Fancy taking a walk back in time? Then come with me to Dumbarton Castle.
This volcanic plug towers over the Clyde in west Scotland. Catch a glimpse of its imposing outline, and your breath will catch, and your skin, prickle. You know you have come across something significant indeed!
Fifteen hundred years ago, its timber ramparts protected a royal centre: the Kingdom of Strathclyde, whose lands stretched northwards from Cumbria. These early Britons were under pressure from the Angles in the south, the northern Picts and Dalriadan Scots to the west. Around 450AD, St Patrick of Ireland wrote a letter, reprimanding King Ceretic of Strathclyde for carrying Irish converts off into slavery; a fierce time, when life could change at the sight of a galley approaching the shore or an army could desolate a land.
736AD, the Picts and Angles joined forces against the Britons but a few days later, the Anglian army disappeared in mysterious circumstances in southern Scotland. What could have happened?
Some one hundred and forty years later, those on the Rock must have felt the chill wind of despair as Viking galleys amassed beneath them. Raiders swarmed ashore but it took four months before the well on the rocky mound ran dry, and the Britons surrendered to Olaf, the Norse ruler of Dublin, and his Danish ally – Ivar, the Boneless. Two hundred ships returned to their Irish base from this Scottish foray, loaded with a bounty of slaves.
Around 1034AD, the Britons of Strathclyde integrated into the kingdom of Scotland under King Duncan, Macbeth’s successor.
One thousand years on, and this same kingdom came to an arrangement with Norse rulers who laid claim to the western fringes of Scotland, including the nearby islands of Bute and Arran.
The Norse hold on Scotland was finally broken at a battle at Largs in 1263. No doubt, the army would have amassed along the shores of the Clyde, sailing past the great fortress.
Step forward in time to the Wars of Independence and Dumbarton Castle was once again a royal enclave, this time for Edward – Hammer of the Scots, and Sir William Wallace, Scotland’s great hero, was brought here in chains before being transported to England to face his torturous death. How his heart must have fallen as he climbed the rocky steps leading up to his prison.
Much later, around 1327, King Robert the Bruce built his great manor house within sight of Dumbarton at Cardross. Surely those on the Rock must have gazed in awe as their king sailed past in his imposing royal ship, en route to the shrine of St Ninian in southern Scotland – his last great journey,
In the tumultuous years following Robert’s death, Scotland saw the return of an English-supported army under Edward Balliol, son of the former (and late) King John of Scotland. As the Bruce cause waxed and waned, Robert’s infant son and heir, David, spent time on the Rock before he and other children of the royal household were evacuated to northern France. In consequence, an alternative royal court functioned there for some eight years before David’s return in 1341.
Moving on to 1548, another member of Scottish royalty found sanctuary here. Mary Queen of Scots lived at Dumbarton Castle for some four months as a babe-in-arms, before she too was evacuated for safety to France.
1715 saw the Jacobite Rising in which Dumbarton played a role. But by 1730, the English general, Wade, was busy refortifying the castle’s defences. Sixty years on, it was home to even heavier guns and a massive powder magazine. The castle’s defensive role had been strengthened and the Napoleonic Wars saw it used as a stronghold for French prisoners.
Much later, in the twentieth century, Dumbarton once again found itself impacted by war when German bombs fell from the sky. The Clyde was the centre of the Scottish shipbuilding industry and thus key to Britain’s war effort.
Today, the castle is a much more peaceful place. On the day of my visit, it was almost deserted, bar a few dogs chasing after seabirds and a sailing boat skipping along on the strong current. A park built on reclaimed land offers a grand place for visitors to sit and reflect upon Dumbarton’s potent role in history. Even now, the hairs on the back of my neck rise as I recall the forbidding line of stone walls winding its way up and over the rocky cliffs, so dramatic under a glowering Scottish sky. I can’t wait to go back!
References: Historic Scotland and various texts.