On 7th August 1912, the Burgh of Govan was taken over by the City of Glasgow. Although it had been in existence in legend, since the sixth century, it had only been a burgh since 1864. Along with Partick and Pollokshaws, Govan disappeared into the gaping maw of the Dear Green Place.
Last Wednesday, I took a wander through a neighbourhood which surfaces in the consciousness of many non-Glaswegians, primarily as Sir Alex Ferguson’s birthplace. Yet, as one person pointed out to Sir John Ure Primrose, in the Burgh’s losing battle for independence, maybe Govan should have taken over Glasgow. Such was the concern then that the upstart Glasgow was getting ahead of itself.
In the intervening century, Govan has been submerged by the tsunami of the industrial history of the West of Scotland. It has been unfairly lumped with Glasgow, when it has stories of its own, in spades. The Ordnance Survey maps of the 1890s show Glasgow and Govan meeting in a thin ribbon of development along the Paisley Road. The area south of Cessnock Dock on the Govan Road is still fairly blank. Govan was clearly its own urban centre that did not need the embrace of its younger, but faster growing sibling.
Look northwest on the old maps and you see that Govan is thriving. The shipbuilding yards are spreading, Govan Old Church sits enjoying its second millennium and Water Row looks down on the Govan Ferry bringing thousands of workers to their business. The freight railway line runs through the streets until it is welcomed into the Fairfield Works. The silk factory is still there, waiting to be swallowed up by a later expansion of Fairfields. That much of this story is unknown to most people, is a problem that is being enthusiastically addressed.
Govanites are proud of their Burgh and have been making strenuous efforts to spread the word. I strongly recommend that you take a wee afternoon trip to improve your mind. Why don’t you start at the Underground Station, which is in the throes of an impressive redevelopment? Head west until you reach the church of St Constantine: the Old Parish Church, wherein lies some of the most impressive grave monuments in Britain. Volunteers, of a decidedly cheery and welcoming nature are there to help you with any questions, although there is more than enough information to be read by the independent visitor. Once you have had your fill of Celtic and Viking history, gird your loins for the 300 meter trot down the road to the Fairfield Heritage Centre, housed in the offices of the Fairfield Shipbuilding Yard.
There is clearly a secret production line somewhere in Harmony Row, churning out cheerful and welcoming Govanites in the still of the night. Yet again, you are looked after like a pet pig, by the volunteers who have dedicated their afternoons to explaining the history of shipbuilding in Govan. I finished my sojourn with a trip to admire the statues in Elder Park: in particular of John Elder himself, cuddling his compound engine. His engineering excellence gave Govan a maritime advantage, that the world took many decades to best.
My journey ended in the Elder Park Library: a fine building from the drawing board of John James Burnet. It was opened in 1903 by Andrew Carnegie even though it wasn’t a Carnegie Library. Yum Yums were the prize, as I returned to the Underground although, in my experience the No. 13 Cafe across from Greggs is definitely a place for the less time constrained flâneur.