Founded in the fifth century, Dumbarton was once the capital of the ancient Kingdom of Strathclyde, and still bears the historic sites to match. Originating from the Scottish Gaelic Dùn Breatainn, meaning ‘fort of the Britons’, Dunbartonshire was one of the 34 traditional counties which Scotland was divided into for administrative purposes. For centuries, the name Dunbartonshire was used interchangeably with Dumbartonshire; however, by the 1900s, the name Dunbartonshire was more widely accepted.
The key to the county’s original success was the volcanic rock which looms above the county and is still home to Dumbarton Castle, which boasts the longest recorded history of any stronghold in Scotland, with early traces dating from the Iron Age. Equally impressive are the remains of the Antonine Wall and Roman Bathhouse, situated between the Firth of Forth and River Clyde. More recently, Dunbartonshire’s heritage as a centre of shipbuilding is detailed in the fascinating Scottish Maritime Museum.
Here’s our pick of 5 of Dunbartonshire’s top historic sites.
1. Lennox Castle
Situated in Lennoxtown, East Dunbartonshire, Lennox Castle is an abandoned and ruined castle which is infamous for previously being the home of Lennox Castle Hospital. The castle was built between 1837 and 1841 by David Hamilton for John Lennox Kincaid as a replacement for Kincaid House on the Lennox of Woodhead Estate. In 1927, the castle and land was bought by Glasgow Corporation and converted into a hospital for people with learning disabilities, and then opened in 1936. The castle itself provided accommodation for the nurses, while accommodation was specially built in the grounds for around 1,200 patients. It was later reported that hospital care was poor, the patients were malnourished and mistreated. The hospital closed in 2002.
The castle itself has been Category A listed since the 1970s. Following a fire in 2008, it has been derelict. Though visitors can’t walk amongst the ruins themselves, it is possible to walk around them. The surrounding area is particularly scenic and is a popular route for tourists and locals alike.
Built around 142 AD in the reign of the Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius, the Antonine Wall ran coast-to-coast across Scotland from Old Kilpatrick on the River Clyde in the west, to modern Bo’ness on the Firth of Forth in the east – a distance of 40 Roman miles (approx 37 miles). At the time, the Antonine Wall was the most complex frontier ever constructed by the Roman army, and the most northerly frontier of the Roman Empire. Designed to help bring some order to the troubled outpost, it became a symbol of the Empire’s power and authority. New settlements were later constructed along the wall, and its Roman heritage was largely forgotten.
As central Scotland began to industrialise, sections of the wall were buried or removed, yet Roman objects were discovered during the construction of the Forth-Clyde canal in the 1760s-90s, generating historic interest. In 2008, the wall was made part of the Frontiers of the Roman Empire World Heritage Site, alongside Hadrian’s Wall. Cared for by Historic Scotland, substantial lengths can still be seen at various sites, including the Roman Bathhouse in Bearsden, Glasgow.
3. Mugdock Castle
Mugdock Castle was the stronghold of the Clan Graham from the middle of the 13th century when they acquired them from the Earl of Lennox. The castle was likely built in 1372 and was probably originally shield-shaped, comprising of towers arranged around a courtyard and linked by curtain walls and building ranges. In the mid-15th century, the tower was further expanded, and the site was yet again added to for the next few centuries. A terraced walled garden and summer house were built to the east of the castle in the 1820s. From 1874, the 17th-century mansion was demolished and a new Scottish baronial style house was built in the ruins of the old castle.
During World War Two, the house was requisitioned for use, and in 1945, Hugh Fraser (owner of the retail chain House of Fraser) bought the castle from the Duke of Montrose. In 1966, the 19th-century house burned down along with the 16th-century outbuildings. Today, the ruins are publicly accessible and make for a scenic and historical visit.
4. Scottish Maritime Museum
The Scottish Maritime Museum is an industrial museum with a Collection Recognised as Nationally Significant to Scotland. Located at two sites in West Scotland in Irvine and Dumbarton, the museum focuses on Scotland’s shipbuilding heritage. In Dumbarton, the museum holds The Denny Ship Model Experiment Tank, which focuses on the naval architect William Denny Jr. and his company William Denny and Brothers of Dumbarton, amongst the most innovative shipbuilding companies in the world, responsible for ships such as the Cutty Sark, until they closed in 1963. Completed in 1883, the tank was the world’s first commercial example of a ship testing tank.
The site of the tank was re-opened as a museum in 1983 and retains many of its original features, such as the 100-metre-long tank and William Denny’s drawing office. Also on display are ship models and photographs. Visitors can also try their hand at smoothing and carving a real wax hull model.
Dumbarton Castle has the longest recorded history of any stronghold in Scotland. Situated on a plug of volcanic basalt known as Dumbarton Rock which overlooks the town of Dumbarton, there is record of a settlement on the site as far back as the Iron Age. From the 5th to 9th centuries, the castle was the centre of the the independent Brythonic Kingdom of Strathclyde. In medieval Scotland, Dumbarton was an important castle, and is believed to be one of the places William Wallace was taken on the way to London after his capture. Mary Queen of Scots stayed at the castle in the summer of 1563. Though few buildings remain from the period, there is evidence of work on the site from the early 17th century.
The castle’s strategic importance declined after Oliver Cromwell’s death in 1658; however, owing to threats posed by Jacobites and the French in the eighteenth century, new structures were added and the castle was garrisoned until World War Two. Little survives of the medieval castle. There is a 16th-century guard house. Most of what is visible today was built in the 18th century, including the Governor’s House. Today the castle is open daily during the summer season and from Saturday to Wednesday in the winter.