Wednesday 24 September 2014

Dumbarton Castle: A Walkround


The weather was beautiful last weekend, quite unusually warm and clear for the time of year.  On a whim, I decided to take my 2 younger children on a visit to nearby Dumbarton Castle in the afternoon.  After all, I'm already a paid up member of Historic Scotland (who own the castle), so we get free entry!

This aerial shot isn't my own picture, but it gives a good overview of the site.  I'll use a scaled-down and sepia-toned version of this picture during the rest of this article to indicate where my own pictures were taken. 
Dumbarton Rock is a volcanic plug that sits where the river Leven flows into the much larger river Clyde.  Although the site has been used for many centuries, most of the current configuration is a Napoleonic coastal defence fortress, built to protect the city of Glasgow some 10 miles further up the Clyde.

The rock itself consists of 2 peaks with a narrow gulley between them.  At some points, the cliffs around the perimeter are very steep, so that walls are only present around the north and south edges of the castle.  I guess that there was never a realistic chance of anyone attacking by scaling the east or west faces!

A Brief History

View from the west, across the mouth of the river Leven
This site has at least many hundreds, if not thousands of years of history.  I'm not going to even try to list them all, but here are a few highlights:

  • The name of the town derives from the fort: Dum (or Dun) is a hill fort and Barton is a corruption of "Briton".  Thus, the fort of the Britons.
  • Dumbarton castle was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Strathclyde (i.e. the Strathclyde Welsh faction in the Studio Tomahawk's very popular SAGA wargames rules).
  • In 870AD, 200 Viking ships besieged the rock for 4 months and carried off loot and slaves to Dublin when the well dried up and the castle fell.
  • Both William Wallace and Mary, Queen of Scots passed through the castle; the former on his way to execution in London and the latter on her way to France to live out her childhood.
  • As a royal castle (i.e. one owned by the monarch rather than one of his lords), Dumbarton castle was often used to hold important prisoners of state, for example after the Jacobite uprisings.
  • Later, the castle housed French prisoners of war during the Napoleonic wars, including General Simon who was captured at the battle of Busaco (1810).

The South, River Face

Starting near the entrance, just below the Governor's house, is the King George battery of 12pdr cannon.  This is one of the larger batteries in the fortress; it protects the most easily accessible part of the rock and consists of maybe 4 or 5 guns (most of the batteries have their cannon still in place, but a few are missing).

How do I know that these are 12pdr guns?  Well, there are various marks on the cast iron, either on the carriages or on the gun barrels themselves.  I've always been fascinated by the amount of information present, though I suspect that most visitors aren't even aware of it.

From the top, clockwise:
  • "12Pr" is the weight of the cannonball that the gun would have fired.
  • The broad arrowhead denotes "Government property".  It's probably better known on the clothing worn by convicts, but the meaning is just the same!
  • The date of this carriage is "16-3-7", or in other words 16th March, 1807.
  • The crest with "GR" under it will be for the king.  "Georgius Rex" is, of course, Latin for King George.  I'm guessing that this will be George III as he was on the throne from 1760 to 1820, which is the right time period for this type of gun.
  • There are a series of horizontal marks at the rear end of the cannon.  These are for range finding: the gunner would choose the mark for the desired range and look along the side of the barrel to line it up with a single notch at the muzzle of the cannon.  Assuming that line also passed through the intended target then he would be aiming correctly!

Around the south wall. the path goes up and down a lot as it hugs the steep side of the rock.  There are 2 or 3 small batteries, each of 1 or 2 cannon, wherever there is a slightly wider point.

At the far end (the Spanish Battery), there is no cannon.  All that's left are the flagstones on which it would have sat and an iron ring in the side of the cliff.

The Central Cleft

To get into the main part of the castle, it is necessary to climb the gulley that runs between the 2 peaks of the rock.  Even though the modern stairs are well constructed, it is easy to see how hard it would be to assault this position.  There are 2 guardhouses on the route and one of them has a portcullis as well!

The French Prison, where prisoners from the Napoleonic wars were held
At the top of the cleft there is a flatter piece of land.  This is large enough to have some buildings on it, including the foundations of the late medieval gatehouse which gave entrance to the castle from the north-west.  There is a small flight of stairs down to the well, but the area is dominated by the French Prison.  Sadly, it's not possible to see inside this building; it's undergoing restoration work and may be opened to the public when this is completed.  I can't help wondering just how many people were held in here...

The Lesser Hill

The Duke of Argyll's battery
Moving up the smaller, flatter mound to the east, we come to the Duke of Argyll's Battery of 3 x 18pdr cannon.  These are the heaviest guns in the fort, but they're pointing up the river Leven towards Loch Lomond and the Highlands.  It seems to me that they wouldn't have been much use against an invading foreign fleet - though any land army coming from the north would have been easy targets.  Perhaps the battery was placed here simply because they could?

Slightly further around there is a good view of the stadium for Dumbarton Football Club.  Apparently, the castle is closed to visitors on the days of big matches!  It does show just how flat and open the land to the north is, at least for a mile or two.

The Prince Regent's Battery is next.  This also faces landwards, but has slightly lighter guns (1 x 12pdr and 2 x 6pdr).  Once again, the field of fire is excellent and it's hard to imagine how a successful attack could be mounted from this direction.

Perched on top of the lesser hill is the Magazine.  I had great arguments with my 9-year old daughter, who insisted (still does) that a magazine was a kind of comic book.  She just wouldn't accept that it's also the name for a place where ammunition is stored.
Many of the design features of this type of magazine are explained on boards nearby; all are designed to keep the gunpowder dry but to prevent an explosion - or at least to limit the damage if the worst should happen.  The most obvious such measure are the double walls around the building itself; if the magazine blows up then the explosion will go upwards instead of outwards!

Musketry loopholes and a rather nice little 2-storey sentry box/lookout post.
There is little provision for muskets in Dumbarton castle, but to the north east one wall has a number of firing ports.  It seems to me that the range would be fairly extreme for a smooth bore musket, even to the closest point outside the fortress.  I must be missing something here; I imagine that the builders of the fortifications knew what they were doing and that these weren't just for show.

Looking west from the lesser peak towards the taller mound.  The gulley between them isn't very obvious in this picture.
There's not much evidence of human construction on the tops of the castle rock.  However this picture does demonstrate how rugged are the sides of the rock and what a good viewpoint it makes.  No wonder that it has been popular as a fort for as long as people have been in the area!

The Western Peak

The path up to the taller, western part of the rock is steep and tortuous.  Apparently General Simon, the French prisoner, was allowed to walk this way twice a day as a special privilege.  He was accompanied by 2 guards during these excursions, mind!

From the top of the hill, the modern town of Dumbarton can be seen spreading out to the north and west.  In this picture you can clearly spot the double-walled magazine on the lesser peak, together with the Duke of Argyll's Battery.  The smaller Prince Regent's Battery is partially hidden, just behind and below the magazine.

Finally, here's the view down the Firth of Clyde.  The Clyde flows from bottom to top, while the river Leven joins from the right.  Any attacking fleet, whether they are Viking longboats or French ships of the line, would be visible for many miles and would have to pass the channel in front of the castle to go anywhere further.  Good luck with that!


  1. I have visited many castles in Scotland, Hugh, but not this one. A fascinating article and a site I would very much like to visit.

    1. It's not the biggest or most important castle around, but it's my local and I think it's fairly unique :-) .

  2. Not a castle I have heard of before (My ignorance seems to be growing) so Ity was nice to get an insight into it. Thanks for showing it.

    1. I think that Dumbarton was the 3rd most important royal castle of medieval & renaissance Scotland, from memory. After Edinburgh and Stirling, of course.

  3. What a really neat post. Could almost imagine myself there. Thanks.

    1. Thanks, Irqan. It was a lovely afternoon out and it pleases me to think that I might have managed to share any of it!

  4. That's worth to be in Wikipedia. Nice article and very detailed background stories as well

    1. Ah, there was so much more that I could have said - and so many more photos as well. However I think I might have risked boring my readers if I'd made the article much longer :-) .

  5. Very interesting post C6, thanks.

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  7. Driven past it hundreds of times, but never been! Will need to see if I can talk the Mrs into a stop off there one day on the way up to Loch Lomond!

    1. Yes, it wouldn't be much of a detour from the A82 at all - just a mile or two. It probably wouldn't take more than a couple of hours, tops, to see around the castle. Just try to visit during good weather as it's pretty much all out of doors (also the views are excellent)!

  8. Great "walk-through" of this very interesting fortress/castle. Your photographs demonstrate beautifully its command of both the land and sea approaches.

    1. It's not the biggest or most "traditional" castle, but it does have a very commanding position in the landscape.

  9. What a beautiful looking place to explore. Thanks for the pics Hugh.

    1. It helps that the weather was really fine as well :-) .

  10. Superb report. Like several others, I live fairly close yet haven't visited.
    It's such an imposing sight from the South bank of the river.
    I'll try to fit a visit in (perhaps next springtime).

    With sites like this, I often wonder whether the guns are still in their authentic positions.
    I can't remember the source (I think it was one of those "Who would win in a fight between Napoleon's army and HMS Victory" sort of speculations). Anyway, one poster quoted an old article saying that no gun below an 18 pounder could expect to penetrate the hull of a ship of the line. - Nelson wins!!

    If so, I'd have the 18 pounders facing down the Clyde, and the smaller "People killers" covering land approaches to the fortress.

    1. You're quite right: I cannot be sure that the guns are in their original positions - or indeed that they are the original cannon. Seems fairly likely, though.

      As to the heavier batteries pointing landwards, maybe the fear of Jacobite armies was greater than that of French or Spanish fleets :-) ?

      I don't buy the argument that a ship of the line would be invulnerable to anything less than an 18pdr, not at all! Even if it were true that a 12pdr shot couldn't penetrate the hull (dubious?), such cannon could still sweep the deck of officers and helmsmen or obliterate the rigging. Either way the man of war would be rendered helpless. In any case, smaller red-hot shot from a land fortress would still be very dangerous to a tarred wooden ship!

  11. Kudos for taking time to prepare such a nice post, it reads really well and the air photos with position marked really help.
    The period between 15th and 20th century is a bit meh for me personally, but looking at the place itself, it really isn't surprising that this place was fortified since forever.
    It must've been quite disappointing to surrender the impenetrable defence post like this after the supplies ran out.

    1. Thanks, Mathyoo! It was indeed quite a time-consuming post to put together, so I'm pleased that you appreciate it :-) .

      As for surrendering the castle, I don't think that *anywhere* is truly impregnable. Given enough time (say 1,000 years), the odds are that *someone* will manage to capture it.

      Mind you, I don't expect that the remaining defenders who were taken into slavery by the Vikings would have been feeling "quite disappointed" :-( .