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Govan, the name, again


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

In the 1996 Reports of the Friends of Govan Old, I made the suggestion that earlier proposals for the origin of the name Govan, as deriving from the genitive of Old Gaelic gobae, "smith", or as deriving from a diminutive of OG gop, "beak", gopán must be rejected. Instead, I proposed that it be derived from a Brittonic ( i.e., Cumbric Welsh ) word, *gwovan, meaning "the small crest/hill/promontory". In the most recent Report, Dr. Alan Macquarrie has challenged this proposal. At the risk of conducting a very slow tennis match in the pages of the Report concerning this matter, I would like to respond to his arguments, and reaffirm my conviction in my original proposal.

Dr Macquarrie objects to the derivation for two reasons, the first relating to linguistic matters, the second to the suggested identification of the "small crest" with Doomster Hill. I would like to deal with the latter first. He is quite right to note that an identification of the name so closely with the undated ( and so far undateable ) monument of Doomster Hill must be tenuous at best, and in light of its probable shape and dimensions, perhaps unlikely to elicit the tag of a "small peak". We should remember, however, that Welsh ban could also mean a "bare hill". The mass of hills called in early sources Bannog, whence the Bannock Burn rises, takes its name from this term, but is scarcely a collection of peaks. We should also note that modern local Scots parlance has consistently thought of the Doomster Hill as a "hill", and Dr. John Pollock's description in the Statistical Account notes that "it is commonly called the Hillock"[1], a very satisfactory translation of my proposed *gwovan. Nonetheless, this was only advanced as one possible identification for the *gwovan in question. At the time, I also noted that it could refer to the small promontory on which Govan may have been situtated, a horizontal, rather than a vertical "crest, jutty-out bit", which is what the element ban ought to mean. So, although I am quite happy to sit lightly with regard to a connection between *gwovan and the Doomster Hill, such a decoupling does not affect the derivation I proposed.

On linguistic matters, however, Dr Macquarrie's analysis is more problematic, and occasionally misleading. There are good reasons for being concerned with the first vowel in the earliest attestations of the name ( Guuen, Guuan ), if we were to propose Gaelic gobae, "smith" as their underlying form. Allusions to sound changes in modern Scots scarcely tells us about the rather more relevant situation of early and middle Gaelic. More to the point, he worries about the examples which I adduced of Brittonic place-names containing the elements go-, meaning here "small". He calls go-, wrongly, an "unstressed prefix", and goes on to suggest that names employing it are not stressed on the go-, as Govan is, and therefore do not help us to understand its origin. To demonstrate this, he chooses as an example one of the names which is not stressed on the syllable containing the element go-, but in so doing is introducing a red herring into the debate.

Welsh and Cornish had, and have, a regular stress on the second-last syllable ( if we use capitals to denote stress; CONwy, AberYSTwyth, PontrhydfenDRIGaid, LlanysTUMdwy, BAla ), but in certain instances, in compound names where the second element is the modifier and the first the generic, the stress would fall on the second element ( e.g., CaerWENT, CaerDYDD, AberFAN, etc. ) and we have no reason to suspect that northern British/Cumbric was any different, and indeed the certainly British place-names in southern Scotland suggest this. Consider PARtick ( meaning "BUSH-een" ), but PenPONT ( "head-of-the-BRIDGE" ); NIDdrie ( "NEW-town" ), but TraNENT ( "settlement-of-the-burn" ). In my proposed derivation, *gwovan, the generic is the second element, modified only by the prefix gwo, and so the stress would certainly have been on the first syllable, as it is in the common Welsh topographical nouns I cited, godref, "small township, settlement"; godir, "region, slope", ( pronounced GOdref, GOdir ) and, of course, as it is in modern Govan.

The counter-example cited by Dr. Macquarrie is thus misleading. Yes, GoDOLphin is not stressed on the go-, but that is beside the point. It is stressed, as we should expect it, on the penultimate syllable, just as is Govan -- but it has only two syllables, while Godolphin has three. It is not, in such cases, the individual elements in words which determine their stress, but the way in which they are arranged. And so, had Dr. Macquarrie cited one of my other parallels, Gogarth ( GOgarth ) in Caernarfon, he would have been citing a name stressed exactly as Govan is. To bring the matter closer to home, a good parallel name in Scotland which escaped my notice at the time of my first article is Gogar ( as in the roundabout ), near Edinburgh. W. J. Watson suggests, probably rightly, that this is a Brittonic word, formed from our prefix go- and another word, cor, meaning something like "cast, hill" or the like[2]. It is stressed, like Govan, on the first syllable.

The same holds good for his concern that "where Brittonic bann appears in final positions...it is not unstressed as in Govan. It could be added that the Gaelic equivalent, beann, does not become unstressed in final syllables ( e.g., Morven <mór bheann... )". Again, it is not individual elements in compound names which automatically possess the quality of being stressed or unstressed, it is the way in which the elements are ordered. So again, the example from my list he has chosen for ban does indeed have the stress on the ban ( Tal-y-FAN ), but that is because, as its modern orthography makes clear, the ban is modifying the general tal ( brow-of-the-HILL ). If we invent a name, "GREEN-hill", in which the modifying element is first, and the generic is ban, the resulting Welsh name, GLASfan, would be stressed on the first syllable, just as is GLASgow, "the GREEN-hollow". Of course, by Welsh stress laws another such name, GlasFYNydd, would be stressed on the second, the penultimate syllable[3]. In any case, one of his Gaelic equivalents, Morven, is stressed on the first syllable. In Gaelic, as in Brittonic languages, it is not the individual elements themselves which determine the stress but the order in which they appear in compound words, and the prevailing stress patterns of the language.

So, there is no linguistic objection remaining to the derivation of Govan from *gwovan ( though, of course, it could still be wrong -- but for other reasons ). It remains to identify the "little peak, crest, spur, hill", but as I have suggested above, the Doomster Hill, or The Hillock, is by no means out of the question.

Supporting a Brittonic derivation for the name is a recent suggestion by Andrew Breeze[4]. He discusses the entry for the year 756 in the annals called Historia Regum, attributed to the twelfth-century Northumbrian historian Symeon of Durham ( but this section of which was more probably initially compiled by the tenth-century Byrhtferth of Ramsey[5] ). The full entry in the Historia Regum is as follows:

In the year from the Lord's incarnation 756, king Eadberht ( of Northumbria ), in the eighteenth year of his reign, and Unust, king of the Picts, led an army to the town of Alc[lu]ith ( Dumbarton ). And hence the Britons accepted terms there, on the first day of the month of August. But on the tenth day of the same month perished almost the entire army which he led from Ouania to Niwanbirig, that is, to the New City[6].

Breeze suggests that Ouania in the text is Govan, with Niwanbirig, the destination of the army, being Newbrough, just north of Hexham. This makes geographical sense, and involves less proposed corruption of the original form than the going suggestion for Ouania as being one of the rivers Avon. Breeze derives Govan from the "smith word", and hence has difficulties in finding a path by which the author of the Historia Regum could have acquired the name as Ouania. He suggests that perhaps a lenited form of the name, following a word for fort or similar, was misunderstood ( e.g., Caer Ofann, or similar ), but the argument is rather inconclusive[7].

However, following my proposed derivation from *gwovan, the form in Historia Regum becomes easier to understand. Given the events described, it may be that here the author was working either from Pictish sources, or from sources familiar with Pictish nomenclature; the form of the name Unust suggests this in any case. If Historia Regum has acquired his name from a Pictish source, the first syllable of the word may be explained by the observable fact that British/Welsh *gw- would have been *w- in Pictish, as in Uurguist, Welsh Gwrwst, or Pictish Uoret, Uurad, Welsh Gwriad. Ouania may be understood as a rendition of Pictish *Ouvan, their pronunciation of the British name *Gwovan.

If this name derives from earlier annals contemporary with the events they describe, used by Byrhtferth and incorporated in the later Historia Regum, as seems most likely, and if the name does refer to Govan, then the name must pre-date any likely Gaelic influence on the local nomenclature of the kingdom of Dumbarton. It is in any case the earliest attestation of the name. It also suggests some intriguing ideas regarding the position of Govan in eighth-century political geography. Eadberht was the Northumbrian king who, around 750, annexed the plain of Kyle[8]. His presence after the submission of the kings of Dumbarton ( as we should call them, rather than assuming their territory to extend to Strath Clyde ) on the south of the river upstream suggests that he and the Pictish king, Unust, son of Uurguist, had engaged in a carve-up of the hegemony of the Dumbarton kings.

But whose army was destroyed in the march from Govan to Newbrough? The fact that they were headed for Newbrough suggests that they were the English part of the erstwhile alliance. How had the Britons of Dumbarton turned a situation of submission into one of victory? The only logical explanation is that it was through a new, profitable alliance with Unust, as overlord. What probably happened in early August 756 is that following the submission of Dumbarton, a new alliance between Pict and Briton, based on overlordship of the Picts, emerged, so as to disperse the unwelcome threat of Eadberht's power south of the Clyde. To Unust, he had been a useful tool, but one who should now be disposed of[9]. It is probably the memory of this act of treachery ( otherwise known as realpolitik ) which lies behind the Northumbrian condemnation of the erstwhile ally upon his death in 761:

Oengus, king of the Picts, died. From the beginning of his reign right to the end he perpetrated bloody crimes, like a tyrannical slaughterer[10].

The events of this year may explain a number of features of the history of the late eighth and early ninth centuries. The first is the strange disappearance of the Britons of Dumbarton from view for most of the next century[11]. They had been Unust's most volatile opponents, and seemed to have given his reign a death blow in 750 when the "ebbing of the kingship of Óengus" is recorded in the Annals of Ulster. And yet, we know next to nothing of them for the subsequent decades. Indeed, in the early ninth century, Loch Lomond is described as lying in the territory of the Picts[12]. This may be because of the solid overlordship extended by Unust over Dumbarton, and the consequent diminution, for the time being, of British power, or at least visible independence.

The second feature that the victory of Britons and Picts over Eadberht of Northumbria in 756 may explain is the sudden appearance of the name Custantín ( Constantine ) in the Pictish royal house in the person of Custantín son of Uurgust ( 820 ). I should say here I am entering highly speculative territory, and this last part of the essay is contributed more as a springboard to broadening the imaginative possiblities rather than as a demonstrable argument. The name Custantín, which has been thorougly discussed by Dr. Macquarrie[13], is one which is known from various sources in the Brittonic world generally in the sixth and seventh centuries, but is not a Pictish name, nor is it a Gaelic one. The previous suggestions for the origins of the name in the royal dynasty and of the cult of St. Constantine in Govan involve the adoption of the name by a sept of the Dál Riata, c.750, and much later in the ninth century, with the proposed conquest of Strathclyde by the dynasty descended from Cinaed mac Ailpín, the introduction to Govan of the cult of the saint of the same name. This seems problematic on a number of counts, including the increased likelihood of a Gaelic takeover of Strathclyde[14], but most crucially in light of the fact that Dr. Dauvit Broun has recently clearly shown that, contrary to the generally accepted analysis, the family of Custantín, son of Uurguist, was almost certainly not of the Dál Riata, but instead of Pictish stock[15]. We must explain the adoption of the name Custantín by another route.

I would suggest that St. Constantine had been culted in Govan long before the eighth century, though the exact circumstances are obscure, as is the identity of the saint. He may, indeed, be the emperor Constantine himself, as the feast-day of Govan's Constantine is only a day off that of the emperor's: perhaps his cult arrived locally with that of the Holy Cross in the late seventh century. Following the submission of Dumbarton on 1st August 756, the English army camped at Govan, perhaps engaging in the traditional despoilation of town and church. When the army of Britons and Picts massacred Eadberht's army ten days later, to the minds of pious Britons, it was the vengeance of St. Constantine, patron of Govan, at work. The power of St. Constantine had come dramatically to the fore.

But why would the Pictish family adopt the name? It could simply be the fame of the battle[16], but we could be much more specifically speculative. I would suggest that one of the terms of British submission was a marriage alliance, between a woman of the Dumbarton house and a Pictish royal son. Dauvit Broun has suggested that Custantín, son of Uurguist, was the son of an otherwise unknown son of Unust. I would propose that Custantín's mother was of the Dumbarton house, and that his name was a purposeful commemoration of the victory which cemented the "alliance" between Pict and Briton. That the name was also an imperial one, of course, would not have been lost on the astute politicians of the Pictish royal court in the late eighth century, whose artists manifestly had one eye on continental romanitas and imperial symbolism[17].

Birth c.757 makes some sense for Custantín. He would have been 32 when he came to power among the Picts, following on from the death of his cousin Drest and the wresting of power from the possible interloper Conall, son of Tadg, whom Custantín drove into Kintyre in 789. When he died in 820 as king of Fortriu, with his son Domnall ruling in Dál Riata, he would have been 63. This scenario would also make sense of the utter disappearance of kings of Strathclyde -- though not the royal line -- for nearly a century. Custantín would have claimed Dumbarton through his mother, and through military might. This claim may also have been held by his brother Unust, who succeeded him in 820, by Custantín's son Drest ( 834-836/7 ) and by Unust's son Uuen ( 836/7-9 )[18]. The dynasty perished in the cataclysmic battle with the Scandinavians in 839: a decade later, British power began to stir again, when they sacked Dunblane. The strings with which Dumbarton had been bound in 756 had been cut.

As I have said, so much is speculation. Nonetheless, the entry in 756 suggests at the very least that Govan existed, in some form, in the eighth century[19], and the subsequent appearance of the name Custantín at this juncture may well testify to the presence there already of a cult and church of a saint of that name. Its glory days wre, at any rate, still in the future[20].


  1. T. A. Davidson Kelly, "The Govan collection in the context of local history" in A. Ritchie, ed. "Govan and its Early Mediaeval Sculpture" ( Stroud, 1994 ), p.1
  2. W. J. Watson, "History of the Celtic Place-Names of Scotland" ( Edinburgh, 1926 ). I am grateful to Dr. Katherine Forsyth for this reference.
  3. It may be that Pictish had a stress pattern more akin to Gaelic, if the example of Glassmount, Fife ( stressed on the specific Glass-, rather than mount, but essentially the same name as Glasfynydd ) is anything to go by.
  4. "Simeon of Durham's annal for 756 and Govan, Scotland", Nomina ( forthcoming ). I am most grateful to Dr. Breeze for allowing me to see a copy prior to publication, and for his encouragement regarding this article.
  5. Michael Lapidge, "Byrhtferth of Ramsey and the early sections of the Historia Regum attributed to Simeon of Durham", Anglo-Saxon England 10 ( 1982 ), pp.97-122; C. Hart, "Byrhtferth's Northumbrian Chronicle", English Historical Review 97 ( 1982 ), pp.558-82.
  6. T. Arnold, eg. "Symeonis Monachi Opera Omnia, 2 vols ( Rolls Series 74, London, 1882 ) ii, pp.40; translation A. O. Anderson, Scottish Annals from English Chronicles 500 to 1286 ( London, 1908 ), p.57: I have supplied the manuscript forms of the names instead of Anderson's rendering of them. The edition's of the manuscript's Alcwith is almost certainly a mistaken reading for Alcluith.
  7. In so doing, however, I should note that he introduces some pertinent evidence which could support a derivation from a Brittonic version of the "smith" work, such as the river name contained in Abergavenny. The basic arguments in my original article, though, I think still basically stand.
  8. B. Colgrave and R. A. B. Mynors, Bede's Ecclesiastical History of the English People ( Oxford, 1969 ), pp.574-5
  9. Unust was a clever user of alliances as political pincers. His alliance with Eadberht squeezed the Britons. His alliance with AEthelbald of Mercia had, in turn, helped squeeze Eadberht of Northumbria in 740, and Cuthred of Wessex, who rebelled in 750. Cf. Colgrave and Mynors, Bede's Ecclesiastical History, pp.572-5
  10. Ibid. pp.576-7. Note the Gaelic spelling of Unust's name, as opposed to the Pictish spelling in Byrhtferth's chronicle ( there he is Unust at his death in 761 as well ). Despite the fulminations against Unust here, it should be noted that his name was contained in the Liber Vitae of the community of Lindisfarne: this probably relates to his alliance with Eadberht. See J. Gerchow, Die Gedenk¨aut;berlieferung der Angelsachsen ( Berlin/New York, 1988 ), p.304, no 43 ( Unust )
  11. Noted by Macquarrie, "The Kings of Strathclyde, c.400-1018", in A. Grant and K. Stringer, edd., Mediaeval Scotland: Crown, Lordship and Community ( Edinburgh, 1993 ), p.18
  12. J. Morris, ed., Nennius: The British History and Welsh Annals ( Chichester, 1978 ), p.16
  13. The Saints of Scotland, AD 400-1093 ( Edinburgh, 1997 ), pp.193-5
  14. The lynchpin of this, the supposed election of a Gaelic dynast Domnall son of Áeda as king of Cumbria had been thorougly dismissed by Ben Hudson, "Elech and the Scots in Strathclyde", Scottish Gaelic Studies 15 ( 1988 ), pp.145-9
  15. D. Broun, "Pictish Kings 761-839: integration with Dál Riata or separate development?" in S. Foster, ed. The St. Andrews Sarcophagus: a Pictish masterpiece and its international connections" ( Dublin, 1998 ), pp.71-83, 81-3
  16. Though one might note that this was fought on the feast of St. Laurence: is this an explanation for the early appearance of the cult of St. Laurence in the Pictish Mearns? ( Cf. A. Macquarrie, The Saints of Scotland, pp.216-21
  17. See Foster, The St. Andrews Sarcophagus, passim
  18. See the tentative chart in Broun, "Pictish kings, p.82
  19. One final caution is that if Ouania is Govan, then taking the referrent of the *gwovan to be the Doomster Hill is even more problematic, as the best parallels for that monument in Norse in context. However, the possibility of it being an earlier mound remains.
  20. As always, I must thank several friends for stimulating exchanges and encouragement: Dauvit Broun, Steve Driscoll, Katherine Forsyth, Simon Taylor and especially Alex Woolf. They would certainly not all agree with everything that I have proposed here; inaccuracies and outright fantasies are of my own making. I would like also to note my gratitude to Alan Macquarrie himself: though I have disagreed with him here, it is because of his industry in recent years that it has been possible for others to engage in sensible debate concerning the documtary history of Govan and Strathclyde.
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