The Doomster Hill and its environs: historical significance and heritage aspects
This paper considers the historical and archaeological significance of the Doomster Hill and the land immediately west of it. The importance of the site in early medieval times is discussed, not only in terms of local history but also in the wider context of the history of Scotland. Although the hill itself no longer survives, its location offers potential value to Govan as a heritage feature in local tourism initiatives and as a focus for community activities.
A nineteenth-century account of the Doomster Hill describes it as a massive, flat-topped mound with a distinctive stepped profile. In an engraving of 1757, drawn from a viewpoint on the north bank of the Clyde, the Hill appears as a dominant feature in the landscape of pre-industrial Govan. It was located east of Water Row, its footprint corresponding roughly to part of the Riverside Housing Estate and the open ground north of St Mary’s Church. A key indicator of the Hill’s position is a stream that ran alongside its western perimeter. Although the stream is now hidden beneath the modern landscape, its course is shown on old maps and can probably be identified today.
Generations of local people and antiquarian scholars alike recognised that the Doomster Hill was not a natural feature but an artificial one, constructed in some far-off time. The name indicates that it was traditionally regarded as a court hill where legal proceedings overseen by a doomster (‘law-giver’ or ‘judge’) were held. Such venues (also known as ‘moot hills’) were fairly common in Britain throughout the medieval period, but had become obsolete for this purpose by c.1750. Some were small eminences of ‘fairy knoll’ type, but others were much larger and more imposing and, in some cases, had a very long history as places of assembly and authority. A few had been used in ancient times as venues for public ceremonies of the highest status, where the displayed authority was that of a king. Two such sites with royal associations are known from the Scottish mainland: the Moot Hill at Scone and the Doomster Hill at Govan. The mound at Scone is attested in contemporary literature as a site where Scottish kings convened public gatherings from the early tenth century onwards; the Doomster Hill’s close proximity to the premier royal church of Strathclyde suggests that it was used for similar purposes at roughly the same time, as does its stepped shape which is a particular feature of royal mounds of the Viking era (c.800-1100).
It is not known when the Doomster Hill was first constructed but it was already part of the landscape of Clydeside by the mid-eighth century. An English chronicle, written c.800, mentions a place called Ouania in the context of an Anglo-Pictish attack on Dumbarton in 756. Specialists in the origins of place-names interpret Ouania as a Latinisation of Brittonic go-ban, meaning ‘little hill’, and thus as the first historical notice of Govan. The ‘little hill’ in question can only be the Doomster Hill, which was known locally by the synonymous term ‘Hillock’ up to its destruction in the mid-nineteenth century. A reference to the discovery of human bones beneath the summit of the Hill in the 1830s suggests that it may have originated as a prehistoric burial-mound, in which case the stepped profile depicted in 1757 might be due to re-shaping in the late ninth or early tenth century as a result of Scandinavian influence in the kingdom of Strathclyde.
Govan: a ritual landscape
The role of artificial mounds in the repertoire of royal government in the Viking period is attested not only at Scone but at Tynwald Hill on the Isle of Man (still employed today as a ceremonial venue by the Manx Parliament) and at Dublin where a Scandinavian dynasty used a mound called Thingmote (from the Norse word thing, meaning ‘assembly’). These sites belong to a category of high-status assembly places which includes the Doomster Hill. They often appear as components in a ‘ritual landscape’ that may include a royal church and burial-ground as well as older features associated with pre-Christian religious beliefs. At Govan, the ritual landscape is represented by the old parish church and its cemetery, the moot hill, a sacred well and (possibly) a prehistoric standing-stone. In detail, these features are as follows:
1. Govan Old: a religious site of immense antiquity, with burials reaching back to c.500. The churchyard has yielded the third largest collection of early medieval sculpture in Scotland.
2. The Doomster Hill: a massive, artificial mound from which the town of Govan takes its name. Constructed before the eighth century AD it may have originated as a burial mound with sacred connotations, perhaps to symbolically guard an important ford that formerly crossed the Clyde at this point.
3. A holy well outside the churchyard, its location suggesting that the original church was placed nearby to replace a pre-Christian ritual site.
4. The Sun Stone: an early medieval cross-slab that appears to have been carved from a much older standing-stone.
Govan was the royal capital of the kingdom of Strathclyde for some 200 years, from c.870 to the mid- or late eleventh century, having replaced an earlier centre of power at Dumbarton. After the Scottish conquest of Strathclyde (c.1050-70) the importance of Govan declined swiftly. As the power centre of a defeated royal dynasty the place was deliberately sidelined by Scottish kings whose focus of authority lay elsewhere. Glasgow Cathedral was built as the new religious centre of Clydesdale and the church of Govan was subordinated to it c.1130. It is in this period that the Doomster Hill lost its high status to become a venue for events at local level.
Excavations conducted by Glasgow University in 1994-96 at Govan Old confirmed the antiquity of the site and provided a historical context for the early medieval sculpture. In the southeast corner of the churchyard a well-preserved section of metalled road was revealed, its alignment pointing towards the site of the Doomster Hill. Charcoal used in the construction of this road was carbon-dated to the eighth or ninth century AD. It was most likely a processional route connecting the two principal sites of royal ritual – the church and the ceremonial mound – in the time of the kings of Strathclyde. If so, then its line extends today across Water Row and the adjacent open ground. Sections of this important feature may lie undisturbed beneath the accumulated layers of debris that now cover the original ground level. Beyond Water Row, in the open ground itself, the archaeologists discovered a huge ditch which seemed at first to be associated with the Doomster Hill. However, another excavation in 2007 suggested that the ditch might be a later feature. Further investigation could perhaps shed more light on its date and purpose but only if the site remains accessible for archaeological projects.
Historical significance and archaeological potential
Because Govan was the main political centre of Strathclyde, one of the most powerful kingdoms in early medieval Britain, it ranks alongside other royal ‘capitals’ such as Scone and Dublin as a place of major importance in the Viking Age. The kings who worshipped at the ancient church on the site of Govan Old, and whose graves lie in the churchyard, were major players on the field of international politics in a volatile era when the countries we now know as Scotland and England were being formed. The royal court of Strathclyde was almost certainly convened on the Doomster Hill, a site comparable in status to ceremonial mounds in other early medieval kingdoms. The importance of ‘moot hills’ and assembly places in the emergence of embryonic governmental structures in Northern Europe is increasingly being recognised by international projects in which Scottish institutions are already participating. The Centre for Nordic Studies in Orkney, for example, is a partner in the University of Oslo’s Assembly Project, while the local community of Dingwall has recently become involved in the EU-sponsored THING project by virtue of its own Viking-period moot hill (the site of which, incidentally, is now a car park).
At Govan the aura of royal power is particularly strong. By viewing the area to east and west of Water Row as a ritual landscape we can imagine how the various features were used one thousand years ago. During special events, such as the inauguration of a new king, both hill and church would have played key roles. The royal entourage of Strathclyde would have passed between the two sites via the metalled roadway that connected them. This processional route, if rediscovered, would constitute an archaeological feature of huge significance. A close parallel exists on the Isle of Man where an ancient processional path that connected the Viking royal parliament on Tynwald Hill to a nearby church has been reconstructed in modern times. If more sections of the Govan roadway were exposed, the resulting data could contribute to our knowledge of the practicalities of kingship in a period when royal government was becoming ever more sophisticated. The area traversed by the roadway is, moreover, the original core of human settlement in the town. With its multi-layered history and ancient royal associations, this part of Govan is undoubtedly an important heritage zone, a place of high archaeological potential and a prime candidate for conservation. Together, these aspects could form the basis for the future use of Water Row and the adjacent open ground, whether as community space, local heritage resource, visitor attraction, or some combination of all three.