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GOVAN: the name


Thomas Owen Clancy, B.A., Ph.D., F.S.A.Scot.

Although the modern Gaelic name for Govan, Baile a'Ghobainn, suggests its origin in a settlement of smiths ( "Smithville" would be the rather suburban sounding translation! ), the early forms of the name found in mediaeval texts do not support this view. In addition, if this were the origin of the name, it would mean that the generic, baile, "farmstead, township", had dropped away, leaving only the genetive of the Old Gaelic (OG) gobae ( genetive gobann ) "smith", without its original generic ( though names with smiths in them do exist in Ireland, notably the monastery Brígobann, now Brigown. ). Alan Macquarrie ( 1994, 27 ) has recently suggested that the name comes from Gaelic gobán, "small beak, point, promontory". This cannot be accepted either. Gobán, a diminutive of gob, was in OG gop, "a beak", pronounced "gob", as in the English word to which it gave rise ( cf. OED, gob ). The /b/ here could not have given us the /v/ which is most certainly present in the earliest attestations of the name Govan.

These forms include:

  • c.1134, Guuen ( Lawrie 1905, 82 )
  • c.1150, Guuan ( Lawrie 1905, 345 )
  • 1275, Govan ( cf. Johnston 1934, 196 )
  • 1518, Gwuan ( Ibid. )

It is clear from these forms that the first vowel also demands explanation which neither an origin in OG gobae, "smith", nor OG gopán, "little beak", can adequately provide.

I would suggest that the name is from a Brittonic ( i.e., Cumbric or North British ) word, *gwovan, made up of the elements gwo-/go- "small, slight, little, under", and ban "crest, point, bare hill, height" ( cf. GPC, go, go-; ban, 1 ). Although this compound is unattested in the Brittonic languages, gwo-, later Welsh go-, is well-known in combination with topographical terms, for instance in Welsh I, "small township, settlement"; godir, "region, slope" ( These terms may be active in Pictish nomenclature, cf. Fothrif <?*uo-+trev; Fettir -<*uo-+tir. ). It is probably present in the Welsh place-names Gogarth, Gofilon and Gogerddon, and certainly in the Cornish name Godolphin House ( <go-+tolghan, cf. Padel 1988, 87 ). Ban is also well-known in Welsh place-names such as Ban Arthur and Tal-y-fan, and in the north it is the root of the British name for the range of hills which rise near Stirling, Bannawc, whence Bannockburn ( Jackson 1969, 78-9 ).

Although in Welsh the prefix gwo- became go-, this may not have been the case further north ( Jackson 1955, 163 ). In Pictish, the equivalent of Welso gwo- was *uo-, which seems to have become *wu- in some contexts, and a similar situation may have applied, for all we know, in Cumbric. Thus, the early forms of Govan may well represent the reduction of the original gwo-.

What would be the "small hill, little crest" of the name *Gwovan? It could perhaps be interpreted as "point, tip", and thus refer to the promontory which Macquarrie took to be the referent of his gobán, "little beak". More likely, in my view, it refers to the small but prominent crest of Doomster Hill, in early drawings the only rise in the land for some distance around. Seen from the north bank of the Clyde, with its range of hills, this diminutive, but highly significant, eminence could well have inspired the name of Govan. This British derivation sits well with those of its neighbours, Glasgow and Partick ( Perthec, c.1150 ), especially the latter, to which it was linked. If the name does indeed refer to the Doomster Hill, it would be at least a small indication that that mound dates from a period when North British / Cumbric was still in active use in the area, and hence probably could not be much later than the tenth century.


OG: Old Gaelic ( = Old Irish )
OED: Oxford English Dictionary
GPC: Geiriadur Prifysgol Cymru


  • Kenneth H. Jackson, "The Pictish Language", in F. T. Wainwright (ed.) "The Problem of the Picts" (1955), 129-66
  • Kenneth H. Jackson, "The Gododdin: The Oldest Scottish Poem" (1970)
  • James B. Johnstone, "Place-Names of Scotland" (1934)
  • A. C. Lawrie, "Early Scottish Charters prior to A.D.1153" (1905)
  • Alan Macquarrie, "The Historical Content of the Govan Stones", in A. Ritchie (ed.) "Govan and its Early Mediaeval Sculpture" (1994) 27-32
  • Oliver Padel, "A Popular Dictionary of Cornish Place-Names" (1988)
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