seas around Britain and Ireland around AD 800 - Viking raiders from Norway and Denmark. In 870 Vikings sail up the Firth of Clyde to plunder the old fortress at Dumbarton. The king of the Britons is captured and killed. But the kingdom manages to survive, and the new king moves up the river to Govan, which becomes the heart of the kingdom. The kingdom itself gets a new name: Strathclyde.
A sculptural tradition known as 'The Govan School' is believed to have originated in Govan around 900AD. The 38 'recumbent' cross-slabs, 4 free-standing crosses and Norse 'hogbacks' displayed in Govan Old Church are all carved during this period. The recumbent cross-slabs are the longest-lived style of monument, spanning c. 900-1100 AD. Taken as a whole, the carved stones are evidence of a major high status, probably royal, cemetery at Govan.
The Norse influenced 'hogback' burial monuments are thought to have been carved in Govan during this period. The 5 hogbacks in Govan Old Church are the largest known collection in Scotland. They are typically found in areas of northern England settled by Vikings and on the southern Scottish mainland where there was a significant Norse presence.
The kings of Strathclyde are at the height of their power. They rule as far south as the Solway Firth. They and their families worship at the old church of St Constantine at Govan and are buried in the churchyard, their graves being marked by finely carved cross-slabs and ‘Hogback’ stones. The royal palace is sited across the river at Partick, and the ancient hill to the east of the church forms the administrative hub of this new power-base, used for important ceremonies, gatherings and pronouncements.
Around this time, the kingdom of Strathclyde is conquered by the Scots and absorbed into the kingdom of Scotland. The Scottish King, David I, establishes a new diocese based at Glasgow Cathedral (founded 1114), which eclipses the old church and power-base at Govan, and its associations with the British kings. The Scottish kings have no use for the court hill at Govan. They have their own ceremonial mound, at Scone. The royal estate lands at Partick are given over to the Bishops of Glasgow.
The church continues in use as the mother church of Govan parish. The small, rural settlement of Govan grows up around Govan Cross and the north-south axis leading down to the river crossing at Water Row. Old customs die hard and the Govanites of medieval times continue to gather around their hill for public meetings and community events. Law and justice ('dooms') are still handed out at this special place. Local people call it the 'Doomster Hill' or simply 'The Hillock'.
The medieval church is replaced by a new church in 1726. The graveyard contains burial markers spanning over 500 years, the eariest of which are typically flat, carved slabs favoured by prominent, local land-owning families. By the eighteenth century, artisans and craftsmen are also buried in the churchyard. The craftsmen prefer a style of upright headstone carved with designs reflecting their craft, e.g. shears for weavers, the trade most commonly commemorated.
Govan Old Church, designed by James Smith of Jordanhill in 1826, and modelled on Stratford-on-Avon, is a familiar landmark in many of the 19th-century images of Govan. By the 1880s, the 1826 church was considered inadequate in size and unfit for the new style of worship favoured by the then-incumbent Reverend John Macleod.
The Doomster Hill has fallen into disuse - a water reservoir for Reid’s dye-works has been put on the top. Local historians start to take an interest and begin to record the stories still told about the Hill. ‘Govan Old’, the first shipbuilding yard in Govan, is opened by McArthur and Stevenson next to Doomster Hill.
Construction work on the current Govan Old Church is begun in 1884. It is designed by architect Robert Rowand Anderson in the Gothic style, is a much larger and grander building than its predecessor and features an elaborate cycle of stained glass, conceived by the then minister Rev John Macleod. The new church opens in 1888.
Govan’s second age of greatness is at its height – the burgh is an international centre for shipbuilding. By the 1930’s over 30% of the world’s shipping is ‘Clydebuilt’. Doomster Hill has been levelled to make space for the shipyards – no trace of it remains. In 1912, Belfast shipbuilder Harland and Wolff buys three small shipyards in Govan and constructs giant new sheds and slipways on the site of Doomster Hill. The churchyard at Govan is almost entirely surrounded by shipyards.
George MacLeod and his Govan congregation found the Iona Community on the island of Iona and in Govan. Unemployed craftspeople from Govan work to restore the monastic quarters of the Abbey of St Columba on the island. Like Govan’s St Constantine, Columba was an early missionary who brought Christianity to Scotland
In 1971, the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders 'work in' at Fairfield and three other yards lasts for more than a year and saves the yards from closure. Following restructuring, Govan Shipbuilders is created in 1972. Today, the yard employs over 2000 workers and is operated by BAE Systems. In 2010, some 800 mourners attend the funeral at Govan Old Church of UCS union leader, Jimmy Reid. The restored A-listed Fairfield Shipyard Offices are due to open in late 2012 as a heritage centre and office spaces.
After years of uncertainty over the future of the church and stones, a new era begins. A new project will bring significant improvements to the display and interpretation of this notable collection and aim to increase visitor numbers and public awareness. The project will take advantage of the increasing recognition given to the heritage of Govan; the archaeology and history of Govan is now one of the major themes in Glasgow City Council’s Local History and Archaeology Strategy.