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  • Writer's pictureLilly

The Govan Stones

What an amazing afternoon I had. As most of you know I'm researching to write a novel set in the 9th century when the Picts and the Vikings (and others) were battling for Scotland. I've been visiting lots of Pictish stones, and was dismayed to learn that the Govan Old Parish Church, which houses 5 Viking hogback stones, was closed for the season. I contacted the The Govan Stones Project about a possible visit and today the lovely Emma opened the church for me.

I was not prepared for the amazing stone treasures that the church holds. I spent 2 hours with my jaw on the floor as the winds howled around the church, and the rains lashed the huge stained glass windows. It grew dark while I was inside, creating the perfect atmosphere for tales of medieval kings, mysterious creatures, saints, battles and treachery. Emma made coffee to keep us warm in the cold church, and as we walked around she showed me stone after stone recovered in the cemetery of the church, dating back to the medieval Kingdom of Strathclyde between the 9th and 11th centuries. Some were likely recumbent stones to mark graves. Others were likely "signposts" of the day, marking important places.

And then there were the hogback stones. I have never seen anything like them - they look otherwordly. This style of stones was created by Vikings when they raided and settled across England, Scotland and Ireland. They were likely to mark the graves of important people. They don't even exist in Scandinavia - they are the product of the Vikings embracing Christianity and using Christian burial yards, but putting their own spin on their grave stones. It seems the most widely accepted theories are that they either represent the tiled roofs of Viking longhouses, or upside down boats. (The Vikings were known to bring their boats inland and tip them over to serve as shelter.) Creatures of various sorts are usually holding the ends of the stones. The Govan hogbacks are the biggest in existence, and 5 in one place is incredible. (If you have been to Kelvingrove Art Gallery you will likely have seen replica castings of these stones.)

I asked about Pictish influence in the area. Not only could Emma tell me there was an influence, she brought me to the next jaw dropping artifact - a stone sarcophagus thought to belong to St. Constantine, the son of King Kenneth MacAlpin. The carvings definitely have Pictish influence, and the mounted horseman bears a striking resemblance to the warriors I saw on my recent visit to Sueno's Stone in Forres, which may depict a great victory by Kenneth MacAlpin.

I can't express how thoroughly I enjoyed my visit. We had delightful conversation as we shared our theories of what the mysterious figures on the stones could be. I walked the church on my own, and lingered at the hogbacks, placing my hands on the stones and trying to imagine the hands that carved them centuries ago. Emma gave me some booklets and offered to connect me with leading experts to help me dig deeper with my research.

It is astounding that these stones still exist - Govan was completely enveloped in the industrial ship building boom in the 1800s and there is no telling what other treasures lay under the subsequent developments. Please plan the Govan Stones into your next visit to Glasgow - it is absolutely a must see, and I'm excited to do what I can to help them with their efforts to raise awareness and funding for this amazing place. I would write more but the coffee shop is closing!

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