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The Name Govan, the Kirk and the Doomster Hill


Alan D. Macquarrie, M.A., Ph.D.

The modern Gaelic name of Govan is Baile a'Ghobhainn, "smith's homestead", although there is no early attestation to this. I have suggested that this is probably a back-formation, since in modern pronunciation this would become Balgowan or Balgown, and since Govan appears to have been first and foremost an ecclesiastical settlement rather than a secular one, I have tentatively made the alternative suggestion that the name might derive from a diminutive form of Gaelic gob, "beak, nose": gobán, "little beak", referring to the promontory of raised ground on which the kirkyard is situated, stretching into the flood plain of the Clyde[1].

More recently, however, Dr. T. O. Clancy[2] has raised the objection, correctly, that Gaelic gob < IO gop, and that b < p should resist lenition, whereas the earliest spellings ( Guuen, Guuan )[3] show clearly that in the 12th century the name was already pronounced much as it is now. Certainly in West Scottish examples like Lochmaben, from *Cloch Maboin ( < *mapon ), or Lochaber ( Adomnán's Stagnum Aporis ) intervocalic b < p remains unlenited. Indeed, one modern Scots Gaelic dictionary has the word gobán, with the meaning "little bill"[4]. Less serious is Dr. Clancy's concern that OI o could give u by the 12 century. He himself suggests exactly this sound change in an unstressed syllable. In fact, in West of Scotland Scots dialect, Scots gob is frequently pronounced gub, especially when used as a verb[5].

Dr. Clancy's ingenious alternative suggestion, however, is unsatisfactory. He suggests that Govan could be from Brettonic go + bann, "small peak", referring to the Doomster Hill. Certainly this would account for the lenition of intervocalic b. Dr. Clancy suggests that the unstressed prefix go-, "small", could locally have become gu- in the West of Scotland.

The fatal objection to this suggestion is that the first syllable gu- in Govan is stressed, and clearly was stressed in the earliest recorded forms of the name. The 12th century forms Guuen, Guuan show alternation of e and a in the final syllable, indicating an unstressed final syllable with a neutral vowel; the stress was at that time, as it is now, on the first syllable. The examples adduced by Dr. Clancy, e.g., Godolphin, with unstressed first syllable, show that this cannot be the origin of the name Govan. Where Brettonic bann appears in final positions ( Dr. Clancy's example is Tal-y-fan ), it is not unstressed as in Govan. It could be added that the Gaelic equivalent, beann, does not become unstressed in final positions ( e.g., Morven < mór bheann, or Cruachan Beann, Ben Cruachan ). If Gaelic speakers had taken over British *go-bhann as *gu-bheann, they would have stressed the second syllable; the twelfth-century spelling show that they did not.

Also questionable is the suggestion that the supposed original *go-bhann, "small peak", could refer to the Doomster Hill. I am only aware of one drawing of this feature, made in 1758[6] ( Dr. Clancy refers to "drawings" in the plural, so perhaps he knows of others ), which show it as a very low mound, flat-topped, with a step in its side. This corresponds to the description given in 1795[7], giving a height of 17 feet, a diameter at the base of 150 feet, and diameter at the top of 102 feet. A description by the minister in 1840[8] is very similar: a height of 17 feet and a diameter at the base of 150 feet. A flat-topped mound 17 feet high could hardly be described as a "small peak".

The origins of the Doomster Hill are a mystery. In the 1830s digging within the mound, at a depth of about 12 feet, uncovered "three or four rudely formed planks of black oak", "small fragments of bones" and "a bed of what seemed to be decayed bulrushes". It is not stated whether the bones were human. It is hard to believe that human bones and a wooden coffin ( implying metal nails? ) could have survived in an earthen mound from prehistoric times; it may be that they date from a time in the first half of the 19th century where there was a small reservoir dug into the top of the hill. That is not to assert that the Doomster Hill could not have been a prehistoric burial mound, but if it was its burials were probably at ground level, and will not have disappeared without record. The "Time Team"'s suggestions that it could be a 12th century Norman motte may have certain attractions, but is not based on any very certain evidence[9]. The continuing GUARD archaeological excavations may reveal more about its origins[10].

This does not help us towards certainty about the origin of the name Govan. Clearly Dr. Clancy's suggestion is untenable, because the stress is wrong and because there is no local feature to which the name "little peak" could have been applied: but if the name has nothing to do with non-existent smithies or little peaks, what does it come from? The second syllable certainly does look like the Gaelic diminutive -án, found locally in names like Drymen ( = druimán, "little ridge" ), etc. If the first element cannot be from gob < gop ( and intervocalic bh < b < p does not occur, at least in this area ), then we must look for another explanation.

I offer no certainties, but two possible avenues of exploration. Professor Charles Thomas[11] pointed out the similarity of the name Gobanios, the smith-god of the pre-Christian Celts. This is perhaps leading us back towards Baile a'Ghobhainn, but by a different and more plausible route. Alternatively, bearing in mind that all the evidence points to Govan's early importance being chiefly as a site of high-status funerals and burials, one might consider a possible connection with OI guba, "lamentation", "mourning at a funeral"[12]. Was Govan's original name, like the original significance of the site, "place of funerals"?


  1. Anna Ritchie, ed., "Govan and its Early Mediaeval Sculpture" ( Stroud, 1994 ), p.27
  2. "Society of Friends of Govan Old, Sixth Annual Report" ( 1996 ), p.2-3
  3. "Glasgow Registrum", i, p.9-11
  4. M. Maclennan, "A Pronouncing and Etymological Dictionary of the Gaelic Language" ( 1925 ), s.v.
  5. "Concise Scots Dictionary", ed. M. Robinson ( 1985 ), s.v. gob, gub
  6. Reproduced in "Society of Friends of Govan Old, Fourth Annual Report" ( 1994 ), p.14-15, and in Ritchie, "Govan", p.3
  7. "Statistical Account of Scotland", vol xiv ( 1795 ), p.294
  8. "New Statistical Account of Scotland, Glasgow" ( 1845 ), p.690
  9. The distribution evidence for mottes in the area, showing a gap in the area south-west of Glasgow, is presented in "Atlas of Scottish History to 1707", ed. P. McNeill and H. MacQueen ( 1996 ), p.430. The possibility that the original caput of the lordship of Crookston could have been at Govan cannot be ignored.
  10. S. T. Driscoll and R. S. Will, "Govan Old Parish Church and Water Row" ( GUARD, Glasgow 1997 ), pp.23-27
  11. At the 1992 Govan conference. The suggetsion did not appear in Professor Thomas' published text.
  12. "Dictionary of the Irish Language based mainly on old and middle Irish materials", ( Dublin, 1990 ), s.v. guba, guban.
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