Dumbarton Castle - History and Facts | History Hit

Dumbarton Castle

Dumbarton, Scotland, United Kingdom

Dumbarton Castle served as a wartime prison, a royal shelter and a defence against both foreign and local threats.

Lily Johnson

15 Apr 2021
Image Credit: Shutterstock

About Dumbarton Castle

Dumbarton Castle was a medieval stronghold which over its many centuries has served as a wartime prison, royal shelter and defence against both foreign and national threats. Even the site upon which Dumbarton Castle sits – Dumbarton Rock – has an illustrious past. Little survives of the medieval castle as most of it now dates to the 18th century, however its fascinating history is enough to inspire awe and excitement in history lovers and casual tourists alike!

Dumbarton Castle history

Mentions of Dumbarton Rock date back to the 5th century when it was known as ‘Alt Clut’ or ‘Rock of the Clyde’, and a great fortress resided there around the same time, becoming the capital of the Strathclyde area.

It was later named Dun Breatann, or ‘Fortress of the Britons’, and it is from this Gaelic name that ‘Dunbarton’ derives. The vast Dark Age castle would have defended against the area’s ongoing Viking attacks, including one such in 870 by Viking kings Olaf and Ivar of Dublin, that saw 200 longships fill the River Clyde.

Construction of the medieval Dumbarton Castle began in the 1220 amidst the threat of attacks from Norway, and was established under Alexander II of Scotland to protect the Scottish border. Once the Norwegian threat subsided, Dumbarton would go on to become a royal castle and play a role in the Scottish Wars of Independence. In particular, it is believed that William Wallace was imprisoned there for a short time in 1305, before being taken to his execution in England.

With its slightly more remote location, Dumbarton Castle often fulfilled another vital function as a royal escape route. In the 14th century, David II sailed from Dumbarton following Scottish defeat at the Battle of Halidon Hill, and in 1548 a young Mary, Queen of Scots sought refuge there before travelling to France. Later it was garrisoned as a military base, and saw action as recently as World War Two.

Dumbarton Castle today

Today all traces of the 1st century stronghold have vanished, leaving visitors only to imagine what must have been a fascinating Dark Age citadel. Some of its medieval features remain however, including the 14th century Portcullis Arch, the foundations of the Wallace Tower, and what may be the foundations of the White Tower.

A 16th century guard house also remains at the site, at which there is a carved face said to be that of Sir John Menteith, the man who betrayed William Wallace. Most of what may be seen at Dumbarton today dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries however, when it was renovated as a garrisoned fort.

Visitors may climb the 557 steps to the twin summits of the White Tower Crag, from which stunning views of the surrounding area may be enjoyed – sometimes even reaching the peak of Ben Lomond!

Getting to Dumbarton Castle

Dumbarton Castle is located in Dumbarton, Scotland. It can be accessed by taking the A814 (Glasgow Road) off the A82, then following the brown tourist signs to the site, where a small car park is available. Dumbarton East train station is a 10-minute walk to the site, while a number of bus services also stop on Glasgow Road, with the Victoria Street stop a 10-minute walk away.

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