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The Architecture of Govan Old Parish Church


Sam McKinstry, Ph. D.

The remarkable ministry of John Macleod is inextricably bound up with the great Gothic church he willed into existence in Govan during the 1880's. Inside the church his presence and power can still be imagined almost tangibly and somehow, the building's noble gravity matches the personality which emerges from his writings and from the accounts of his life. It was his biographer, Kirkpatrick, who so beautifully described Govan Old Parish Church as the thought of a great Churchman expressed by a great Architect.[1] This is a reminder that Macleod did not, indeed, could not, have conceived the church in anything but the most general terms, and that its realisation in stone and lime was the work of the Edinburgh architect, Robert ( later Sir Robert ) Rowand Anderson.

The first face to face contact between the two men appears to have been made on 24 July, 1876, when Macleod informed Anderson that the existing church building was to be altered and extended, and commissioned his designs for the project[2]. Anderson, although only in his forty second year, had already acquired a considerable reputation, and was increasingly regarded as the most likely successor to David Bryce, then in advancing years, as Scotland's foremost architect[3]. He had just won the competition for the Edinburgh School Board's new schools, and had to his credit a string of small but beautiful churches designed for the Scottish Episcopal Church, of which he was a member. In addition, he had just completed the consolidation of the ruins at Iona, the precursor of all subsequent restorations there. More significantly, Anderson had recently built a large church in the transitional Norman / Gothic style for the Edinburgh congregation of the Catholic Apostolic Church, an institution which Macleod admired.

Illustrations of the proposed alterations still survive ( Plates 1a and 1b ). The church, designed in 1825, was in a late Gothic style which still looked fashionable in the 1870's, notwithstanding the general refinement in church design that had taken place in the interim years, a credit to its architect, James Smith. However, the accommodation was now inadequate, the low ceiling gave the interior a depressing effect and interfered with acoustics, and there were no ancillary rooms, seen as essential for a modern church. Anderson's solution reveals re-oriented pews, a new hall and session house, and reflecting ecclesiological taste, a chancel aisled and windowed in a sympathetic late-Gothic style, and which would have been one of the first of its kind in Scotland. Most enlightening from the point of view of Macleod's churchmanship is the central pulpit, which indicates that at this time, his views on church arrangements were still orthodox. The project was to cost £7500 and late in 1877, the congregation's support was requested. The Heritors, reluctant to commit themselves before seeing the public response, were able to report on 28 October 1880 that the money required had at last been promised. At the same meeting, a proposal was made that, instead of enlarging the old church, a new one should be erected. The Heritors agreed. From this point onwards, with fund raising proceeding apace under Macleod's leadership, the concept of the new church developed in his mind.

[ Plate 1a ]
Plate 1a

A precise chronology of events thereafter is available from the architect's account ( Appendix 1 ). It reveals that by 1882, extra ground was being acquired on the north of the existing church's historic site. In July that year, Anderson twice met Macleod in London, firstly to go over designs, and secondly to discuss how galleries could be incorporated. the latter question was crucial for Macleod, who wanted to 'grip' his people, and see every face in the congregation, but at the same time did not wish galleries to mar the associational effects of an archaeologically accurate Gothic building[4]. The full concept had now matured in Macleod's mind: the new church was to be a noble sanctuary where the industrial ugliness of Govan's bustling shipyards could be transcended, where worship could be heightened through the introduction of liturgy, and where daily services could be instituted. These ideas were, of course, novel in the Church of Scotland at this point in time. In order to solve the gallery problem, the two men visited St. Peter's Church, Eaton Square, London, a classical Commissioner's church built earlier in the century to the design of Henry Hakewill, and subsequently altered by A. W. Blomfield. The placing of the galleries in this church provided the solution to the problem at Govan, and Anderson made measured sketches to work into the design.

[ Plate 1b ]
Plate 1b

Macleod had visited Italy, and had noted that the great Franciscan basilicas were laid out so that the arcades did not interfere with the view of the preacher and as a result of this, the aisles at Govan were to be provided for access only. By October 1882, the design was completed. In December 1883, the drawings for the roof were sent to Macleod, together with an alternative scheme for a tower. In January 1884, Anderson was in Glasgow arranging for the building committee to finalise contracts. The last service in the old church was held on 18 March 1884, after which it was moved stone by stone to the neighbourhood of Golspie Street ( at the south-western corner of the crossroads in the middle of Logie Street ) and re-dedicated as Elderpark Parish Church. Between this date and 1888, the structure gradually took shape, some minor modifications to the original designs being required to provide access to the Steven Chapel, for which a gift had been provided.

The final result undoubtedly conformed to Macleod's broad wishes: it possessed a large and subduing majesty of form and was plain and unvitiated by florid decoration, totally appropriate to the Mother Church of an important Parish growing apace as a result of Macleod's tireless efforts. It also conformed closely to the pattern established by Anderson in his earlier churches. In common with so many of these, it consists of a lofty nave in the Early Gothic style, heavily buttressed with shallow side aisles and leading to a chancel, originally some two thirds of its present length, which results from an extension of 1908. On the church's west ( liturgical north ) side, the foundations of a tower were laid, but as yet it remains unbuilt. Between these foundations and the chancel lies the Steven Chapel, where the daily services instituted by Macleod are still carried out. The composition, realised in cream squared sandstone rubble, is articulated by delicate hood mouldings, and is given a sense of gravitas by its general proportion, the loftiness of the lancets and the pitch of the roof ( Plate 2 ). In accordance with Anderson's functionalist beliefs, inherited from his former employer, Sir George Gilbert Scott, the building's external form expresses the internal deployment of space, and in consequence, its function.

[ Plate 2 ]
Plate 2

Inside, the architecture is even more impressive. The chancel arch is pierced on either side by subordinate arches which provide access to the spaces behind. This unusual device had already been employed by Anderson at the Catholic Apostolic Church in Edinburgh, another church with a broad nave and without side aisles. Although this practice was highly unusual, Anderson would have seen it in the work of James Gillespie Graham at St. Mary's Roman Catholic Church in Edinburgh, or at the chapel of Murthly Castle in Perthshire[5]. Something similar could be found in London churches by GE Street and, indeed, in Gerona Cathedral, which has the widest nave in Christendom. The chancel is the great glory of this church, however. On its east wall, a giant oculus sits on top of three tall lancets, producing a spare but beautiful effect, pregnant with symbolism, and modelled on the north transept of Pluscarden Priory near Elgin ( Plate 3 ). Anderson had used this mediaeval fragment as a model not only for the east window at Govan, but as a basis for the church's exterior, which is treated in a plain but fastidious manner, in the best tradition of early Scots Gothic.

[ Plate 3 ]
Plate 3

The architect's success in providing unobtrusive galleries is very clear. These are tucked away at the rear of the church and in the north transept: visibility without archaeological compromise. Remarkable, too, is the highly unusual roof, a trefoil barrel, partly plastered, partly planked over, with tie beams. Something similar might have been familiar to Anderson from Goldie's Our Lady of Victory R.C. Church, Kensington, or from Scott's work at Glasgow University, which Anderson is known to have studied, and where parts of the roofing bear some similarities to Govan. The walls of the church are lined with red brick, broken up by bands of dressed stone. Brick linings were very much favoured by the English architects Butterfield and Brooks, and had been used with mixed success by Anderson at Forfar Episcopal, Stirling Episcopal and several smaller churches. At Govan it darkens the building down, giving it a velvety ambience which causes the stained glass to glow richy, contributing to a unique atmosphere evocative of the numinous.

The interior had been given a great deal of thought: the red brick linings for the walls were debated at length by the building committee, who were eventually persuaded by Anderson that the material was both cost-effective and aesthetically acceptable[6]. To what extent was Anderson's argument determined by aesthetic preference? The organ case, pulpit, communion table, desks and choir stalls were all designed by Anderson and made by Whytock and Reid of Edinburgh. The gas fittings were supplied by Starkie Gardiner of London, to Anderson's design. From Macleod's point of view, arrangements were as important as design. The communion table was placed in the Chancel as a witness, the pulpit placed at the side, prayers were to be offered from the prayer desk, these and other details coinciding with the developing involvement of the congregation in the services. It would take almost two decades, however, and the intervention of Macleod's death, before the magnificent programmatic stained glass scheme would be nearly completed as he had planned it[7].

The opportunity to describe the opening services cannot be missed. The Dedication Service began on Saturday 19 May 1888, at half past two, in the presence of the Presbytery, Heritors, Public bodies, upwards of sixty clergymen, the elders and a congregation which packed the church. The clergy and elders passed in processional order through the front door and up the central aisle. All stood and joined with great solemnity in the singing of Psalm 122. Macleod began the service facing the congregation. After the reading of the Dedication Lession and after opening prayers by colleagues, he invoked The Divine Presence and Blessing, before pronouncing the formal words of dedication:

God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost, accept, hallow, and bless this place to the end whereunto according to His ordinance we have separated it: even to be a sanctuary to the Most High and a church of the living God. The Lord with His favour graciously regard our work; and so send down His spiritual benediction and grace, that it may be unto Him the house of God, and unto His saints worshipping herein the gate of heaven[8].

After a short interval, the evening service began, with Macleod preaching from John 17 v.26, laying emphasis in his sermon on the fact that the consecration of the church depended on the Divine Presence and not on rhetoric. As the prophetic figure intoned scripture upon scripture amidst the majestic spectacle of architecture, dignitaries and congregation, the skies opened with a fearful downpour unleashing a thunderstorm of unusual severity. While the elements raged and roared outside flashes of lightning illuminated the church as the congregation sang Psalm 29: The voice of the Lord thundereth; the voice of the Lord is full of majesty; the voice of the Lord divideth the flames of fire. None of this sublime interference altered the preacher's composure. In Kirkpatrick's words, the impassioned tones of the orator's voice rose and fell with unarrested eloquence.

Macleod did not remain long content, however. The stained glass scheme was essential to the church, and a separate fund was established for its completion. The tympanum along the front of the church was to be decorated with sculpture and a design was prepared, but alas, never carried out. The chancel extension which Macleod so keenly desired had to wait until 1908, when the generosity of Sir John Stirling Maxwell, a Heritor and social acquaintance of Rowand Anderson, made it possible. The tower deserves special mention. Its non-completion was a particular disappointment both to the architect and to Macleod. From the very beginning, it is clear that two alternative designs were envisaged, a conventional square tower, and a round tower of the Brechin type ( Plate 4 ). The architect's account discloses that this was estimated to cost £4,265, and, quite obviously, would have been much cheaper than the, admittedly, stunning alternative, of which an illustration hangs in the church. Given the straightened financial circumstances, in which it is remarkable that so much was achieved, Anderson may well have been responsible for suggesting the Brechin style design. No one understood better than he the frustration of seeing a church without its intended spire - this had happened to many of his buildings for the Scottish Episcopal Church. But Anderson had other reasons for proposing a round tower. He had a special liking for Brechin Cathedral's ancient spire, which as well as being elegantly and simply constructed, was uniquely Scottish. He had sketched its silhouette in the early 1870's, and incorporated such a spire in his unexecuted designs for Leven Episcopal Church in the 1870's. A similar tower was planned for the Catholic Apostolic Church in Edinburgh, but again was not realised. Finally in the 1890's, Anderson was once more frustrated in his plans to erect a round spire at Dunfermline R. C. Church[9]. In his dying months, Macleod is said to have desired the tower above all things, to complete the massing of the complex, which would soon be encircled by shipyard sheds. Kirkpatrick makes in clear, though, that Macleod could have achieved it easily had he concentrated effort upon the undertaking, concluding that its postponement and non-achievement resulted from more urgent considerations. The massive success of his church extension programme called for substantial funds just at the time the completion of the tower might have been possible. In reality, the deferment of the tower was a triumph of priorities.

[ Plate 4 ]
Plate 4

Finally, some mention must be made of those whose generosity was so necessary to the undertaking, which, excluding the extension to the chancel and the stained glass, had cost some £28,000. The great shipbuilding families gave generously: Sir William and Lady Pearce donated over £7,000. The Misses Steven of Bellahouston provided the funds for the Steven Chapel, as well as substantial support for the rest of the project. Mrs John Elder gave £2,000. Macleod himself had worked tirelessly in raising funds throughout.

The partnership between Macleod and Anderson operated perfectly. Both were serious, intense men, fired by Christian principle, patriotism and a sense of vocation, a blend that had raised them to national eminence in their chosen professions by the time the church was consecrated. During the period of their collaboration, each man was awarded an Honorary Doctorate. More to the point perhaps, the men resembled each other facially, Anderson's portrait ( Plate 5 ) disclosing a heavy walrus moustache very like Macleod's. If Macleod brought Scoto-Catholicism to prominence at Govan, Anderson gave it its first temple, a building that would evoke admiration and emulation for years to come.

[ Plate 5 ]
Plate 5


  1. Roger S. Kirkpatrick, The Ministry of Dr. John Macleod in the Parish of Govan ( Edinburgh and London, 1915 ), p.81
  2. A pamphlet, kept in the Scrap Book instituted by Macleod, describes the details of the alteration
  3. Sam McKinstry, Rowand Anderson 'The Premier Architect of Scotland' ( Edinburgh, 1991 ), passim.
  4. Transactions of the Scottish Ecclesiological Society, Vol. II, part III, 1908-9, p.409
  5. James Gillespie Graham and Alexander Christie, The Chapel of St. Anthony the Eremite at Murthly, Perthshire ( Edinburgh, 1850 )
  6. Strathclyde Regional Archives, Govan New Parish Church Building Fund Letter Book, 7 & December 1885, CH2/1277/61
  7. Sally Rush with Tom Davidson Kelly, The Stained Glass Windows of Govan Old Parish Church ( Glasgow, 1990 )
  8. Kirkpatrick, Macleod, p.90-95
  9. Illustrated in: A. H. Millar, Fife Pictorial and Historical, Vol. II, 1895

Appendix 1

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