Vikings and Celts in Northern Scotland: The Govan Stones

Jan 29, 2014 by

The town of Govan (Baile a’ Ghobhainn in Scots Gaelic), now a part of Glasgow, Scotland, is an ancient city with origins dating back to at least the 5th century AD.   The site of the earliest known Christian church in the area,  Govan also was part of the Kingdom of Strathclyde, an early medieval kingdom of the Celtic people called the Britons in the Hen Ogledd, the Brittonic-speaking parts of what is now southern Scotland and northern England.   After the sack of Dumbarton Rock (the chief fortress of the kingdom) by a Viking army from Dublin in 870, Govan rose to prominence as the seat of the warrior chieftains, particularly Constantine, a 7th-century king of Strathclyde who founded a monastery at Govan, where he was buried in 876 AD.   One of the most outstanding legacies of this ancient Celtic kingdom is a collection of 31 early medieval sculptures known as the Govan Stones, one of which will be featured in a new Viking exhibition opening soon at the British Museum.

Tim Clarkson, historian and author of several books about ancient Scotland, including The Men of the North: the Britons of Southern Scotland has noted that

“The thirty-one carved stones at Govan Old Parish Church represent one of the largest collections of early medieval sculpture in Scotland. These remarkable examples of Celtic art were produced between the 9th and 11th centuries AD at a time when Govan was a focus of royal power and religious ritual in the kingdom of Strathclyde. The artwork includes crosses, interlace patterns and figures of humans and animals, while the shapes of the stones themselves range from simple rectangular slabs to the enigmatic hogbacks. Common stylistic features indicate that Govan was the centre of a distinctive local ‘school’ of stonecarving whose craftsmen drew inspiration from Pictland, Ireland and Anglo-Saxon England. The artistic traditions of the Govan School spread outward across Strathclyde and can still be seen today in Renfrewshire, North Ayrshire and other parts of the old kingdom.” source



The most unusual and rare sculptures found amongst the Govan stones are the five Hogback stones, huge sandstone blocks carved with interlacing Scandinavian patterns and shaped like Viking houses. These stones are found only in areas of northern Britain that were settled by the Vikings:

“My feeling is that this is meant to represent a lord’s hall or a chieftain’s hall. This type of monument, these hogback monuments, you only find them in Britain. You don’t get them in Scandinavia and you don’t get them before the Vikings come here. So somehow the Vikings come here and see they are in this world where people carve stones all the time and they think ‘let’s carve us a suitable stone that resonates with us’.” Stephen Driscoll, Professor of Historical Archaeology at Glasgow University.

The British Museum is opening a major new exhibit called Vikings: Life and Legend, which will include one of the giant Hogback stones from Govan,  the first time a hogback stone from Govan has ever left Scotland.  Read more about the exhibit and the role of this unusual stone in telling the story of Vikings in ancient Scotland in this story from the BBChere at The Scotsman,  and at the British Museum’s site here.

If you travel to Glasgow, you can see the Govan Stones (minus one hogback gravestone) at Old Govan Church.  Admission is free for the public, although you might need to call for an appointment time.   Learn more about the location and amazing history of these early Celtic sculptures by visiting the Govan Stones online site  here.  
Short video on the Govan stones:

Time Team video with loads of info on Govan Stones:

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