[ FoGO ]
An Archaeological Study of the Memorial Stones in the Kirkyard of Govan Old Parish Church


Catherine Cutmore, M.A.

Background to the Survey of the Memorial Stones

During the summer of 1995, two projects were carried out in the churchyard. The first was a survey of the monuments in the churchyard and a comparison with the older monuments within the church in order to explain why the older stones were reused, who adopted them, and why this occurred in the 17th and 18th centuries. The second project was to record in detail all the monuments in the churchyard. The survey shows there are fourteen 17th century stones, eighty-three 18th century stones, six pre-1809 stones, one hundred and thirty-two remaining 19th century stones, one 20th century stone and one mediaeval monument.

The Mitchell Library in Glasgow holds records in relation to Govan Parish Church only from 1855[1]. The absence of a complete earlier record meant that the main sources of information about the use of the cemetery prior to the 18th century were the monuments themselves[2]. Two previous studies of the churchyard ( 1809 and 1936 ) have been discussed by Willsher ( 1992 ). Kyle's 1809 plan provided valuable information on the owners of the lairs and the people that erected the monuments. The survey carried out in 1936 provided additional information relating to these early monuments, such as their occupation and place of residence. The 1996 survey of the surviving 17th and 18th century monuments contributed additional significant details of monument form and inscription content ( Cutmore, 1996 ). When all the information from the three surveys had been collected and analysed, a comparison between the monuments in the churchyard and the early mediaeval monuments was made, paying particular attention to the people using the monuments. These people were the key to understanding the growth of the graveyard and the re-use of the older monuments.

The Historical Context

The history of Govan shows it was a place of innovation and the centre of new ideas in the 18th century and the same can be said of its religious history. In the 16th century, the people who lived and farmed the land all around Govan had paid rent in cash or kind to the diocese of Glasgow. After the reformation, many of these "rentallers" became possessors of their land in payment of a feu. These new "heritiors" included many family names which are seen on the later stones, for example, Gilmour, Anderson, Murdoch, Stevine, Gibson, Rowand, Sellare and Hill. Most of these were ordinary people who worked the land. It is these names and those of subsequent generations which appear on the plans and many of the monuments in the churchyard.

From the 17th century and into the 18th century, the people of Govan earned their living from agriculture and salmon fishing. The area was rural and the people working the land were also the proprietors, in many cases on land passed on through generations from the earliest recorded rentallers. According to Brotchie ( 1938, p.87 ), the Rowan family dominated many sections of Govan society from 1700-1800.

In 1756, The Weavers Society was formed and the contract ( charter ) is signed by John Rowane, George Napier, William Walker, James Rouand of Heatheryhall, John Dreghorn, James Barr, Patrick Houston, John Rowan and Robert Rowan. The purpose of the society was to support each other in hard times, but membership was not restricted to the weavers. Many of the names also appear on the plans and monuments. From these documents, and the monuments, it is apparent that the craftsmen working in Govan at this time included shoemakers or cordiners, tailors, wrights, smiths and handloom weavers.

The name Maxwell, Hill, Gibson and Rowan are also connected with Glasgow and were often professional businessmen as well as landowners. The Maxwells of Pollok, members of the nobility, had owned large parts of Govan from the 13th century. The Rowan family were the original owners of Bellahouston estate. Moses Stevine later bought the lands of Dumbreck, combined them, and changed the name of Dumbreck estate to Bellahouston. Many of the original land holdings of the 16th century heritors were combined in this way, forming a few very large estates from many smaller properties.

The Oswalds acquired Shieldhall ( Scotstoun, Auchincreuve and Moore Park ). They were a family of successful businessmen, merchants, politicians and clerics. Their businesses and town houses were in Glasgow and their Govan estates could be described as their "country houses". Gradually, the Oswalds were seen less in association with Govan and more with Glasgow. The Oswalds were businessmen who had simply acquired country houses and estates. On the other hand, the Rowan family were one of the original Govan families, owning many of the original properties. The last in their possession was Holmfauldhead.

Another of the original Heritors Thomas Hill owned the estate of Ibrox. The estate remained in the family until the middle of the 18th century, when it was divided and sold to John Picken and the Graham family. The Grahams sold their portion to John Trotter, a Glasgow merchant who built a mansionhouse called Myrtlemount.

Around 1700, the lands of Plantation estate were put together from several smaller estates including Craigiehall. It was, in fact, known as Craigiehall from 1701 to 1783 when it was bought by John Robertson, a Glasgow merchant, who owned a sugar and cotton plantation in the West Indies and it became known as Plantation. The estate was sold ten years later to John Mair, a mason from Paisley.

Therefore, although many of the smaller properties given to the heritors were merged in the 17th century, many were still owned by the Heritors or their families. In the 18th century, and earlier, while some of the original families still owned property, people like the Glasgow merchants were able to buy the larger estates which were combined to form very large properties like Moor Park and Plantation. In other cases, the Govan families sold parts of their land for the building of country houses by the Glasgow merchants, for example, Cessnock.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, the landowners included the Maxwells of Pollok, the Gibsons of Hillhead, the Hills of Ibrox and the Rowans and Stevens of Bellahouston. The Maxwells were from the nobility and held titles but the Gibsons, Hills, Rowans and Stevens were basically ordinary people.

The merchants and businessmen who owned the country estates around Govan may have been rich and powerful in their own right, but another powerful asset was membership of certain families. As Glasgow became more powerful, it drew some of these people away, but the Rowans retained their ties with Govan. This family's roots were firmly planted in Govan soil. They may not have had the titles of the Maxwells, but their position within Govan society must have been very great. The Rowans were, in effect, the Govan gentry.

The Previous Surveys

The plan of 1809 was valuable for tracing the continuity of ownership of the lairs within families. It also showed that almost half the lairs contained monuments including those owned by the Rowan family and the Bellahouston estates. The first stones marked family lairs but pressure on the cemetery grew to the point where the Heritors had to have a detailed plan drawn up in 1809 ( Davidson Kelly in Ritchie 1994, pp.5-6 ). D. M. Colquhoun's plan of Govan churchyard based on a survey of the monuments made in 1936 drawing upon Kyle's 1809 plan shows weaving to be the most common occupation. Ten monuments were noted which had been erected by weavers while a further forty one weavers had no monument. Sixteen farmers are noted, eight without monuments and eight with monuments. Nine portioners ( landowners / farmers ) are noted, eight with monuments. The pre-1809 monuments include a Baronet, a farmer, a gardener, merchant, shoemaker, publican, printer, sergeant in the Scot's Fusiliers, tailer, three weavers and four portioners.

The places of residence listed on the plan show the area served by the cemetery. The three areas most commonly mentioned are Govan, Partick and Glasgow. Govan residents include one merchant, the remainder being weavers. Weavers are also recorded in Partick. The conclusion is that most people using the cemetery lived locally. Weavers resided in both Govan and Partick. Merchants, on the other hand, tended to have their main place of residence in Glasgow, possibly where they were in business. They were perhaps buried in Govan in the vicinity of their country residences.

The 1995 Survey

Copies of the 1995 survey ( which involved making a complete catalogue of all the surviving stones ) have been lodged at Govan Old Parish Church, Glasgow City Archives and the National Monuments Record of Scotland in Edinburgh. The following observations summarise the results of that survey.

Monument Types

The latest mediaeval monument is a grave slab which still lies in the churchyard and dates to c.15th century. It is the last of the mediaeval monuments. The oldest of the early modern monuments is a flatstone dated 1624. The survey has revealed there are no monuments which date between these two monuments. The absence of memorial monuments does not imply that the graveyard was not being used, simply that monuments were not commissioned or have not survived. There are three basic types at Govan. The horizontal monuments, the vertical monuments and the mural monuments. The vertical monuments include headstones, pedestal tombs, obelisks, a columnn and a revival Celtic cross. A long low grave marker commonly known as a "double-bedder" defines one side of the burial plot, or lair. The horizontal monuments consist of flatstones and table stones.

From the seventeenth century onwards, the headstone monument appears in the churchyard in conjunction with the earlier flat memorial of mediaeval type, which was popular with the artisans who had only begun to use memorial monuments. In the 17th century, the flatstone and the headstone were the only monuments in use. The early headstones were small and were mainly used as markers or ownership of lairs and did not commemorate individuals. From the end of the 18th century, new types of monument were introduced, but the headstone remained the most popular in Scotland and started to be commemorative.

Both flatstones and headstones continued in use througout the 18th and 19th centuries, but the size of the headstones increased. Later in the 19th century, the mural monuments and obelisk types appear in the churchyard while the flatstone was modified into the stone table. Headstones became more complex and some were made in two or more pieces.

17th Century Monuments

These stones are invaluable to clarify the decline and growth of prominent and aristocratic families. The 17th century monuments include two headstones and twelve flatstones. One group of three monuments shows the lair passed through marriage from Thomas Ralph's daughter to her son, a Robertson who erected a tablestone in the 19th century. Another sequence of four belonging to the Algie family include two flatstones, one of which is a 17th century pedestal monument. These two families used the graveyard from at least the 17th century to the 19th century and erected monuments which represent several generations of their family.

A flatstone belonging to the Rowan family is the earliest of the monuments and seems to be the earliest in the churchyard. Another stands in a lair with a further two monuments, a flatstone and a tablestone, which both commemorate the Gibson family. The latest of the group is the tablestone and with the others shows this family were using the churchyard from at least 1699 to 1887.

Six of the flatstones, including two of the earliest, commemorate members of the Rowan family. One monument also records John Rouan's marriage to a Gibson and their grandson's marriage to Janet Anderson. The name Anderson, Gibson and Rowan appear very frequently on the monuments along with those of Algie, Colquhoun and Hill. All of these families were prominent in Govan from at least the 17th century.

It appears that the numbers of Algies and Hills declined in the district during the 19th century whereas the Andersons and Colquhouns increased. The Andersons and Gibsons may have been wealthy as indicated in the number of monuments which they erected. However, the prominence of the Rowan family, as shown in the number of lairs and monuments, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries suggests that they also had a significant role in the community.

The study of the plans and monument locations reveals that there are clusters of family groups with the Rowans dominating the graveyard. It is possible that this family may also have dominated the community in the post-mediaeval centuries.

The 18th Century Monuments

The 18th century monuments include a tablestone belonging to John Trotter, a Glasgow merchant and it is the earliest of the tablestones which became popular in the 19th century. The remaining monuments consist of flatstones and headstones. One of the three decorated with a coat-of-arms belongs to Maxwell of Pollok, a Baronet and, as such, a member of the nobility, while another belongs to a weaver.

The names which occur most frequently in the 18th century are those of Anderson, Gibson and Hill, each appearing on two monuments. The name Algie appears on one monument, while the name Rowan appears on nine monuments.

There are fifty-four headstones varying in decoration, inscription and size. Six of the 18th century headstones are decorated with trade symbols. Sixteen contains symbols of mortality or immortality, five of which belong to a gardener, portioner, hammerman and a weaver. Ten of the monuments recorded an occupation such as gardener, portioner, smith, cordiner, baker, miller, farmer, printer and calico printer. A further four occupations were noted from the trade emblems on the monuments, i.e., weaver, hammerman, baker and slater.


There are three main types of decoration on the churchyard monuments. The first is symbolic, which includes emblems of mortality, immortality and trade. The second type is architectural and the third is heraldic. Symbolic decoration is a feature of many of the 17th and 18th century monuments. Most of the decoration appears on the headstones, but a small number of flatstones contain symbolic decoration.

In the 18th century, the artisans began to erect monuments, prior to that, only the elite used stone monuments. They began by using the more "humble" flatstone and smaller headstones to avoid comparison with those of the gentry. Many of these artisans, especially the master craftsmen, managed to convey their own importance by erecting monuments which were decorated with emblems of their trade. The emblems seen on the monuments are normally elements of the coat-of-arms of the appropriate incorporation or trades guild and are therefore usually tools of the trade.

At Govan, the major mediaeval trades were all represented. The hammermen, which included anyone who worked with a hammer on metal, for example, blacksmiths, silversmiths, goldsmiths and gunsmiths. The cordiners, or shoewrights, were members of this high status trade. The incorporation of wrights includes those who worked with the square and compass, as well as coopers and slaters. At Govan, this trade is represented by a memorial decorated with a slater's hammer. There are also dysters, bleachers and walkmillers, all associated with the weaving trade. One monument belonging to a dyster is decorated with a dyster's press.

Symbols of mortality such as the skull and crossbones were used as a "momento mori" to remind the living that they too would die by representing aspects of death. On the other hand, symbols of immortality emphasise belief in life after death: the separation of the soul from the body, the hope of the resurrection and the promise of heaven. These themes are represented by the cherub's head or winged soul, which represents the soul separated from the body ascending to heaven.

Architectural decoration was also popular on the monuments. From 1760-1790, many of the great country houses were built in a classical manner which echoed the experience of the aristocracy. In the graveyard, this is seen in representations of Greek vases on top of the pedestals and columns as finials. At Govan, the finials have been destroyed. However, early photographs of the graveyard show they were abundant ( Spalding, 1984 ). Many of the features of both classical and Gothic architecture are reflected in the graveyard monuments. Round columns, square Roman piers and various forms of capitals are used to support the tablestones. Columns and capitals are also seen on the headstones while columns are used in their own right, often represented as broken ruins.

In the 19th century, wrought iron was a common feature of architecture. This too is reflected in the cemeteries. Iron railings were used to mark out the lairs. Earlier photographs of the cemetery show they were used in Govan in great numbers. The 19th century print of the churchyard by moonlight[3] ( Plate 1 ) shows the wrought iron grilles quite well. Today, almost none survive.

[ Plate 1 ]
Plate 1: Govan Parish Church by moonlight

The third type of decoration is heraldic. According to Thomas Innes ( 1934 ), the Scottish nation with its Celtic culture and clansip encouraged heraldry. It is principally used as a means of identification. The condition of the stones at Govan are very worn. In most cases, only the shield can be seen, but generally only traces of decoration survive making it difficult to determine if the shield is a true coat-of-arms or trade motif. Many of the trades incorporations used heraldic devices. The Gibson tablestone, for example, has a shield, traces of a crest or mantle and a motto, but it is now illegible. Usually only the broadest symbols can be read, such as the saltire.


The inscriptions on the headstones at Govan are very useful. The lettering can often be used to date a monument. The oldest of the post-Reformation monuments is dated 1624, the first burial in that lair being 1614. However, prior to 1616 inscriptions were written around the edge of the stone ( Willsher, 1990, p.38 ). There are two monuments with illegible, marginal inscriptions, which may possibly pre-date this monument.

Memorial messages are found on a small number of the Govan monuments.

One 17th century monument contains a religious message which refers to the resurrection.

HEIR - LYES - IOHN - GLEN - W----- - A-----

Two of the 18th century monuments contain personal references which praise certain qualities and express respect for the deceased.


One monument contains the Latin inscription, MOMENTO MORI, "Remember you must die", while two of the 19th century monuments contain the Latin inscription MIHI HODIE TUCRAS, "As I am now you will be tomorrow".

There are surprisingly few 19th century personal epitaphs: One of the Donald monuments to Agnes Addie who died in America states:


Another states that the owner John Campbell was:


The 18th century monuments similarly record the burial of individuals, married couples and families. One monument records "John Baird his wife and family". Where the names of married women are recorded, up to the middle of the 19th century, they retained their maiden surname on marriage as was common in Scotland. Later, Scottish women adopted their husband's name according to the English custom. The use of maiden surnames can be useful in showing relationships between families.

From the later 18th to early 19th centuries, the larger two-piece headstones record much more information such as names, day, month and year of death, and age. Other monuments include cause of death and comment on people buried elsewhere.


Re-use of the Early Mediaeval Monuments

The prominent families were mainly using flatstones where the wider population where mainly erecting headstones. In 1899, a plan was drawn showing the position of the older monuments before they were removed. By superimposing this plan on top of the 1809 plan, it was possible to identify the lairs in which they stood. This revealed that it was the prominent families who were reusing the early mediaeval monuments. These families were, in fact, the 'Govan Heritors' and their descendants whose importance within the community did not necessarily come from wealth. Many were, in fact, poor, their status came from the fact that they were landowners.

In the 17th century, it was mainly the nobility and the gentry who could afford to erect monuments; portioners at the time were not ordinary people. In the 19th century, the improvement in economic conditions meant that more people had the resources to erect monuments. So why should the Govan gentry choose to re-use the older mediaeval monuments? The re-use of sites and monuments is a very ancient custom. People can draw on the power of the past and ancient rights in order to maintain the own power, especially in times of social stress. Monuments can be used in a similar way. They are visible evidence of earlier people and earlier power. Until the modern period when the use of monuments became standard practice, the use of a monument, however simple, suggested the person was important. The monument provided an indication of wealth and status. A very large or elaborate monument could indicate wealth. Status however, is much more difficult to determine. Memorial monuments are a valuable source of information about the person or family commemorated. In choosing a particular type of monument, people can make some kind of statement about themselves. A memorial monument, therefore, is a status symbol.

The mediaeval monuments were visibly different ( Ritchie, 1994 ) from the 17th to 18th century flatstones in that they were decorated and this decoration reflected much older tastes. Therefore, the people reusing the early monuments were deliberately choosing to adopt these monuments which in some way connected them to a much older past. At Govan, the families reusing the mediaeval monuments were among the original heritors and older families.

Clearly they were making a statement about themselves. As the families acquired lairs in the cemetery, they could use the antiquity and status of the older monuments to assert their own position both physically and psychologically.

The reasons as to why this should be important perhaps lie in the use and ownership of the land. In the 1th century, land holdings were small. But, in the 17th to 18th centuries, many of these smaller estates were merged to form larger estates, many of which were owned by the prominent families such as the Rowans. At the same time, many of the Glasgow businessmen began to acquire country estates and houses. The owner of the country houses were wealthy as were the "Govan gentry". Many of the 19th century merchants were descended from heritors themselves, but had town houses in Glasgow, as did the Gibsons. Other families, however, had owned land and lived in Govan for generations, for example, the Rowans, Andersons and Hills.

The re-use of the older monuments was an effective way of expressing ancient ties to the land and emphasising status. Wealth itself could be a symbol of status, but it could not compete with the power and prestige gained though membership of one of these prominent families. The older stones were a visible reminder to the community of the status and antiquity of these families such as the Hills and Rowans.

Annan says ( 1878, XIV ) that "These bonnet lairds are mostly gone - gone and forgotten. Their little freeholds broken up for villas, or lost in some bygone estate, the very names rubbed off the map. They lie themselves in the old kirk-yard graves that effeired to their lands." However, in one respect, he was mistaken. These "lairds" have in some way managed to achieve their desire to be remembered through the use of the monuments. In choosing to re-use the early mediaeval monuments, they made a statement about themselves and left a powerful and visible reminder of themselves and their importance as "heritors" of the land. They used the stones to ensure that although they themselves are now gone, they are not forgotten.


  1. Glasgow City Archives also hold Kirk Session minute books for 1651-62 and 1710-1820
  2. For the period from 1723 to 1810, the records of the Heritors of Govan Parish, held at the Scottish Record Office, are full of concerns about their burying ground. See Davidson Kelly in Ritchie, 1994, pp. 1-17.
  3. This image was used in the 1879 promotional calendar of William Barr, general outfitters, Great Western Buildings, Govan.

Selected References:

  1. Annan, T. 1870 "The Old Country House of the Old Glasgow Gentry". MacLehose, Glasgow
  2. Aries, P. 1981 "The Hour of Our Death". Allan Lane, London
  3. Brian, R. J. 1989 "The Shaping of Scotland. 18th Century Patterns of Land Use and Settlement". Aberdeen University Press
  4. Brotchie, T. C. F. 1938 "The History of Govan", Glasgow
  5. Cutmore, C. 1996 "Memorial Stones in the Kirkyard of Govan" ( unpublished M.A. dissertation, Glasgow University )
  6. Donaldson, G. 1995 In James Kirk, ed. "Scotland's History, Approaches and Reflections". Scottish Academic Press, Edinburgh
  7. Innes, Sir Thomas, of Learney 1934 "Scots Heraldry". Oliver & Boyd, Edinburgh
  8. Leishman, M. 1840 "The Parish of Govan" in "New Statistical Account" pp.668-718
  9. Pollock, J. "The Statistical Account of Scotland", volume 14, pp.281-296
  10. RCAHMS 1971 Argyll Volume 1, Kintyre. HMSO
  11. Ritchie, A. ed. 1994 "Govan and its Early Mediaeval Sculpture". Allan Sutton Publishing, Gloucestershire
  12. Stirling Maxwell, J 1899 "Sculptured Stones in the Kirkyard of Govan". Glasgow.
  13. Thomas, C. 1971 "Britain and Ireland in early Christian Times, AD 400-800". Thames and Hudson, London.
  14. Willsher, B. & Hunter, D. 1978 "Stones: A Guide to some remarkable 18th century grave stones". Edinburgh, Canongate Publishing
  15. Willsher, B. 1985 in "Understanding Scottish Graveyards" ed. Edwina Produfoot, C.S.A., Edinburgh
  16. Willsher, B. 1985 "How to Record Scottish Graveyards". C.S.A., Edinburgh
  17. Willsher, B. 1992 "Govan Old Parish Church Graveyard" in "Friends of Govan Old Parish Church Second Annual Report", pp.16-23
[ In Association With Amazon Books ]
[ Related Books ]

Last modified on: Saturday, 01-Apr-2000 01:45:34 BST
Copyright ©2000
Friends of Govan Old