Nowadays Dumbarton is a small town lying 20 miles to the west of the much larger Glasgow. In the past things were very different due to the ancient castle of Dumbarton. Nestled on a crag overlooking the point where the river Leven meets th river Clyde Dumbarton Castle reminds me of a miniature, less complete version of the better known Edinburgh and Stirling Castles. It may not be as well known but was just as important throughout Scottish history .
There has been a settlement on Dumbarton Rock or Alcloithe (the Clyde rock) as it was formally known since the 5th century (and maybe further back to the Iron Age) when Dumbarton was the capital of the former kingdom of Strahclyde and there have been a least three fortifications on the site. Dumbarton was important in the early medieval era as a frontier against the Vikings and later the Norwegians who controlled the whole of the western seaboard part of Scotland until the battle of Largs in 1263. Dumbarton continued to be an important strategic royal burgh and thus the castle a royal stronghold during tie Middle Ages with Scottish royalty such as Mary Queen of Scots visiting and being imprisoned in the castle. Finally the castle became important again in the 18th century as a fortification against the various Jacobite risings and later against any naval attacks from the French. Most of the castle that remains today date from this final incarnation.
I visited the castle on a beautiful Saturday afternoon in March when the weather was nicer in the west of Scotland than London. I would recommend you visit Dumbarton Castle in fine weather as like most castles it is mainly an outdoor attraction and would be miserable in cold and wet weather.
We came by car and the castle was clearly signpost from the road. Its located near the centre of Dumbarton so it would be easy to get to via train o bus. It's certainly a nice afternoon out if you are based in Glasgow. Historic Scotland who maintain the property provide a free car park, which was easy to get into in March but I'm not sure how busy it would be during peak summer periods.
First stop on our visit was to the 18th century Governor's House which houses the ticket office. Prices are fairly reasonable. We paid £4.20 for an adult ticket whilst children are half price at £2.10 and concessions £3.20. Historic Scotland members get in for free. The ticket office doubled up as a small souvenir shop with a selection of books on castles and Scottish history and some very cute cuddly Highland cows!
Whilst in the Governor's house we stopped to read the clear and interesting interpretation panels on the history of the castle and also to have a look at the small exhibition of artifacts discovered on the castle site. Most of the artifacts were military based and had little interest for me. However there were some medieval gravestones dating as far back as the 10th century which were more to my liking. I found it interesting that scissors marked on a grave meant that a female was buried there.
Once outside the Governor's House it was out in the open for most of our visit. Unfortunately due to the nature of the site with its steep sloped paths and a number of steps, 547 of them to be precise, this is not an attraction that is accessible to those with limited mobility and almost impossible for those in a wheelchair to visit. It is great if you want to keep fit. We headed up the steps through the archway of the 16th century guardhouse an then up to the oldest remaining part of the castle the 14th century Portcullis Archway.
We were disappointed to see that the 18th century French Prison was barricaded off. Perhaps they were doing work to open it up for the public. This would be a great assert to the site, as it would give greater valuer for money especially if it was restored sensitively. I was impressed with the way the 18th century gunpowder magazine had been interpreted with a number of barrels and cut out figures. Simple but effective.
Dumbarton Castle is not an all singing all dancing site. There are no films to watch or buttons to press. It is interpreted very simply by interpretation boards scattered through the site giving information on various aspects of the castle's history. There were plenty of towers to climb and cannons to look at from various gun batteries spread across the site . I think little boys might enjoy these as well as the freedom to run about. (although there was one slight drop along the castle wall that was not barricaded and might be a danger for smaller children).
The main draw for me were the stunning views over the Clyde, Dumbarton and to the hills in the distance. You could see Ben Lomond with the snow still on its peak and right in the very very far distance the top of Glasgow University's tower.
Dumbarton Castle is not facilities rich. There are toilets with baby changing facilities, which could be a little bit cleaner. There are also picnic facilities and I can think of no better place to have a picnic whilst looking out at the Clyde to the hills in the distance, however I did not see any cafe.
I liked the simplicity of Dumbarton Castle and found it not to be too crowded when we visited in March. It had a nice peaceful air about it and did not feel too touristy. I think we spent just over an hour fully exploring the site. Its an attraction I can recommend to those interested in history or those with families with plenty of energy but not for disabled or infirm visitors. If you are on holiday in the west of Scotland and it is a nice day visiting Dumbartn Castle is a very nice way to while away an afternoon.
Dumbarton Castle is open all year but closed Thursdays and Fridays in the winter. For more information please see the Historic Scotland website.
Dumbarton was the centre of the ancient kingdom of Strathclyde from the 5th century until 1018.