Dumbarton Castle

An impressive crag similar to those of Edinburgh or Stirling, set in former marshes on the side of the River Clyde.

The ‘castle' may have first been mentioned by Nennius in the ninth century as the Fort of the Britons (Cair Brithon) when he listed 28 cities of Sub-Roman Britain.  However, the argument that this is the site of Alt Clut or Alcluith is not fully substantiated, though widely believed.  The castle's first certain mention comes on 28 July 1238 when Maldouen was confirmed in the earldom of Lennox apart from Dumbarton (Dunbretane) castle which was retained by King Alexander II.  From the name given in this charter Dumbarton is said to stand for Dun Briton, or the fortress of the Britons which logically links back to Nennius.  It would seem that the earls did not reacquire the castle on the death of either King Alexander, as in 1291 it was one of the 22 royal castles of Scotland garrisoned by Edward I.  Apparently King Edward granted the castle back to Earl Malcolm Lennox who died in 1303, for on 15 June 1306, after the revolt of his son, another Earl Malcolm of Lennox, in favour of Robert Bruce, Edward ordered Sheriff John Menteith of Lennox to take seisen of the earldom with the castle of Dumbarton (Dumbretan).  Traditionally Menteith is said to have brought William Wallace to the castle after his capture near Glasgow on 5 August 1305.  Certainly he was custodian and guardian of the castle for Edward I that year.  Perhaps in reality Edward was holding the castle and allowing the lands to belong to the holders - as he did with Bothwell and various Welsh castles.

It therefore seems likely that Dumbarton castle was a stronghold of the earls of Lennox from the twelfth 
century, though who converted it from a defensible rock into a castle is unknown.  The castle was still held by John Menteith on 14 December 1307, but soon afterwards was retaken by forces loyal to King Robert Bruce who then garrisoned the fortress for himself.  In 1320 it became the prison of William Soulis who was alleged to have plotted an anti-Bruce rebellion.  He was apparently put to death here a little before 20 April 1321, probably as he was another claimant to the Scottish throne.  It was soon afterwards, on 14 July 1321, that Bruce ‘for his good deeds and services, restored to his keeping Dumbarton castle, with the office of sheriff of Lennox'.  However, a clause provided that if the castle was reclaimed by the Crown from the earls of Lennox against their will, a sum of 500 marks (£333 6s 8d) should be paid yearly to the earls until they regained possession.  Quite obviously this clause seems to hark back to events in 1238 and possibly later.  Despite this grant, it seems clear that the castle did not remain in the hands of Lennox and his heirs and soon reverted to the kings of Scotland.

After the Scottish defeat at Halidon Hill in 1333, King David II (d.1371) and his young wife, Joan of The Tower (d.1362), were sheltered in Dumbarton castle before being whisked away to France.  At the time the fortress was described by Wynton as the principal fortress of Scotland and under the control of Malcolm Fleming.   By 1394, Earl Duncan of Lennox (d.1425) had a cleric, Walter Danielston, in his earldom.  It would seem that Earl Duncan was in control of the castle then, for in either 1397 or 1398 Walter seized Dumbarton and thereby acquired the bishopric of St. Andrews in 1402 at the insistence of Robert Stewart, first duke of Albany, who had promised him the position in return for handing over the castle.  The deed was done, but Walter died that very year before taking up his new office.  Duke Robert died in 1420 and the castle was apparently taken back over by the Crown.  Certainly in 1425 the castle was held for the Crown by John Colquhoun when it was attacked by James the Fat, the youngest son of Duke Murdoch Stewart of Albany.  The town of Dumbarton was burned, but the castle held out.  In 1443 the castle changed hands thrice when it was still in the hands of the Crown.  Patrick Galbraith, from a family that had been stewards in Lennox from at least 1313, made an exchange of Kildrummy for Dumbarton castle with the government and Patrick Galbraith.  As the delivery of Dumbarton was not forthcoming, Patrick took the castle from its deputy keeper, Sir Robert Sempill of Fulwood, who then returned and ejected Partick in turn.  Patrick returned the next day with an armed force and slew Semphill, thus finally taking control of the castle.  Robert was still living in 1456.

On 10 October 1488, Earl John Stewart of Lennox and his eldest son, Matthew (d.1513), were made keepers of Dumbarton castle, taking the castle back into the control of their lordship.  The next year they met in the castle with other former supporters of King James III (1460-88) , but were subsequently defeated in battle by King James IV (d.1513) near Stirling on 11/12 October 1489.  After 2 short sieges the king resumed control of Dumbarton castle and used it as the west coast base for his navy and subsequently campaigned to subdue the Western Isles, remaining at Dumbarton for much of November 1489.  In 1494 a row barge was made there for the king using timber from Loch Lomond.  In 1505 Dumbarton was again the king's base for visiting the Western Isles.  After Flodden, where his father had died with his king, Earl John of Lennox seized the fortress and in September 1515 Regent Albany held court at Dumbarton.  There he received Thomas Benolt, the English Clarenceux King of Arms.  Regent Albany finally returned to France from Dumbarton in 1524.

The castle was back under Lennox control in 1526 when John Stewart, third earl of Lennox, fortified Dumbarton against the Douglas faction who had control of the young King James V (1542).  However his forces were defeated by Archibald Douglas, sixth earl of Angus, at the battle of Linlithgow Bridge.  Later in his personal reign, James V used the castle as a prison for those convicted at the justice ayre, receiving their fines and composition payments in 1539.  In 1540 James circumnavigated Scotland from the Forth and arrived at Dumbarton with Cardinal Beaton and the earls of Huntly and Arran.  This expedition was later published by Nicolas Nicolay Seigneur d'Arfeville, cosmographer to the king of France, in 1583, with the first modern map of Scotland's coastline.

Earl Matthew of Lennox had been an ally of the French party in Scotland led by Mary of Guise and later committed himself to the pro-English faction.  In 1544 Lennox went into England, leaving the castle in the keeping of William Stirling of Glorat.  In May 1545 Lennox tried to take his castle back, with soldiers commanded by his brother, Bishop Robert Stewart of Caithness.  He had sailed from Chester with around 20 followers in May 1546 in the Katherine Goodman and a pinnace.  Subsequently Regent Arran besieged the castle with a superior force, having borrowed artillery from the earl of Argyle.  The castle surrendered after a 20 day siege.

The young Mary, Queen of Scots was sheltering in the castle by 22 February 1548 when Alexander Cunningham, fifth earl of Glencairn, wrote to Queen Mary of Guise from Dumbarton that he had received a French cargo and that it would be as safe as if it were in Stirling castle.  The Queen Regent appeared at the castle in the first days of May 1548 and before Mary, Queen of Scots was supposed to be embarked for France and safety on 13 July.  The sailing was delayed by adverse winds until 7 August and then the fleet sailed around the west coast of Ireland to avoid English ships.

In 1557 five hundred Gascon soldiers arrived at Dumbarton destined to serve on the borders against the English for Mary of Guise according to rumour.  Eleven years later, after the battle of Langside, John Fleming, the keeper of Dumbarton castle went with Queen Mary into England but was allowed to return.  After the assassination of Regent Moray, the assassin, James Hamilton of Bothwellhaugh, was welcomed at Dumbarton castle where Fleming's defence of the fortress for Mary was satirized in a ballad printed in May 1570, The tressoun of Dumbertane.  In October 1570 the castle was further fortified for Mary against the supporters of James VI, with stones being obtained by demolishing churches and houses in Dumbarton and Cardross.  Despite this, the castle was captured by the forces of Regent Lennox in the early hours of 2 April 1571.  The attackers spent all night using ladders and ropes to scale the rock between the duke of Argyll's and the round battery and surprise the garrison.  They then managed to storm the scarcely defended Beak and blast the rest of the castle - consisting of sundry houses, viz. The Wallace tower, the White tower, the Windy hall, the chamber between the crags and the outer bailey (now occupied by the governor's house) - into surrender.

There are royal records of works going on at the castle in 1617, 1618, and 1628-9.  In June 1618 masons were working on the upper storey of a replacement for the earlier Wallace tower when it was decided to make the tower larger.  Externally it and a bell house on the S side were finished with a lime plaster called harling.  By 1627 the castle was described as neglected.  Subsequent records show work on the artillery and the 'foir yet wall', a defence on the south side.  In November 1645 the Committee of Estates approved the recruitment of 30 extra soldiers to guard the increased number of prisoners kept there.  This suggests that the castle was already being seen as redundant, although threats posed by Jacobites and the French in the 18th 
century saw new structures and defences being built, while the castle was garrisoned until World War II.

Several lists of the castle's contents survive, including inventories from 1510, 1571, 1580, 1644, and 1668.  These list guns and furniture and name many locations in the castle.  In 1510 St Patrick's chapel contained an old parchment mass book, a pewter chalice, and liturgical cloths.  The hall had four tables and next to that was a chalmer of Dess, a 'solar' in English terms with a bed.  The Wallace tower was protected with an iron yett and draw bar and there were bedchambers within and a bell at the head of the tower.  The 'Wynde Hall' contained yet another bed.  In 1571 amongst the cannon and guns there was a 'gross culverin', two small 'batteris', and a French 'moyen' mounted for use on the walls.  Another moyen was suitable for action in the field.  There were 2 falcons made in Brittany set on the walls, a quarter falcon and a "double barse".  Provisions included 11 hogshead of biscuits.  Some of the guns were subsequently taken to besiege Edinburgh castle during the Marian civil war.  On 27 August 1580, there were 6 large cannon, while the bed in the chamber of dais was now described as 'ane stand bed of eistland tymmar with ruf and pannell of the same'.

By 1644, when John Sempill was made keeper, the 'Chamber of deisse' still contained a bed with a chamber pot and truckle bed for a servant, but it also contained armaments.  There were twelve ram-rods, and three worms' - screws for unloading guns - three hagbuts and an iron flail.  The hall contained 12 broken pikes with 4 without their iron blades.  The contents of the armoury included 33 corslets, 105 helmets, and 43 swords.  In 1668 Governor Francis Montgomerie of Giffin recorded that the first floor of a lodging called the 'new chamber' contained 'a quantity of old rusty guns and sword, so rusted, broke and spoiled that they can never serve for any use', above the beds were 'insufficient' and in the top room there were spoiled matches.  Further the windows of this new lodging were broken.  Montgomerie was also worried about the water-supply from the loch and the 'laigh' low well.

The castle covered 2 volcanic outcrops and the saddle in between on the edge of the marshy River Clyde.  This, apart from the marsh, is reminiscent of Degannwy castle in Clwyd, Wales, another site dating back to Roman times.  It has been suggested that an early church stood on Dumbarton rock as two gravestones were found near the governor's house that were thought to date back to the tenth 
century.  Either these came from a local church as suggested, or, more likely, were brought here when the castle was refortified from the remains of nearby churches in 1570.

Entrance to the rock was mainly gained from the south.  The early fortifications here where replaced by the governor's house and associated defences after the fifteenth
century.  From this lower defended ground egress up the rock was gained via a steep ravine currently housing some 547 steps which lead up to the flatter ground between the two crags which make up Dumbarton castle.  Where the ravine opens out into flatter ground is the portcullis arch which is thought to be fourteenth century.  The tall gate consists of a pointed segmental arch of 2 orders and contained a portcullis that may have been operated from a small house set on top of the wall.  This ‘house' was in use as a gunnery store into the eighteenth century.  The opposite north entry was protected by a curtain with gate, which was overlooked by a structure built into the current remains of the rectangular Wallace Tower.  The erection of this tower is recorded in 1617, but it is clearly based upon an older structure.  It is probably on the platform between the two summits that the medieval structures of Windy hall and ‘the chamber between the crags' stood.  Certainly there is a well here.

From the east side of the governor's house at the 
south base of the rock, a curtain wall runs in a series of straight lines around the rock's west side to the Bower battery at the north-west angle.  There is then a gap of 200', under the precipitous White Tower crag, until the wall resumes with the One Gun battery, the Duke of York's battery and finally the Wallace Tower blocking the site of the north entry.  Note at the apex of the One Gun battery is a round turret.  This is the remains of a medieval circular tower adapted in the eighteenth century.  From here the wall runs along the edge of the east crag known as The Beak until it terminates at the south-east corner of the rock, some 150' from the beginning, east of the governor's house, but on the summit, rather than the base of the rock.  The noerh curtain was rebuilt on the orders of General Wade in 1728, so possibly the wall at the base of this is medieval.

Two sketches drawn between 1678 and 1693 show a northern gate protected by the 5 storey Wallace Tower and several buildings standing on The Beak, while the White tower stands at least 10' high on the summit.  The 
south side shows a heavily fortified gate with two protecting round towers set some distance back from the entrance on either side.  Next to this was a tall rectangular towerhouse from which the curtain led off to the west and around the side of the White Tower crag.  Some medieval traces of these could well be underlying the present curtain walls.  Within this defended area, and next to the governor's house, is a revetment wall which, when examined closely, shows blocked window loops.  Quite possibly this is the original castle hall, now buried under the later earthworks.  The buildings on The Beak were swept away in the late eighteenth century when the barrel-vaulted magazine was constructed.

Why not join me at Dumbarton and other Great Scottish Castles this Spring?  Information on tours at Scholarly Sojourns.


Copyright©2016 Paul Martin Remfry