Case Study 1: Making a difference: the Govan stones

Stephen Driscoll

Govan Old Church houses the largest collection of early medieval Scottish sculpture not in state or public ownership. These monuments date to the time of Kingdom of Strathclyde (10th–11th centuries), when St Constantine’s church was the royal cult centre and dynastic burial ground (Dalglish and Driscoll 2009). Since the 1990s the sculpture has been central to a series of efforts to sustain the church and stimulate urban regeneration.

A photo of a stone sarcophagus carved with interlace and zoomorphic decoration, sat on a plinth inside a church

Figure 1: The Govan Sarcophagus. © Stephen Driscoll

The church occupies an ancient oval churchyard dating back to the 6th century and containing locally important post-medieval monuments. Many of the early medieval gravestones were reused in the 16th19th centuries indicating a continuous awareness of the monuments. The scholarly community recognised the importance of the sculpture following the discovery of the sarcophagus in 1855 and over the subsequent decades the congregation curated the stones, initially in the churchyard but by the 1920s mostly within the church. In the 1990s the minister Tom Davidson Kelly rekindled interest in the sculpture explicitly to enhance the historical and spiritual stature of Govan Old (Ritchie 1994).

The sculpture assumed a heightened value following the decision by the Church of Scotland to close Govan Old in 2007. The closure provoked concern amongst heritage professionals and the community over the future of the iconic church and its sculpture. Fortunately, through the previous promotion of the sculpture and associated archaeological works, there was a strong awareness of the cultural importance of Govan Old to the community. This awareness inspired Govan Workspace Ltd to form the Govan Heritage Advisory Group, which recognised that a healthy and functional Govan Old would provide the keystone for the social and economic regeneration of central Govan. The sculpture is central to the Heritage Advisory Group’s vision of Govan Old as a dynamic cultural centre with a living practice of worship, but aspires to cut across denominational boundaries and to champion Govan as focus of Celtic artistic creativity and historic political importance.

The first stage in this transformation was to establish Govan Old as a tourist destination. A Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) grant (201113) supplemented by the Church of Scotland and Historic Scotland (HS) supported a redisplay of the sculpture by Northlight Heritage / York Archaeological Trust. The sculpture—branded ‘The Govan Stones’—was the key asset used to attract visitors, a strategy which increased visitor numbers four-fold and established Govan Old as a viable visitor attraction.

As a direct consequence, the Central Govan Action Plan has placed Govan Old at the heart of its latest Townscape Heritage Initiative and committed major capital investment to Govan Old. The intention is to reconfigure the church and churchyard to make Govan Old economically sustainable, by improving visitor facilities and displays and supporting a more diverse cultural programme. An important measure of the value of Govan Old’s sculpture is the infrastructure investment in central Govan: Water Row, a new riverside walkway, and a planned foot bridge. Undoubtedly this unique and evocative sculpture enabled this transformation.

A photo of two girls stood either side of an upright mounted carved stone, inside a church

Figure 2: The Sun Stone, Govan. © Tom Manley

Return to Section 1.3 Why focus on carved stones?

Return to Section 4.3.4: Spiritual/Religious

Leave a Reply