Just outside the bustling city of Glasgow, nestled atop the volcanic rock of the Clyde River, sits the magnificent Dumbarton Castle. Dumbarton’s history extends back to the Medieval Era, with many of Scotland’s greatest nobles and warriors visiting this Medieval Castle. In addition to fascinating connections to Scottish wars, Dumbarton Castle is a popular tourist attraction with stunning views.
While climbing up the 500 steps to reach the White Tower Crag isn’t easy, the stunning views out over the River Clyde and the city of Glasgow are absolutely worth the trip. We’ll be breaking down the history of Dumbarton Castle, how to get there, and the top attractions to see while you’re there.
In This Post
History of Dumbarton Castle
Before talking about the important royal castle that is Dumbarton Castle, Dumbarton’s history begins with the rock it is nestled in — Dumbarton Rock. The Rock was formed 330 million years ago when the area where Glasgow now sits was a massive volcanic plug.
It is proposed that Dumbarton Castle’s long history stems from the Dark Ages. It was initially known as “Rock of the Clyde” and later as “Fortress of the Britons” in the local Gaelic tongue. During this time, the Dark Ages Fortress served as an important stronghold against the Norwegian frontier that sat only 10 miles downriver.
And what a mighty fortress it was, overlooking the edge of the joining rivers with twin peaks rising from the volcanic rock. It remained an incredibly intimidating stronghold against the Norse forces and, later, the English.
Late Medieval Era
Throughout the Medieval Era, Dumbarton Castle was a vital royal castle. It is said that Sir John Menteith took a captured William Wallace to Dumbarton Castle before being transferred to London.
In 1425, the castle was assaulted by James the Fat but was repelled by John Colquhoun. The town of Dumbarton, unfortunately, was burnt to the ground, but the Dark Ages fortress managed to hold its own against a rally against the Scottish King, James I.
Rule of James IV
After James IV had defeated John Stewart in October 1489, Dumbarton played an extensive role as the navy base for James IV’s ships and carried out his campaign to dominate the Western Isles. At the time, the Isles were controlled by various Independent Lords, such as Clan MacDonald. Using Dumbarton Castle as a base of operations, James IV managed to overcome the very last of these feudal lords in 1493 and combine the North and West of Scotland into one kingdom.
A mighty feat required a lot of strategy, and during this period of time, Dumbarton Castle was a royal castle of great strategic importance. This sentiment echoed during the time of a Norse-controlled Western Scotland.
Circumnavigation of Scotland
Dumbarton’s importance as an ancient capital for ships continued through to the reign of James V, and the Regent took personal reign while the King was in his infancy. Dumbarton Castle was the finish line in 1540 when James V, along with 500 men, the Earl of Huntly and the Earl of Arran, circumnavigated the Scottish coast.
The venture was incredibly productive and produced the first modern map of the Scottish coastline and cemented this great fortress into the annals of Scottish history. It was during this time, however, that Dumbarton Castle became a garrison fortress rather than a home for Scotland’s monarchs. This trend would eventually lead to the decline of its structure through the remaining centuries.
Mary, Queen of Scots
The elusive Scottish figure of the Mary, Queen of Scots, also resided within Dumbarton Castle for several months before making her escape to France in 1548. During this time, the castle on Clyde Rock was besieged by Regent Arran, which ultimately led to George Stirling of Glorat surrendering the castle to the Regent. However, this siege did delay Arran from arriving at the Siege of St Andrews.
Mary, the young queen, stayed at Dumbarton Castle once more in July of 1563. She attempted to revisit the castle in 1568 but was diverted to England instead.
17th Century until Today
Dumbarton Castle is one of very few castles that has remained since the 17th century, even more impressive considering the castle’s history dates back even further. Throughout the 17th century, there were a few minor repairs done to the castle – most notably the recreation of Wallace Tower. But, by 1627, it was recorded that the castle was in a state of ruin, and one of Scotland’s greatest strongholds began to falter under the advances of time.
During these years, Dumbarton was a prison to many of Scotland’s wars, requiring extra security to maintain the increased number of prisoners. After the death of Oliver Cromwell, the important royal castle saw fewer royal and army visits, with one of the last by Queen Victoria in 1847. Besides minor increases in defences during the Jacobite Rebellions and World War II. During the Second World War, the castle also remained a garrison fortress, the last military action that would take place there.
Today, Dumbarton Rock and Castle is owned by Historic Scotland and managed by Historic Environment Scotland. Home to a dramatic volcanic plug, fascinating military history, and great views, it’s become a popular tourist hot spot with nearly 30,000 visitors each year.
How to Get There & Details to Know
Dumbarton Castle sits just outside of Glasgow, making it an easy attraction visit to fit into a day of sightseeing.
And no matter what time of year you plan Dumbarton Castle, the attraction is open year-round – although opening times differ depending on what time of year you arrive. Between the 1 April and 30 September, Dumbarton Castle is open daily from 9:30 – 17:30, with the last entry at 16:30. During the autumnal and winter months, Dumbarton Castle is still open daily from 10:00 – 16:00, with the last entry at 15:00.
Dumbarton Castle is also closed for lunch between 12:30 – 13:30.
Ticket prices for Dumbarton Castle can vary, but generally, adult tickets cost £7.50, child tickets cost £4.50, and concession tickets cost £6.00. There are several tickets for families, ranging between £15.00 – £25.50.
How to Get There by Car
Dumbarton Castle is a half-hour drive away from Glasgow, with plenty of opportunities to visit the historic site no matter from which point in the city you’re travelling from. Drivers aiming to add Dumbarton to their to-do list should take the M8 out of Glasgow until Old Kilpatrick. From Old Kilpatrick, take the A82 and then Glasgow Road to the town of Dumbarton.
You should see signs leading to Dumbarton Castle, but taking Castle Road is the most direct route to the monument.
How to Get There by Transit
Public Transit allows visitors to reach some of the most beautiful attractions without breaking the bank. From Glasgow, navigate to the Glasgow Queen Street rail station. Grab the Balloch ScotRail line for 12 stops until you reach Dumbarton East.
From the rail station, the tourist attraction is only a 10-minute walk away — an easy trek through stunning Dumbarton to an iconic rock castle.
Attractions at Dumbarton Castle
Once a royal residence and military garrison, Dumbarton is one of the great examples of Scotland’s castle attractions. There are many amazing things to do while you’re visiting Dumbarton Castle, but here are the top to-do’s that everyone who comes to the castle should try to complete.
Ascend to White Tower Crag Peak for Amazing Views
Dumbarton Castle features two iconic round towers – White Tower Crag and Wallace Tower. Both grant stunning views out to Loch Lomond and the surrounding landscape, but it’s White Tower Crag that visitors to Dumbarton can climb and stand atop to enjoy gorgeous views out to Glasgow, Loch Lomond, and where the River Leven and River Clyde meet.
On particularly clear days, guests may be able to see as far as Ben Lomond! On occasion, White Tower Crag can be closed due to intense weather conditions.
Admire the 18th Century Military Architecture
Dumbarton Castle is filled with beautiful stonework and military artefacts, and it’s easy to admire great examples of 18th-century and older architecture if you know what to look out for. Reaching the castle itself is a fair challenge, with many steep steps leading up to the castle entrance. But if you brave the 500-step climb, you can enjoy some of the following highlights:
In 1796, three artillery batteries were built that would grace the walls of Dumbarton Castle. Those gun emplacements still stand for visitors to see today, named Duke of York, Duke of Argyll, and Prince of Wales.
Why not take a picture with Dumbarton’s 18th-century artillery?
The French prison is another 18th-century addition to the castle and the only remaining jail of the castle. During the Napoleonic Wars, this prison would hold French prisoners. Close to the prison, visitors can also find a well deep within the rock, which was likely used during the Dark Ages to set up water for the castle.
Venturing into the deep, dark French prison of Dumbarton Castle is a superb way to not only learn about the later history of Dumbarton Castle (specifically the Napoleonic Wars) but also get a better understanding of how prisoners were kept during the castle’s history.
The Portcullis Arch boasts the title of being the oldest structure of Dumbarton Castle, which can be seen in the weathered and eroded stonework. The Portcullis was likely used to deter and monitor the south entrance, and visitors can see two slots for crossbows on either side.
One of the most exciting attractions of Dumbarton Castle is the Guard House, which contains a rather crude and unflattering carved face that depicts the Earl of Menteith – the very same that captured William Wallace.
See the Artefacts at the Governor’s House
The Governor’s House sits within the fortifications of Dumbarton Castle and is undoubtedly one the highlights of the tour. The house was built for John Kennedy, 8th Early of Cassilis in the 18th century, and is one of the most well-maintained parts of the castle.
Within the House are a number of fascinating artefacts for visitors to see, dating back far into the Dumbarton Castle’s history. If you want more pieces of physical evidence, like uniforms, pictures, and artillery, to attribute to Dumbarton’s history, taking the time to visit the Governor’s House is a necessity!
Pick up a Souvenir at the Gift Shop
Dumbarton Castle is home to a small gift shop that has a collection of memorabilia for you to take home with you. The gift shop is located right next to the ticket booth before you begin your ascend along Dumbarton’s 557 steps.
The shop’s collection includes coffee, whisky, mugs, and other small items that all connect to Dumbarton Castle & the town of Dumbarton. If you want something to remember your trip to Dumbarton Castle by, then picking up something at the gift shop will go a long way!