Hamilton lies some 11 miles south-east of Glasgow and close to the confluence of the Avon Water and the River Clyde on the west side of the Clyde Valley. Since the 1960s the town has also lain on the east side of the M74 as it makes its way up to Glasgow: you know when you are getting close to Glasgow when you pass the Hamilton motorway service area.
And, ironically, it is very close to the motorway service area that you find the reason for Hamilton's growth and its name. For only a short distance away, and looking for all the world like a vast pepper pot, is the Hamilton Mausoleum built in the 1850s for the 10th Duke of Hamilton as a chapel and tomb. The claim made by some that this is the largest mausoleum this side of the pyramids seems a bit extreme, but it certainly makes a statement that can be seen for miles in every direction.
The early story of Hamilton is a story of two castles and one family, the Hamilton family. A certain Walter Fitzgilbert from Homildon in Northumberland was granted estates in the Clyde Valley in the 1320s by Robert the Bruce. His fortification of his estates included the development of a royal hunting lodge a little south-east of today's Hamilton into Cadzow Castle, and another castle closer to the River Clyde, east of today's town. Today's (ruinous) Cadzow Castle, in Chatelherault County Park, is actually a different castle built in about 1540 and renamed in the 1800s.
The family took their place of origin as their name - Homildon - and this had become Hamilton by the time Lord James Hamilton obtained for the town a burgh charter in 1455, changing its name from Cadzow to Hamilton. At the same time the Hamilton family moved their main residence from the original Cadzow Castle to their castle in the Clyde Valley to the east of Hamilton.
Hamilton Palace was continuously developed from the 1400s onwards, and the town of Hamilton grew in importance alongside the family whose name it had been given. In the 1470s Lord Hamilton married Princess Mary Stewart, sister of James III, and the family's place in the premier division of Scottish nobility was secured. By 1560 the Hamilton Earl of Arran and Duke of Chatelherault was the most important person in Scotland not in the immediate royal family. And in 1643 the then head of the family became the Duke of Hamilton.
All the while Hamilton Palace was being remodelled, improved and updated to match the tastes of the day, and all the time Hamilton itself was steadily growing as a settlement. The then Lord Hamilton had founded a college in the town in 1451; a parish school appeared in 1570; and one of Scotland's first post offices was established in Hamilton in 1642. By the end of the 1700s Hamilton was on a crossroads of turnpike roads serving Glasgow and Carlisle, and Edinburgh and Kilmarnock. The railways arrived in the mid 1800s, and iron smelting and coal mining began to have an impact on the area around the town.
The Hamilton's fortune suffered badly in the 1870s because of a depression in farming and the result was a huge auction of their furniture at the Palace. In the late 1880s the Hamiltons tried to establish a race course on their estate, but like an earlier attempt in the late 1700s it failed (though horse racing does take place there today).
By 1910 the Hamilton estate's remaining wealth depended almost entirely on coal mining, and the fateful decision was taken to allow mining underneath Hamilton Palace itself. The predictable result was subsidence that threatened the structure of the palace, which was dismantled during the 1920s. A more recent interpretation is that the decision to allow mining under the palace was intended to give the Hamilton's the excuse they needed to rid themselves of what had become a financial millstone.
Whatever the truth, during the dismantling of the Palace it became clear that it had been built on top of enormous foundations dating from a much earlier, and very substantial, castle: and it was probably to this Hamilton Castle that the Hamilton's moved in 1455, later developing around themselves into the now sadly long gone Hamilton Palace, whose cleared site was later built over by the M74. All that remains today is the Hamilton Mausoleum.
In 2007 the town's Bell College merged with the University of Paisley to form the University of the West of Scotland giving Hamilton, for the first time, its own university campus.