Dumbarton Castle is built on top of a volcanic plug. The Rock rises to 75 metres (240 feet) forming a final dramatic flank for the River Leven where it enters the River Clyde.
The name Dumbarton comes from the language of the Gaelic-speaking Scots, and means fortress of the Britons. The Britons themselves, another Celtic race, called the Rock Alclutha, meaning Rock on the Clyde. From the Dark Ages until the 12th century A.D., the Britons had a kingdom called Strathclyde. It stretched from Dumbarton in the north to Morecambe Bay in the south. Dumbarton was its capital.
Reliable historical information from this period is difficult to find. We know that it was besieged at different times by Picts, Northumbrians and Vikings. There are a number of myths and legends. According to one, the Rock is a lump from the neighbouring hills thrown by the Devil at St. Patrick when he was making his escape! The Castle also has legendary connections with King Arthur.
In the 12th century the Kingdom of Strathclyde was integrated into what we recognise now as Scotland, and the Castle soon became one of the Scottish royal fortresses like those at Stirling and Edinburgh. Because of this new status, the Castle played its part in some of the momentous events of Scottish history.
In the late 13th and early 14th centuries, the Castle features during the period when Scotland was trying to free itself from the overlordship of King Edward I of England. Edward appointed Sir John Menteith as his Governor at the Castle, and Menteith had the famous William Wallace incarcerated there in 1305 before his transfer to London for trial and execution. Not until the death of Edward did Menteith accept Robert the Bruce as the rightful King of Scotland. He then surrendered the Castle to Bruce.
During the period of Mary Queen of Scots in the 16th century, the Castle passed between the factions supporting the English and those allied to the French. Mary herself was taken here as a child for her own safety, and sailed from the Castle to France, where she was betrothed to the French Dauphin. The Earl of Fleming continued to hold the Castle for the Scottish/French alliance, but finally, after a daring assault on the north-eastern flank, Thomas Crawford of Jordanhill and his men successfully took over control. Fleming escaped to France.
In the centuries that followed, Dumbarton Castle no longer had the strategic significance of former times. It became dilapidated, and in the 1640s surrendered to Oliver Cromwell without a struggle. After the Restoration, and during the period when the establishment feared Jacobite uprisings, the Castle received a makeover. Most of the buildings surviving today date from this period, including the Governor's House. The main entrance was moved from the north flank to the east end of the Rock, and various gun batteries were built.
In the 19th century, the Castle was used as an army barracks, and later had a close connection with the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Queen Victoria made an official visit in 1847, King George VI in 1937, and the young Queen Elizabeth with the Duke of Edinburgh in 1954.
The Castle was occupied by the army in both World Wars, but is now a historic monument held in trust for the nation by Historic Scotland. The excellent strategic position it had in times long gone now provides many superb views of rivers, mountains and lochs, Highlands and Lowlands. The Castle is well worth a visit, especially on a clear day. There is also a small museum and shop in the Governor's House.