Dumbarton Castle, one of the mightiest castles in Scotland, sits high on a volcanic rock overlooking the junction of the Rivers Leven and Clyde close to the town of Dumbarton on the north bank of the River Clyde.
Turn the clock back to the Dark Age (Early Historic Age) and Dumbarton Rock was the site of “Dun Breatann” or fortress of the Britons, which lay at the heart of the ancient Kingdom of Strathclyde, one of a patchwork of competing kingdoms that rose then declined in what was a volatile and constantly changing political landscape.
The earliest mention of the Rock is dated to around AD 450 when St Patrick wrote to Coroticus of Alcluith, King of Strathclyde condemning him for, taking slaves after a raid on some of his Irish converts. However in the words of Historic Environment Scotland this story is assigned to “seventh century tradition’ although other respected scholars take different views on this matter.
Whatever the truth about his birthplace, it is not disputed that he was taken to Ireland as a slave at the age of 16. So although St Patrick is arguably Ireland’s most famous person and might well have a connection with Strathclyde, it’s been an impossible task for historians to untangle the reality from the myth.
Annals of Ulster
Despite its lofty and seemingly unassailable position, the castle was a constant target for those determined to gain a strategic advantage in the region. Its first recorded fall, tentatively dated to AD 756, was to a combined force of Picts and Northumbrians, under Eadberct and Angus mac Fergus. Victory celebrations however were understandably brief as the Rock once again changed hands within days. The Annals of Ulster record a “burning” of Dumbarton in 780 and a later siege described by the Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments of Scotland (RCAHMS) as Hiberno-Norse and dated to AD 871-872.
Dumbarton was made a free burgh by Alexander II in 1222, its Rock with its “new castle” was mentioned in the foundation charter. With Norse control of some of the islands to the west, the castle was of major strategic importance and remained so until the their defeat at the Battle of Largs in 1263 and the subsequent Treaty of Perth signed three years later.
During the late 13th and early 14th centuries a number of ‘traditions’ were established at the castle. It became a royal refuge, a transit point for safer shores, and notably it became a place of incarceration for men taken in the many conflicts and political intrigues that unfolded over the following centuries.
In 1297 for example, the first recorded prisoners were confined to the castle following William Wallace’s famous victory over English forces at Stirling Bridge.
James VI (I of England) also found the castle useful for locking up some of the country’s troublesome malcontents. Among them the Earl of Morton in 1581, Archibald MacDonald of Gigha in 1605 and Patrick Stewart, second Earl of Orkney, one of Scotland’s most unpleasant historical characters ‘resided’ between 1612 and 1614 before losing his head to the swing of the Edinburgh executioner’s axe in 1615.
Following the 1745 Rebellion, Jacobite prisoners were held there and later the castle’s French Prison, built around 1770, housed more prisoners taken in the Napoleonic Wars.
Dumbarton Castle: staging post
Dumbarton Castle was cold, damp and exposed to Scotland’s west coast gales, it wasn’t the most comfortable of residences yet it became an important staging post for a number of royal visitors. Testimony in 1634, from castle governor Sir John Maxwell of Pollock, provided some corroboration for the grim and depressing living conditions. Bemoaning the fact that the hall was not water-fast and that the barns and stables were ruinous and the walls of the Nether Bailey so rotten that they could not, “hold out beasts, let be men.” He declared, “No honest man could dwell within.”
By 1547 a catastrophic Scottish defeat at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh (close to Edinburgh) was a conflict that marked a turning point in the country. Pinkie was the last throw of the dice in Henry VIII Rough Wooing campaign, an attempt to force the young Mary Queen of Scots into marriage with his son Edward. Although Henry had died in the January of that year England’s Regent the Duke of Somerset continued the fight, victorious at Pinkie but unable to force the marriage between Mary and Edward.
Earl of Arran
It was to the French that Scotland’s Regent, the Earl of Arran turned to and Mary, a mere pawn in the ongoing political machinations of the period, was promised to the Dauphin Francis, son of Henry II and heir to the French throne.
In the summer of 1548 Mary, aged only five, made a tearful departure from Dumbarton Castle, accompanied by her two royal half brothers Robert and John Stewart, her guardian Lord Erskine her governess and her companions the ‘Four Maries’: Mary Fleming, Mary Beaton, Mary Livingston and Mary Seton.
Of course no story of Scotland is complete without mentioning Oliver Cromwell and true to form the Lord Protector played his part in Dumbarton Castle’s story. Following the Scottish defeat at the Battle of Dunbar in 1650 Cromwell effectively controlled Scotland and Dumbarton Castle in much the same way as other fortresses surrendered without a fight.
Today this historic Scottish castle is one of the country’s most important visitor attractions, providing a vivid reminder of the region’s long and often turbulent history.