Dumbarton lies slightly inland from the north bank of the River Clyde and astride the River Leven, flowing south from Loch Lomond. It has a history which can be traced, in fact or legend, back to the birth here of St Patrick in AD397.
The key to Dumbarton's history is in the double pointed volcanic plug of rock (see below left) now home to Dumbarton Castle. At least as far back as the iron age (and probably much earlier) this has been the site of a strategically important settlement, whose residents were known to have traded with the Romans. The presence of a settlement here is first recorded in a letter St Patrick wrote to King Ceretic, the British King of Strathclyde at Alcluith (or Clyde Rock) in about AD450.
The Dark Age history of Alcluith is unclear, though the King of the Britons of Strathclyde in the 570s was Rhydderch Hael, who features in Norse legends. It is said that during his reign Merlin stayed at Alcluith. Two centuries later, in 756, the first (and second) losses of Dumbarton Rock were recorded. A joint force of Picts and Northumbrians captured Alcluith after a siege, only to lose it again a few days later. And in 780 Alcluith was burned down: who by, and why, is unclear.
By 870 Dumbarton Rock was home to a tightly packed British settlement that served as a fortress and as the capital of Strathclyde. Buildings would have occupied every even vaguely flat space on the rock. But then the Vikings attacked: Ivar Beinlaus en route from capturing York, and Olaf the White from Ireland. They besieged Alcluith for 15 weeks before destroying it, and carrying the loot and the survivors off as slaves to Ireland in a fleet of 200 longships.
The Kingdom of Strathclyde remained a separate force in Scottish history until 1018, when Malcolm II incorporated it following his defeat of the Northumbrians at the Battle of Carham. The focus of the settlement that went on to become today's Dumbarton was established on a bend in the River Leven half a mile north of Dumbarton Rock, becoming a Royal Burgh in 1222. The rock itself became home to a Royal Castle.
The name "Dumbarton" refers back to its origins, coming from the Scottish Gaelic Dun Breatainn meaning fortress of the Britons. Until 1450 it was known as Dunbretane. How the "n" in the name became an "m" seems unclear, but the later evolution of what was Dumbartonshire into, since the early 1900s, Dunbartonshire, gives rise to one of the most confusing inconsistencies in Scottish place names.
Dumbarton was badly hit by the black death in 1350 and much of it burned down in 1424. But by the 1600s it was an important port with trade routes as afar afield as the West Indies. By 1800 it was Scotland's largest producer of glass, for bottles and windows.
Shipbuilding first became a really major industry in the town in the early 1800s, with a paddle steamer called Dumbarton Rock being built by Archibald McLachlan in 1815. In 1818 Willian Denny built the Rob Roy in Dumbarton, which went on to become the first steam powered ferry crossing the English Channel.
William Denny and Brothers became the most productive and longest lasting, shipyard in Dumbarton. Amongst the most famous of the vessels it produced was the Cutty Sark (though this was actually begun in another yard) as well as many steamers that went on to see service in Scottish waters and throughout the world.
Denny closed in 1963, though not before spending the years of the Second World War building Sunderland Flying Boats at Dumbarton. More recent industrial ventures have included the building of Scotland's largest grain distillery on the site of an old shipyard in 1938. A detail of the header photo shows this, in turn, under demolition.
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