Posted by: kljolly | August 1, 2015

Govan Stones


Tom Manley Photography from Senchus

I just arrived in Glasgow for ISAS a bit jetlagged, especially after spending an extra three hours in Newark. But before even settling into the hotel, I hightailed it over to the tenth-eleventh century Govan Stones on exhibit at the old Govan Church, as urged by Tim Clarkson of Senchus, whose books were on prominent display in the entry area.

Many thanks, Tim:  it was well worth the visit.  I am just sorry that the limited hours of 1-4 in the afternoon prevent ISAS conferees from visiting during the week, although some may skive off.

First of all, I took no pictures because any camera I have could not compete with the professional ones posted by Tom Manley, so I will use those.  Also, the lighting is a bit wonky, floor bulbs pointing upward.  At one point, a tour guide put her foot over the light in order to point out a feature.

Speaking of which, the two volunteer guides on duty today were excellent, knowledgeable about the historical contexts and various interpretations, as well as open to suggestions from visitors about what they see.  I am sorry I did not get their names.

Tom Manley Photography

Tom Manley Photography

Several things caught my attention in the exhibit.  Everyone notices the snake themed interlace, some very distinctive (one guide aptly called the fat round scrollwork “intestiinal”).  The “sun stone” above has the unusual central boss with snake figures emerging outward.

But I was also looking at the beasties, animals that it is best to call horse-like, dog-like, etc rather than commit oneself to a particular critter, a problem I am pointing out in my ISAS paper on vermin.

Constantine sarcophagus

Constantine sarcophagus

The Constantine sarcophagus has a curious set of horse-like or deer-like animals on both of the long sides.  On the side with the horseback rider (presumably Constantine), two are in front of his horse, and two on the panel behind.  But on the other side, four animals form a square, two upright on top and two upside down below (no picture).  The guide suggested four subkingdoms.  I wondered if the two below were “dead” and the two above living, but they don’t appear to be trampling those below.

Tom Manley Photography

Tom Manley Photography

Behind the wonderful hogstones are two upright slabs along the wall.  The one on the right has along its left narrow face, upside down, a man seated with something in front of him, hard to see while craning one’s neck to see the edge looking upside down.  Apparently it is considered to be David’s coronation, possibly with harp.

Many of the stones lining the walls of the church have been “reused” by seventeenth century gentry who had their names carved on the front of the slabs.  But one slab, on the right side of the church, appears to be unfinished in its tenth-eleventh century state (no picture).  The scrollwork consists of regular deep carved slashes and triangles, which seems to give a hint about how the stone carvers went about turning a flat surface into a textured scroll of intertwining snakes or vines:  one has to visualize the scrollwork like a negative, series of holes that once chipped out in a pattern will create the positive image.

Altogether, a fascinating exhibit.  I had my older sister in tow, who found the exhibit surprisingly interesting considering her interests lie elsewhere.  In a sort of Gimli and Legolas bargain, we will later visit the Morgan car factory (her passion) to see which is a more worthy tourist experience.


  1. I’m glad you were able to see the stones, Karen, and I hope some other ISAS folk have manage to squeeze in a visit during their stay in Glasgow. The four sub-kingdoms theory is one I hadn’t heard before, but it’s certainly an interesting possibility.

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