Govan: Marking the Traces

Govan has both prehistoric and historic roots. The River Clyde flowing through its midst was essential to its development. At the confluence of the rivers Kelvin and Clyde, Govan was always an important fording point. Later it was a ferry route (after the river was dredged and embanked to allow ocean-going ships to dock in the heart of the city). Further down river was Merlin’s ford, whose mythologically-inspired name takes us into another era when Govan was part of the Brythonic Kingdom of Strathclyde (5th century AD) which fought the Vikings for control of this vital trade route and meeting point. 

Traces of this time, aside from the hogback tombs in Govan Old Church (Anglo-Scandinavian in style); old illustrations of the man-made Doomster Hill and pictographic references on maps (e.g. Blaues’s dating from 1654, which shows Govan as a palisaded community next to a church), were swept away by successive periods of industrialisation. Weaving, which had hitherto been the staple industry of the area, was replaced by shipbuilding and heavy engineering from the 18th century onwards.

From this period onward Govan and the Clyde provided the market and merchant tonnage that sustained the Triangular Trade, the British Empire (mercantile and military) as well as providing the iron and steel for two monumentally destructive world wars. After resurgence in activity immediately post-war, by the 1970s – the time of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ work-in – the days of shipbuilding on the river started to wane as antiquated work practices and cheap competition from Japan, South Korea and elsewhere destroyed its competitive advantage. The place that had played such an important role in the transport of world trade was now relegated to building and maintaining capital ships for one client – HM’s Royal Navy.


The Presence of Absence

Govan’s recurring story is one of birth-death-rebirth often characterised by the wholesale obliteration of what went before. The morphology of the riverside walk (indented to reflect the location of Harland and Wolff’s slipways) and isolated fragments of rail lines or machinery, are sometimes the only clues as to what was once there. The one constant in Govan’s history – subject to some modifications over the years – has been the River Clyde, our Clutha – the reason that Govan exists at all.


The artist residency week during 2nd-8th September, will explore how Govan and Glasgow-based artists can work in and with the local community to imagine and instigate a new narrative for post-industrial regeneration. Artists from Gdansk, Gothenburg, Levadia, Limerick and Ostend will attend to observe and interpret; they will return in June 2020 to deliver their ideas in practice. An urban lab discussion, which will involve local people, artists and policymakers, will be held on Friday, 6th September, in Film City, Govan.

Throughout the week the visiting artists will be liaising with community-based artists, organisations and businesses such as Kinning Park Complex, Fairfield Heritage, Govan Stones/Govan Old Church, Film City and Govan HELP. Ingrid Shearer will give a tutored tour of the Clyde which explores its past, present and imagined future from the water and the riverbank.

They will also visit the Mitchell Library archive and attend a civic reception at Glasgow City Chambers hosted by the Lord Provost, Eva Bolander.

At the heart of the project – and what underpins it – is how power and engagement can be invested in communities to bring about change and mesh with the Scottish Government’s policies for local community empowerment. Part of this means not just engagement but ownership.