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Govan Old Parish Church Graveyard


Betty Willshire, M.A., F.S.A. Scot.

In a lecture given by Mr. Andrew Wallace[1], clerk to the Govan Parish Council in the time of the Reverend Dr. John Macleod, there are some interesting references to Govan as it was in 1795. The Gorbals had been disjoined from the parish by the Commissioners of Tiends in 1771, and the population was 2518. It was still a rural place; soon the old character was to change, a state of affairs much regretted by Robert Burns. In 1795, although agriculture, salmon fishing and weaving flourished and there was a silk spinning mill, there was no market, no butcher and only one baker. The folk of Govan had to walk three miles to Glasgow to do their shopping. There were, of course, inns, and a great consumption of whisky - erstwhile proprietors of the Black Bull and the Stag lie in the churchyard. As you would expect, the majority of the old gravestones commemorate farmers and weavers. There was no register of burials in the eighteenth century, nor a proper recording of marriages and births. The Weavers Society is described by Brotchie[2]; he refers to the weaver as the bonnet laird, a man of importance and standing, of intelligence and a member of a very important guild; from 1756 to 1840 the Deacon had final judgement in all matters of dispute. There is a list of the Deacons of the Guild and surely these names must be inscribed on the tombstones. The name Rouane/Rowane is certainly prominent.

Govan is indeed fortunate in having a splendid plan of the graveyard, redrawn in 1936 from the 1809 plan[3]. Each lair is shown, with the name of the owner, his occupation, and in many instances his place of dwelling. Tombstones are drawn, the types being differentiated, and even the rails which were around the lairs ( but are now gone, swept away for the benefit of the omniverous grass cutter ), are charted. In some cases lairs held no monument. Sadly there are no dates, but some of these could be added by reading the tombstones, or, if there is such a thing, from the record of the purchases of the lairs. This plan gives us the most useful information about the trades and professions in Govan over the decades of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. However, it must be remembered that from 1841 to 1890 the popularity of the Southern Necropolis was at its height, and many Govan worthies chose to be buried there. In the BBC Education Programmes a booklet which derives from the recent survey and research on the South Necropolis gives an account of a soldier, Robert McCarroll, who came to Govan about 1865 to work in the Dixon Colliery, and was buried in the South Necropolis in 1894.

One of the most important pieces of information to be taken from the plan of Govan churchyard is that when the new church was built it impinged on, and thus altered, the previous circular shape of the kirkyard dyke. Many Lanarkshire churchyards retain their pre-Christian circular shape. The same sites used down the centuries for the erection of new churches and for continuous burials in unmarked graves. Important people were buried inside the church; some had monuments. But soon after the Reformation, it was ordained that there must be no more interments within churches. And so it came about that kirkyard monuments were set up. It would be interesting to know the date of the earliest one at Govan[4]; it is likely to be a slab, possibly one that lies buried beneath the turf. Some people retained their status by taking over mediaeval cross slabs now within the kirk; for example on one is inscribed BELLIYHOUSTON'S, on another TA EA 1723, and on another WI 1634. This practice of revision - the taking-over and re-marking of a monument - was quite common.

In parts of the central and western lowlands of Scotland, the usual practice was to buy lairs in the kirkyard, erect a monument, usually a slab, with the date and initials, or date and name. Details of members of the family interred there later were not inscribed. But in many parishes in Lanarkshire, as in the eastern counties, the Borders and Ayrshire, the general practice was to erect the monument when a member of the family died, with details of name and date, and others added in the course of time. The practice here at Govan had been mainly of the second sort, so one can get a good deal of information from the stones. The types of monuments here are firstly, slabs - ( some of the slabs may be collapsed tablestones ): secondly, headstones. Belonging to the 19th century are obelisks, pedestal stones and long low stones.

My particular interest lies in the carvings of emblems on 17th and 18th century tombstones. Although the carvings in Lanarkshire are not as elaborate as those found in Ayrshire, the Border counties and the eastern counties, you will find many quaint headstones which bear the chief emblem of immortality - the winged soul which represents the soul of the deceased leaving the body at the time of death, and winging its way to the heavens. You will also find carvings of the emblems of mortality, the skull, the bones and the upright hourglass. Each local mason did his best to provide the customer with a unique monument, and their work represents both local practices, and the changes in fashion over the centuries. But I think that you would find, with research, that many of the original 18th century stones here have been removed - a very wide-spread and regrettable practice which is still continuing. I think it is possible that a hundred and fifty years ago Govan was similar to Old Logie near Stirling, which has been little disturbed and where, among a great number of slabs, there are no less than one hundred pre-1707 headstones. There the ground is very much higher on the inside of the walls than on the outside, a sign that there has been little interference. The loss of stones only serves to make the Govan plan and the existing stones of greater value, and the need to record more vital. There are more eighteenth century slabs and headstones than, for instance, at the St. Andrew's Cathedral graveyard, where a drastic levelling and tidying was carried out in the mid-19th century under Provost Playfair.

Unfortunately, I was only able to spend a couple of hours in Govan churchyard, but I could in that time decipher the work of at least three eighteenth century masons. Each local mason did his best to provide the customer with a unique monument, and as a result we have a wonderful and very varied collection of folk art. Compare the depictions of winged souls on some of the small eighteenth century headstones. One Govan mason working in the years around 1730 carved souls with long necks rising from a box-like shape, for example on the Croffort headstone. Another feature is the carving of a head portrait of the deceased on the 1778 headstone of Alexander McKenzie Portioner in West Shiels and Janet Moses his spouse. A rather unusual feature is the portrayal of a death mask on the headstone set up by Archibald in great remembrance of his deceased father James (?) - with a decipherable date of 1733. The death mask is flanked by roses, which represent Paradise, and in a vertical line is a shell, the emblem whose source was the badge of pilgrims to the shrine of St. James of Compostella, hour glass, skull and crossed bones.

[ Plate 1 ]
Plate 1: His son Archibald in greatful remembrance caused this stone to be set wp

An interesting headstone, with soul and skull, bears the inscription:


Note that the masons embellished some headstones with classical pilasters, Doric or Ionic. The folk art is quaint and endearing. In many churchyards there are monuments to previous ministers. From the Fasti[5] under Govan, we may learn something of the dramatic history of previous incumbents of this parish; in 1577 there was the distinguished Andrew Melville, who went on to St. Andrews; in 1615 there was also another Principal of Glasgow University, the Reverend Robert Boyd. Govan ministers were certainly involved in the troubled times in the seventeenth century. For one reason or another few died while living at Govan. Dr. John Macleod was buried at Keil, Morvern. To be found on the plan is the monument to the Reverend John Pettigrew, who died in 1715 aged 78, after being minister here since 1688, and who, we are told, was distinguished for his facetious and witty sayings. Readers will be familiar with the pedestal stone ( the finial missing ), to the Reverend Mathew Leishman[6] and his wife Elizabeth Boog; he died in 1874 after 53 years ministry and his wife a few days later. This happy end was recorded by the quotation In their death they were not divided. There is a monument on the plan to the Reverend James Hay, but I have not been able to trace him. He was not a minister of Govan, and one wonders why he was buried here.

[ Plate 2 ]
Plate 2: TR AM 1692

We now come to consider the emblems of trade. On the plan at least thirty-six lairs are marked as belonging to weavers. Some of the more unusual names are Wardrop, Smillie and Arbuckle. It seems very likely that on at least some of their monuments the usual emblems of the Weavers' Incorporation may be found, that is the shuttle and the reed of the loom. There is a 1692 headstone to a dyster, with the press and the shears, and on the plan the lair of a bleacher.

The Hammermen were the head of all the trades, and stones often bore the legend

Our Art o'er all Mechanics bears reknown
Our arms the Hammer and the Royal Crown

Three headstones carry these emblems, the hammer under the crown; one dated 1731 is inscribed THIS IS THE PROPERTY OF GEORGE MURDOCH SMITH [IN] PARTICK AND MARGARET KING HIS SPOUSE another GEORGE M_____ and the date is 1736, and the third RB IS, 1721.

[ Plate 3 ]
Plate 3: George Murdoch Smith

On the plan we find lairs to two tailors ( their emblems are usually shears and goose ), two bakers, whose emblems would be crossed peels and loaves, and two fleshers and a butcher. The emblems of the Fleshers are knife, cleaver and sharpener. There are also lairs bought by two shoemakers, their emblems being the cordiner's knife, bodkin and last. Of course, it may be that the stones were undecorated. The headstone of David Scott, who died in 1714, has the two shovels of the Maltman's Incorporation.

In all, there are lairs to six gardeners, one of whom did not choose to show the tools of his trade, but has a finely carved inscription, in varied lettering, Malcom Fleming, Gardner who died the 6th of April 1788 aged 72 years and there is the emblem of the scallop shell. The type of lettering is a study in itself, and a good clue to the identity of a mason, as it was only in the nineteenth century that they began to sign the stones. The plan also shows lairs to six carrier. Again from the plan we see that more than twenty farmers and portioners had lairs in the yard. With some research an exact number might be given; it would be necessary to know which of the place names were farms. Those clearly given are Claybraes, Hardgate, Low Balshagrie, Clayslapps, Fairfield, Drumoyne, Loanhead and Greenfield. In the 17th and 18th centuries the usual emblem of the farmer was the sock and coulter of the plough, but on Ayrshire tombstones the plough, ploughman, oxen, horses and goadman are often portrayed. Many of the lairs on the plan must have been added to the 1809 original one, and a number of trades seem to belong to the nineteenth century, such as Grocer, clerk, builder, teacher, Fishery Officer, wharfeman, draper, sackmaker, file-maker, surgeon. What a satisfying project it would be to identify and date them. There are now several books or pamphlets produced by local history societies and other such groups. A fine example is the recording and research of the Southern Necropolis last year which culminated in an exhibition in Provand's Lordship.

An interesting type of monument, common in Stirlingshire in the 18th century, is the long low stone, termed by us the Double Bedder. There are at least five to be seen in the kirkyard now, one inscribed as follows This is the Burial place of Jane Lamont and William Masone 1841 has the unusual feature of small headstones built in it at either end so that more family entries might be made later.

Another interesting and possibly unique monument is a slab ( or collapsed tablestone? ) inscribed The property of John Donald and Agnes Addie. A large incised cross at a curious angle rests prominently by the inscription. The more of John Donald died in 1852, and is thus described: She lived always endeavouring to do her duty. His daughter died in 1853, John Donald himself in 1860 aged 36, and his wife Agnes died in New York in 1892 aged seventy. From such epitaphs we may learn a good deal, particularly about the emigration of families. On the tall obelisk to Donald McDonald who died in 1864, we read that his son died in New York, U.S. of sunstroke on July 5th 1872, aged 46.

[ Plate 4 ]
Plate 4: McDonald obelisk

Round about 1800 the old emblems dropped out of favour, and the emphasis was on shape and size of monuments. So it is pleasantly surprising to find on the pedestal stone of George Bissett of Three Mile House a group of four winged souls. The 1856 Bissett stone commemorates the deaths of his wife, father and month, his sisters and several brothers and the comfortine rhyme:

In Jordans stream we parted here
A scene of grief and pain
But mourn no more On Canans shore
We soon will meet again

The obelisk to Lt. General Sir William Paterson has four cast-iron supports for the rails which used to mark the lairs. They look like lamp-posts, and are of great interest. Cast-iron monuments became popular in the nineteenth century, but are becoming increasingly rare. I should mention, too, that within living memory graves were decorated with immortelles, the china flowers and figures covered by glass domes; with shells brought home by sailors, with little china ornaments, and these and the regular offerings of flowers made the churchyards busy and bright.

[ Plate 5 ]
Plate 5: Sacred to the memory of James Gibson of Hillhead who died 19 March 1862 aged 63.
Also his wife Elizabeth Smith, who died 1896 aged 76.
Blessed are the peacemakers for they shall be called the children of God. St. Mattew (sic.) 5.9

I have not referred to the row of mural monuments, now in a poor state. I wonder whether any of the descendants of these families might be traced and persuaded to repair and clean the tombstones. The names are as follows: Muirs of Muirpark, Whites of Fairfield, Rowands of Linthouse, Donaldsons of Thornwood, McCalls of Ibroxhill, Dunlops of Craigton, Monteiths of Westbank, Galbraiths of Greenhead, Cooks of Little Govan, Campbells of Stewartville and Bairds of Southcroft. The graveyard is tidy, there are new young trees growing, and there is much that is of interest and that is pleasing. I can city many instances where there has been vandalism of such ferocity that it has been hard to recoup the losses. At Blairgowrie, for instance, all the gravestones have had to be planted flat in the ground, so that the three-dimensional appearance has been killed. The best way to protect a churchyard is to show a lively interest in it, to involve school teachers and their classes in church and churchyard projects, and to record the stones[7]. In the course of time, the old tombstones will inevitably erode; let us enjoy and appreciate what we still have, this valuable heritage.


  1. Historical Lecture with regard to The Parish of Govan, Andrew Wallace, 1903
  2. The History of Govan, T. C. F. Brotchie, 1905 and 1938
  3. See The Churchyard of Govan and its Sarcophagus, Roger Kirkpatrick, in Old Govan Club Transactions, Part 2, Vol. 1, 1915-16. (Editor)
  4. The earliest stone as yet deciphered is that of John Rouan ( Rowan ) of Greenhead, who died 1624, aged 76. His son John had died in 1614. The last entry at the foot of the stone is for Hugh Rouan, who died 1764. (Editor)
  5. Fasti Ecclesiae Scoticanae, Vol. III Synod of Glasgow and Ayr, ed. Hew Scott, 1920
  6. New Statistical Account of Scotland, Lanarkshire, 1841. Writing in February 1840, Leishman gives a detailed description of the pre-industrial Parish of Govan. (Editor)
  7. Understanding Scottish Graveyards, Betty Willshire, 1985, reprinted 1990.

Churchyard Maps

Here are two scans of the 1836 plan of Govan Old Parish Church graveyard. Both are fairly hefty images, but the smaller of the two may not be 100% readable in smaller lairs. You should right-click on each link and download the maps to your disk rather than attempt to display them in your browser.

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