Dumbarton Rock and Castle
|View of Dumbarton Rock from the shore at Sandpoint|
The works cited in this article (using square brackets) are listed in a references section at the end.
NS6186), and which is about 27 kilometres long by about 2 to 3 kilometres wide.
A few of the other volcanic plugs to be found within that strip are illustrated below:
|(left & middle) Dumgoyne|
|(left & middle) Dumbuck Hill|
(right) Dumbowie Hill
|(left) Dumgoyach (with Duntreath Standing Stones in foreground)|
(middle) Duncryne / the Dumpling
(right) Lot's Wife, near the Gates of Sodom
The abundant outflows from these volcanoes are called the Clyde Plateau Lavas, and they include the Kilpatrick Hills, the Campsies, and other ranges. More than seventy volcanic vents have been identified in the Kilpatrick and Campsie Hills, and they vary greatly in size (Lot's Wife, pictured above, is perhaps the smallest known example). Former volcanic vents may be filled with pyroclastic rocks, formed from material that was blown from the volcano and which landed nearby; on the other hand, when magma solidifies within the vent, it produces a basalt plug.
Dumbarton Rock itself is "a plug of microporphyritic olivine-basalt of Lower Carboniferous age" ([BGS], p52). This means that it is made of a fairly alkaline basalt, which contains small crystals of olivine within a finer-grained basalt matrix.
The dark basalt shows conspicuous columnar jointing, which is well seen from adjacent Castle Road, at the eastern end of the Rock. At the western end of the Rock are tuffs, sandstones, and shales, with veins of calcite running through some of them; they also contain many fragments of other rocks.
|(left) Columnar jointing on the eastern side|
(middle) Columnar jointing on the western side
(right) Concretion surrounded by calcite veins
Despite the effects of erosion, many parts of the Clyde Plateau Lavas are still hundreds of metres thick. According to [BGS] (p108), they may originally have covered an area of about 3000 km², and they may have been 600 metres deep in places. This shows the scale of the volcanic activity that took place here. At present, at least thirty distinct lava flows, with a combined depth of 300 metres, can be identified on the steep escarpments of the Kilpatrick, Campsie, and Fintry-Gargunnock Hills ([Mitchell], p26).
|The Long Crags: the escarpment of the Kilpatrick Hills; see also a wide-angle view from below|
At its base the Rock is about 250 metres across from east to west, and almost as much from north to south.
There are some very large stones at the western side of the Rock. The largest of them was formerly known as the Washing-stone, and the grassy area on which it lies was the Washing-stone Green. When the Wordsworths and Coleridge walked around the Rock in the early nineteenth century, they debated amongst themselves whether that stone was as large as England's Bowder Stone. At present, those who practise the sport of bouldering have their own names, not just for this huge rock and the many others nearby, but for each of the individual routes of ascent.
references and similar works fill in the gaps and provide background and context.
At that time, Dumbarton Rock appears to have fallen within the territory of a people whom Ptolemy calls the Damnonii (sometimes spelled Dumnonii); their domain may have extended from the River Clyde to Manau (or Manaw: the plain at the head of the Firth of Forth), and northwards to Strathearn. See my article on Carman Hill for a more in-depth discussion of this topic.
The Britons who had a stronghold at Dumbarton were successors to (and perhaps the descendants of) the Damnonii who had earlier occupied this area.
Bede, in his "Ecclesiastical History of the English People" (completed about 731) mentions Dumbarton twice, although not by that name. In chapter 1, he describes "a very extensive arm of the sea", namely, the Firth of Clyde, which "runs inland from the west for a very great distance, where there stands Alcluith, a city of the Britons, strongly fortified to this day" ["civitas Brettonum munitissima usque hodie"]. In chapter 12, while discussing the Britons, he again mentions "the city of Alcluith, which in their language means 'the rock of Cluith', as it stands near a river of that name". The river is the Clyde (Ptolemy's "Clōta"), and the name Alcluith is British (a language very much like an early form of Welsh). Later, Gaelic became the dominant language in the area; the present-day name Dumbarton is from the Gaelic for "fort of Britons".
"Leven" and "Lennox":
Ptolemy also mentions a "Lemannonian gulf/inlet" (Λεμαννόνιος κόλπος), whose name appears to be based on the same root as that of the River Leven, which flows past the rock. Dumbarton lies within a large territory that was historically known as the Lennox (earlier "Levenax"), a derivative of "Leven". These names are from a Celtic root meaning "elm", for which the present-day Gaelic word is "leamhan". For references, see the link just given.
As for nearby Ben Lomond, Watson derives its name from a P-Celtic (akin to Welsh) word, "llumon" or similar, for a beacon or chimney; the name would then denote the "beacon mountain", perhaps simply indicating its prominence rather than its use.
At the time of writing, a few web pages maintain that the name of the River Leven means "smooth stream". However, that explanation is long out of date; see my description of the River Leven, and its footnotes, for further details and relevant references.
It is worth adding that some of the older works on the history of this area mention a Roman naval base called Theodosia at Dumbarton. This idea is fiction: it is one of several misconceptions that had their origins in a notorious forged work called "De Situ Britanniae". I discuss elsewhere, in a different article, the pervasive influence of that work on local history books.
The Rock occupies a strategic location at the confluence of the rivers Leven and Clyde, and its topography favours its use as a fortress.
For evidence of early fortifications, see below, in the section on Archaeology. It is worth noting that the kingdom's having had its fortress here is not the same thing as having had its heartland here (in the recorded history of the kingdom, the Rock itself is generally mentioned only in connection with its capture or burning). Nor does it mean that the king would ordinarily reside here. As Alex Woolf says of locations such Dumbarton Rock and Dunadd, "it is unlikely that kings spent much time in these fundamentally uncomfortable places"; they are more likely to have resided in halls beside rich, low-lying farmland ([Woolf], p30).
Aside from its conflicts, and notice of the death of some its rulers, we are told very little about the history of the kingdom of Alt Clut at this early period. Around the end of the sixth century, Riderch I of Alt Clut appears to have been involved in warfare against Bernicia (an Anglian kingdom). In 643, Domnall Brecc, a king of Dalriada, was killed at Strathcarron while fighting a British king, Eugein son of Beli (it is generally inferred that Eugein was a king of Alt Clut, even though none of the sources are explicit about this; see [Fraser], p173).
It is possible that Alt Clut was the successor of a kingdom that had, in the Roman period and later, included both Manau and Strathearn, and which corresponded to the domain of the Damnonii (mentioned above). By the latter half of the seventh century, the kingdom may have lost much of its former territory to the Picts or the Bernicians, or to both. Despite this, there is some evidence to suggest that Britons (most probably those of the kingdom of Alt Clut) were dominant in the west in the 670s and 680s.
In 750, in a battle at place called Mocetauc (probably Mugdock), Talorcan son of Fergus (or Urguist), a Pictish ruler, was defeated by the Britons of Alt Clut; Talorcan himself was killed. However, six years later, the Pictish king Óengus (or Onuist), brother of Talorcan, and Eadberht of Northumbria led their forces to Clyde Rock (1 August 756), and the Britons are described as having accepted terms there. The source (the Chronicle of 802) then goes on to say that almost all of the besieging army perished soon afterwards (10 August) on the way from Ouania (probably Govan) to a certain Newanbirig; however, no details are given, and it may only have been the Northumbrian (Anglian) part of the forces who suffered this reverse.
The Annals of Ulster (in Latin) record the "combustio" of "Alocluade" in 780, but the circumstances of this event are not described. For almost a century after this, the kingdom does not receive mention in the historical records, although this may simply reflect a lack of sources for that period.
In 870, Dumbarton Rock was besieged by the forces of Olaf the White (a Norse king of Dublin) and Ivar the Boneless. The defenders succumbed to the invading forces after four months, and the fortress was plundered and destroyed. After this event, we hear no more about Clyde Rock; instead, we hear (from 872 onwards) of the "kingdom of Strathclyde". The name change perhaps reflects a political reconfiguration of the northern Britons; it is widely believed that Dumbarton Rock was abandoned and that the new kingdom was based further up the River Clyde.
The subsequent history of the kingdom of Strathclyde is not relevant to the present account of Dumbarton Rock; it is sufficient to note here that the territory of that kingdom would become incorporated into the kingdom of Scotland by the eleventh century.
As for Dumbarton Rock itself, it does not re-emerge into history until the 13th century; its use, if any, in the years in between is not recorded. There are some incised cross-slabs at the Castle which date from the tenth century; they were found during excavation of a garden terrace behind the Governor's House. While it is possible that the stones are a relic of continuing occupation of the Rock, they may simply have been brought from elsewhere at a later date (for example, similar stones were found at Govan). In either case, they indicate a Christian presence in the wider area during the tenth century. (See [Alcock], p117-118.)
|Ancient carved stones (except for the one at the lower right, which dates from 1704)|
The Harleian genealogies of the kings of Alcluith include a certain "Ceretic Guletic". Scholars generally (though not unanimously) identify this Ceretic with the Coroticus who, as recounted in Muirchu's "Life of Patrick", was strongly criticised by Patrick because of the actions of his war-band. Chapter headings were added to Muirchu's work over a century after it was completed, and the author of those headings made the same identification, calling Coroticus "regem Aloo", or king of Ail (thought to mean Clyde Rock), an expression which does not appear in the original text.
The subject is discussed by Simon Taylor in a chapter written by him ("Early History and Languages of West Dunbartonshire") in the book "Changing Identities, Ancient Roots" (2006).
Leslie Alcock excavated the Beak (the flatter eastern summit of the Rock) in 1974-75; see [Alcock]. Before then, it was thought likely that the early fortifications at Dumbarton had been in the form of a "nuclear fort" (in other words, it consisted of an upper citadel with lower enclosures looping out from it); certain features visible on the ground were thought to be traces of this structure; however, the excavations revealed no evidence for such a nuclear fort (and the supposed traces on the ground turned out to be from a much later period).
|(left) The eastern end of the Rock|
(middle) White Tower Crag from the Beak
(right) The Beak from White Tower Crag
Any archaeological investigation on the Rock is greatly hampered by the building and rebuilding that has taken place here since the Middle Ages. However, on the eastern spur of the Beak, Alcock did find traces of a timber-and-rubble rampart that had been destroyed by fire (possibly relating to the events of either 780 or 870). The reason for excavating the Beak was that, as Alcock writes, "the higher, western summit, the so-called White Tower, is too pointed for occupation as anything more than a look-out". Alcock suggested the possibility that the large hill fort of Carman had been the immediate precursor of the early fortress of Dumbarton Rock, Carman perhaps having been located inconveniently far from the sea (he made it clear that these were hypotheses only; Carman has never been excavated).
For much more information about the fort on Carman Hill, see my article about the hill.
|Carman hill-fort: possible precursor to Dumbarton Rock|
Alcock's report is well worth reading: in addition to discussing the excavation and its findings, it provides an abundance of background information.
In 1222, by means of a charter of King Alexander II, the Royal Burgh of Dumbarton was founded; in the charter, the king mentions his "new castle" at Dumbarton (the castle and the new burgh belonged to the king, but they were located within the extensive domain of the Earl of Lennox). In the past, the name Dumbarton had primarily been associated with the Rock itself (much of the land that would be occupied by the royal burgh had formerly been known as "the lands of Murroch", a name that is still applied to a prominent burn), but the name Dumbarton now also applied to the burgh.
|The Murroch Burn|
The first keeper (or constable) of the castle of whom we have historical notice is William Bisset, recorded as sheriff of Dumbarton in 1237. Our present-day lists of the keepers of the castle are based, in part, on information presented in the Dennistoun Manuscripts.
A later keeper of the castle was John Menteith ("the fause Menteith"), infamous for his instrumental role in Wallace's capture. It is a measure of how much confidence the English King (Edward I) had in Menteith that Edward felt safe in entrusting Menteith, a Scot, with holding this important fortress for him. There is a tradition that a leering carved stone face on the castle's Guard House represents Menteith (of course, there is no way to determine whether that tradition is correct).
There are also the remains of a "Wallace Tower" on the Rock; the structure was probably named in honour of the great patriot, although it dates from a later period. Opinions differ on whether Wallace himself was ever held at the Castle; on the one hand, the 1958 version of the Castle's official guide-book states that "it is improbable that Wallace was detained in the castle"; on the other, MacPhail states that "although there is no record of Wallace's confinement in the castle after his capture, this was most likely to have happened as Sir John Menteith, who was sheriff of Dumbarton and keeper of the castle, was responsible for having him transported to London; but it could only have been for a day or so, as Wallace was brought to trial in Westminster Hall a little over three weeks from the date of his capture" [MacPhail, p15-16].
|(left) Guard House detail: traditionally, the 'fause Menteith'|
(right) The National Wallace Monument
The Wallace Sword was kept at Dumbarton Castle until 1888, but was transferred in that year to the National Wallace Monument on the Abbey Craig (in this connection, it should be noted that many in Dumbarton, who were given little say in the matter, were not pleased about the removal of the sword).
In 1320, a certain Sir William de Soules was found to have conspired to remove Robert from the throne; de Soules was subsequently imprisoned in Dumbarton Castle, and he died shortly thereafter. In 1321, Bruce rewarded the loyalty of Malcolm, Earl of Lennox, with the hereditary keepership of Dumbarton Castle.
James III was defeated in 1488, at the Battle of Sauchieburn, by an army of disaffected nobles that included his own son, the future James IV. The latter, on his accession to the throne, had to deal with a divided kingdom, and he twice besieged Dumbarton castle in 1489. After its capture, a relative of Robert Blackadder (Bishop of Glasgow) briefly held the position of keeper of the castle, but a few years later this position passed to Matthew Stewart, the Second Earl of Lennox.
Later, James IV would use Dumbarton as a base from which to launch his expeditions against the troublesome Lords of the Isles. After James died at the Battle of Flodden in 1513, Scotland once again had a king in his minority, and, as before, rival factions vied for power. In 1514, the young John Stewart, Fourth Earl of Lennox, a nephew of the Earl of Arran, seized Dumbarton Castle in order to strengthen his own position and that of his uncle. He and his followers did so by burrowing under the North Entry under cover of darkness (at that time, the castle still had a northern entrance), and ejecting the garrison.
It was from Dumbarton Castle that Mary, Queen of Scots, departed Scotland for France in 1548. After her return, the castle was held by Mary's supporters against those of her infant son James VI. It was taken by James' supporters in 1571 when Captain Thomas Crawfurd of Jordanhill made a daring ascent, scaling the north-eastern side of the Rock to reach the curtain wall and taking the defenders by surprise.
(Crawfurd's large memorial is located beside the Auld Kirk at Kilbirnie; it is the box-like structure that can be seen on the left in a picture of the kirkyard. A coat of arms and an inscription can be seen on one of its sides; on another side, a small window allows a view of the effigies that are inside.)
After 1603, the Castle had less strategic importance than before and mainly served as a prison fortress. One notable prisoner was Patrick Stewart (c.1566-1615), the brutal and oppressive Earl of Orkney, who was held here for most of 1612-14, before being taken to Edinburgh, where he was tried and executed for treason.
When Charles I tried to impose a new prayer book on Scotland, he faced a great deal of opposition; his authority was defied by a General Assembly of the Scottish Kirk in Glasgow. Charles planned to invade Scotland to enforce his authority, and Dumbarton was to be the landing place for troops from Ireland. However, the king's plans for Dumbarton were forestalled when the Provost of Dumbarton, John Sempill, captured the castle in 1639. As a result of this and other setbacks, Charles was compelled to sign a treaty, the Pacification of Berwick.
In 1725, General Wade visited the castle and found the defences in need of improvement. In 1727 he ordered the rebuilding of a section of rampart that had fallen away, and he increased the size of the garrison. At about the same time, fears of a Jacobite invasion provided the impetus for a more comprehensive reconstruction of the fortifications: the modifications included the building of the Governor's House and King George's Battery (both in 1735). [For the dates of other structures on the Rock, see the individual photographs of them, below, in features of the castle.]
When Queen Victoria visited in 1847, the castle guns were fired in welcome. This startled the horses of the royal carriage, but they were brought under control before any further mishap resulted.
Another noteworthy visitor was Dr Samuel Johnson (on the 28th of October, 1773); he is said to have had some difficulty removing himself from the little sentry box near the Magazine. In 1803, William and Dorothy Wordsworth, in company with Coleridge, visited the castle; afterwards, they walked around the base of the Rock at low water.
|(left) This sentry box was a tight squeeze for Dr Johnson|
(right) The Wordsworths and Coleridge discussed this boulder
(Click on those pictures for more details)
Samuel Bennett was Provost; he had been the chief promoter of this project. The grassy space on that side of the Rock came to be known as the Pier Park.
A little later, in 1877, the engine of the PS Leven was presented to the town by James R Napier and John Napier, the sons of Robert Napier. According to them, the engine had been designed by David Elder, and they were of the opinion that it dated from about 1824.
The presentation took place in the Pier Park on Saturday the 11th of August 1877; on that day, the engine was unveiled and officially handed over to the town. The accompanying festivities included a regatta, as well as various sporting events on the shore. Some who were not taking part in these activities looked on from a high vantage point, on top of the Rock.
|(left) Pier Park|
(right) Pier Park. The Castle was closed; note the scaffolding on the Governor's House.
The engine remained in the Pier Park for a number of years, but it has subsequently been moved twice. After the first move, it became the centrepiece of a fountain pool in Dumbarton's shopping centre (an area that has changed greatly since then; the pool was at NS 3958 7533, now the location of the north-western part of a large building). The next move brought it to what is, at the time of writing, its present location, beside the Denny Tank Museum (the Dumbarton branch of the Scottish Maritime Museum).
|(left) Pier Park, from the Castle|
(right) The engine of PS Leven, in its present (2015) location
Dumbarton Pier itself had never proved very popular; it could only be used safely at high water. It was severely damaged by gales in December 1900, and was never repaired; its remains were eventually removed.
The War Office formally handed over the castle to the Office of Works in 1909, and it is now cared for as a scheduled monument; the full title of the 1958 version of the official guidebook is "Dumbarton Castle: Ministry of Public Building and Works Official Guidebook".
This ancient fortress had a final military role to play during the Second World War, when an anti-aircraft battery was installed on Dumbarton Rock. Four high-explosive bombs landed on the Rock in May of 1941. There was some damage to its structures (for example, the Magazine was hit, although, fortunately, it had long ceased to be used for its original purpose), but there were no casualties. No traces of the gun emplacements are visible.
At present (2015), Dumbarton Castle is in the care of Historic Scotland.
references give a good account of the sequence of building and modification that has taken place on the Rock.
The portcullis arch is thought to be the oldest of the surviving medieval structures. It protected the southern approach to the flat area between the two summits, and its top also served as a bridge, making it easier to get from one peak to the other.
On a pillar on White Tower Crag is a modern toposcope (a plaque showing the directions and distances of various hills and other landmarks).
Around that pillar are the remains of a circular structure. Those remains stand on the site of the medieval White Tower, and early guidebooks state that they are presumably the ruins of that tower, but later guidebooks acknowledge that they are of uncertain origin. That peak is too steep to have supported anything more substantial than a lookout tower (see [Alcock]). Very early writers state that the circular ruin is that of a Pharos (an early light-house), but this idea is supported only by tradition.
|(left) Toposcope on White Tower Crag|
(middle & right) Remains of circular structure
|(left) Steep slopes of White Tower Crag|
(middle) The path to the top
(right) A view down the same path
|(left) A second and much less conspicuous carved head on the Guard House|
(middle) Inside the Magazine
(right) The Spur Battery
|(left) Steps to the well-house; the well used to be open, but it was covered over in the 18th century |
(middle) The covered well is behind this grate
(right) An ancient spring on this slope finally dried up in the late 19th century because of work carried out nearby
|(left) This slot accommodated the portcullis; the portcullis itself was later replaced by a heavy gate, now gone|
(middle) The windows of an earlier Magazine; they can be seen in context in a view of the curtain wall
(right) There used to be several more buildings on the level ground between the peaks
|(left) The Duke of York's Battery|
(middle) The former site of the Castle's crane
(right) The southern part of the Beak
- [MacPhail] "Dumbarton Castle" (I. M. M. MacPhail, 1979):
as Alcock's report (see below) says, this is a "well researched and documented account of Dumbarton Castle". This is the most useful reference for the history of the castle from the founding of the royal burgh of Dumbarton down to the time of writing, and it recounts far more of the Rock's history than I give in the present article.
- [Fraser] "From Caledonia to Pictland – Scotland to 795" (James E. Fraser, 2009):
the first volume of The New Edinburgh History of Scotland. There are references to the kingdom of Alt Clut scattered throughout the work.
- [Woolf] "From Pictland to Alba – 789-1070" (Alex Woolf, 2007):
the second volume of The New Edinburgh History of Scotland.
- [Alcock] Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland (PSAS), volume 120 (1990), pages 95-149:
this is Leslie and Elizabeth Alcock's report on the excavation at Dumbarton Rock. The title of the paper is "Reconnaissance excavations on Early Historic fortifications and other royal sites in Scotland, 1974-84: 4, Excavations at Alt Clut, Clyde Rock, Strathclyde, 1974-75".
- [BGS] "British Regional Geology: The Midland Valley of Scotland" (British Geological Survey; 3rd edition, 1985):
this book was consulted for information on the Clyde Plateau Lava fields.
- [Mitchell] "Loch Lomondside" (John Mitchell, 2001):
part of the New Naturalist series, this book includes a discussion of the geology of the area.
- "Geological Features of Dumbarton Rock: A Geological Trail":
a very useful leaflet produced by Strathclyde Geoconservation Group (formerly known as Strathclyde RIGS Group).
- "Geology Explained Around Glasgow and South-West Scotland, Including Arran" (Judith A. Lawson & James D. Lawson, 1976):
chapter 3 includes a discussion of the geology of Dumbarton Rock; it also describes features of geological interest to be seen at the base of the Rock, on the western side.
- "Dumbarton Castle: Official Souvenir Guide" (Historic Scotland, editions of 1993 and 2007):
these are very useful accounts, in booklet form, of the visible features of the castle, and of its history.
- "Dumbarton Castle: Ministry of Public Building and Works Official Guide-book" (Iain MacIvor, Inspector of Ancient Monuments, 1958; HMSO, Edinburgh):
an earlier version of the guidebook, useful both by itself and in comparison with the later versions.
- "Warlords and Holy Men – Scotland AD 80-1000" (Alfred P. Smythe, 1984):
this is not so recent an account as Fraser's or Woolf's, but it is still of interest (see [Woolf], p353).
- "Historic Dumbarton" (E. Patricia Dennison & Russel Coleman, 1999):
this book is mainly intended for local authorities or others who may need to know of sensitive areas of archaeological interest within the historic burgh that might be affected by development. However, it is also useful to the non-specialist who is interested in the archaeology of the area. Pages 10-11 and 71-78 give an account of the Rock and its castle.