Snowy-Dumbarton by baaker2009

DUMBARTON CASTLE1, a photo by S McK on Flickr. 

The county town of Dumbarton is home to one of the oldest strongholds in Britain, well-worn harbor, a beautiful old golf course, a popular football club, and carpets of bluebells. Those who were raised in the area and have left it long since still remember “Mrs. Millar’s wee sweet shop,” St. Mungo’s church, a cool swim in the freshwater spring, and gathering whelks, mussels, and “clabby doos” nearby. One former resident of Renton, a village near Dumbarton, went to America and served in the Vietnam war, and he credited “Renton toughness and savvy” for seeing him through. Dumbarton made these people what they are today. 

Dumbarton by yellow book
Dumbarton, a photo by yellow book on Flickr. 

The Scottish-Gaelic name, Dùn Breatainn, means “fort of the Britons”, which gives you a little idea of how ancient this place is. Dumbarton’s overpowering symbol of ancient might is Dumbarton Castle, an edifice of stone which sits with its back to the huge, volcanic Dumbarton Rock. This rock has been the center of the town’s defense since at least the Iron Age. Imagine it: some of this town’s earliest citizens traded with the Romans. The history of Dumbarton through the Dark Ages is…well…dark, but it’s speculated that this area was at war with the Picts, and Merlin may have stayed here in the 570s. According to Historic Scotland, “Dumbarton Rock is everything one imagines a mighty Dark-Age stronghold to have been.
The volcanic rock rises up almost sheer from the murky waters that swirl around its base, and from its twin peaks – White Tower Crag and the Beak – you can see for miles.” A little-known fact is that in the Dark Ages and Medieval times the Norwegian border was located only a few miles from Dumbarton, which made this fortress all the more strategic. The castle was revamped and rebuilt over the years, weathering storms and battles, and would not rest in peace until 1941 when Dumbarton Rock was bombarded by another enemy–the Nazis. This is a castle that has seen 1,500 years of use. Quite a record. Though little if any of the structure remains from Dark Age and Medieval times, and is instead 17th and 18th century architecture, Dumbarton Castle can still be visited today for a £4.50 ticket.

Clyde vista by baaker2009
Clyde vista, a photo by baaker2009 on Flickr.

But there’s more to Dumbarton than its famous castle. 
  • Some speculate that Saint Patrick was born here (perhaps this has something to do with the nearby Kilpatrick Hills?). 
  • When the Black Death consumed Britain in the 14th century, Dumbarton was acutely affected, then in the 15th century much of the town was burned to the ground! Perhaps this is the toughness and savvy that the Vietnam veteran was thinking about. 
  • Before the Clyde became a major shipbuilding area, Dumbarton’s most important non-cottage industry was glassmaking. The Dixons (one of the richest families in Scotland in the 18th century) built numerous glass kilns that eventually “dominated the skyline”. Glass for bottles, windows, etc. were produced here for some time, but after a series of Dixon deaths the entire industry came to a standstill.
  • Dumbarton-distillery by baaker2009
    Dumbarton-distillery, a photo by baaker2009 on Flickr. 
  • Glassmaking gave way to shipbuilding, as I have detailed elsewhere, and shipbuilding eventually gave way to whisky distilling. Pictures of Dumbarton are still dominated by the “Ballantine’s” logo; Ballantine’s blended whisky’s flavor is supposedly “dependent on 50 single malts.” In 2002 “the large Dumbarton Grain distillery was mothballed”, a sign of the decline of whisky production in the Clyde area and Scotland as a whole. Here’s a fun fact about Ballantine’s: before the advent of CCTV cameras, a noisy flock of Chinese Geese called the “Scotch Watch” guarded Ballantine’s precious whisky. Apparently geese have been used as guards since Roman times, and it seems that this was an effective move for Ballantine’s–as far as marketing goes, at least. Believe it or not, here’s a video of the history of Ballantine’s recreated in sand art, complete with watchful fowl.

    Dumbarton fans celebrate the first goal by Tom Brogan
    Dumbarton fans celebrate the first goal, a photo by Tom Brogan on Flickr. 

    Today Dumbarton is largely a commuter town for Glasgow (where this blog will soon be headed!), but the locals are still passionate about their little slice of paradise. 

    • The Dumbarton Golf Club was established for shipyard workers by “the town’s illustrious shipbuilding sons” after they saw the Old Course at St. Andrews. Its 18-hole course is still busy today. 
    • Don’t get between the citizens of Dumbarton and their football! Dumbarton F.C. games are played in a stadium appropriately nicknamed “The Rock”. 
    • Dumbarton rock by weedavid
      Dumbarton rock, a photo by weedavid on Flickr. 
    • And let’s not forget the Royal Scottish Pipe Band Championships, which have been held in Dumbarton since 2000. It is described as “one of the biggest and most prestigious pipe band events in the world.” Even if you can’t stand bagpipes, it might be worth it just to see some awesome Highland dancing.
    Past-Dumbarton by baaker2009
    Past-Dumbarton, a photo by baaker2009 on Flickr.

    First photo: Snowy-Dumbarton, a photo by baaker2009 on Flickr.


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    Written by Abigail Young

    I've had a passion for everything British my entire life, despite being raised as a small-town girl in the American Midwest, After years of dreaming, I got the chance to live and work in England for an entire year. Now I write about my favorite country, and hopefully inspire my fellow Britophiles to get over there and experience it for themselves.

    This article has 2 comments

    1. J_on_tour@jayzspaze Reply

      Dumbarton is so underrated here as it is perceived in addition to what you say as a commuter town but as a passing place in the opposite direction to where the scenery starts to improve with the mountains and lochs. Superb choice of images. by the way.

      You have whetted my appetite with the Glasgow word !! …

      (PS I’ve no idea what your page views are like Abby, but you might be interested to know that my Glasgow posts create more interest from unrelated followers than any other post I have done by a sizeable margin. I have no idea why that is ahead of places like York, Edinburgh and even London. It did take a long time though… as an example the post I did in Nov 2010 had 46 page views last week from google hits. I hope that fact excites and encourages you. )

      • Abby Rogers Reply

        Thank you, J! I’m glad I’ve done a little to inform the world about this undiscovered gem 🙂

        That bit about pageviews does excite me! It’s alarming how few people search for places like “Baldernock.” And I know what you mean about delayed interest–for some weird reason one of my earliest and worst posts (written before I started going from North to South) is one of my all-time most popular! Grrr.

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