Dumbarton Castle has the longest recorded history of any stronghold in Scotland. It overlooks the Scottish town of Dumbarton and guards the point where the River Leven joins the River Clyde. Its recorded history reaches back 1,500 years. At that time the place was known as Alt Clut, ‘Rock of the Clyde’. Later it became known by the Gaelic name Dun Breatann, ‘Fortress of the Britons’, from which the name Dumbarton is derived.

From the 5th century AD until 1018, Dumbarton Rock was the capital of the British kingdom of Strathclyde. Legend tells of Merlin the magician staying at King Riderch’s court there in the 6th century. The Rock was besieged several times, but the Viking assault in 870 was by far the worst. After a four-month siege, Kings Olaf and Ivar of Dublin carried off the slaves and looted treasure in 200 longships.

In the Middle Ages, Dumbarton Rock became an important royal castle. The medieval castle was built by Alexander II of Scotland around 1220 as a bulwark against the threat from Norway, whose kings ruled the Hebrides and the islands in the Clyde. When it was first built, the Norwegian frontier lay just 16km downriver, and Dumbarton served as a Border stronghold. The Battle of Largs in 1263 effectively removed the threat from Norway, but it was soon replaced by an even greater menace from England.

In 1305, during the Wars of Independence with England, William Wallace may have been held prisoner here for a short time, before being taken to London for execution. The Wallace Tower is thought to be named in his honour.

The castle’s geographical position, distanced from the political heartland of the country, reduced its importance somewhat, but it also made it a good postern, or back gate, through which her rulers could come and go with comparative ease. David II (in 1333–4) and Mary Queen of Scots (in 1548) both sheltered here until ships could take them to France and safety.

When Mary returned to Scotland in 1561 to begin her personal reign, she landed at Leith, near Edinburgh on the east coast. Dumbarton’s long and distinguished role as ‘gateway’ was over. However, its role as a garrison fortress continued. Substantial new artillery fortifications were built in the 17th and early 18th centuries. These are what the visitor sees today, for nothing survives from the Dark-Age fortress, and precious little from the medieval castle.

In later centuries, the rock became a formidable garrison fortress, its defences bristling with guns. It last saw military action as recently as the Second World War.

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User Reviews

P D (2 years ago)
Great for a couple of hours. Lots of stairs to walk up and down. Not many facts about the place, worth the price if in the area.
Claire Glenister (2 years ago)
Good exercise to climb/walk up to the top. Uses as many calories as a park run.
Vassilis Manoussos (2 years ago)
A beautiful spot, at the ancient capital of the Kingdom of Strathclyde. A historic castle overseeing the river Clyde. Its canons used to control the entrance and exit of any ship or boat. Worth visiting, with great walks around the walls and a steep climb to the top ... but it is worth the effort. The view is one of a kind. Worth having a Historic Scotland card to visit more sites for a small annual fee
Eaggle L (3 years ago)
A place full of beauty and history. It's definitely worth visiting. It was populated from very ancient times. Moreover, from its ramparts you get too see amazing views of the river and the surrounding areas.
Carol Lennie (3 years ago)
Views looking down Clyde worth the trip. Real star is castle and history stretching so far back. Fascinating
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