Exploring Dumbarton Castle is a magical, fairytale grotto experience. The castle can be reached from the Clyde and Loch Lomond Cycleway. If you are taking the train on the West Highland Line to reach destinations further north then it is possible to do a stopover at Dumbarton Castle.
From Glasgow to Dumbarton on the Clyde and Loch Lomond Cycleway (Route 7) is 15 miles. The route passes through East End Park in Dumbarton. Head south through the park, passing by Dumbarton East station, to reach the castle.
Dumbarton East train station
There are two train stations in Dumbarton- Central and East. Dumbarton East is the closest to the castle. As the train approaches the station you will notice the castle perched on the chunk of volcanic rock.
The station has some architectural survivors from the Victorian era. This includes this decorative iron railing on the staircase that takes you down to street level.
The entrance and exit to the station is under the railway bridge. Take a closer look because it is magnificent! It is a triple archway; grand and decorative. It is somewhat lost and forgotten in the dingy atmosphere under the bridge, but this archway could easily be at home on a Parisian monument.
It will take just 6 to 7 minutes to cycle from here to the castle.
Sons of the Rock
The route takes you passed an attractive square of grass, trees and benches surrounded by Victorian cottages, villas and tenements.
After passing Dumbarton Football Club, which is nicknamed 'sons of the rock', the volcanic rock upon which the castle sits begins to dominate your horizon. It is a formidable and rugged piece of geology; all the more striking because of the flatness and urbanity of the town through which you have just passed through. Yes, this is a world away from the trains, delivery lorries, pubs, hairdressers and takeaways that are just minutes behind you.
Take a few moments to look up and marvel at the rock and then enjoy the view of the tranquil River Clyde.
The castle was so impenetrable that it took James IV two attempts to capture it in 1489. He was only succesful because he dragged the biggest cannon available, Mons Meg, all the way from Edinburgh Castle.
Walking through Dumbarton Castle is like no other castle experience. What came into my head when I tried to describe it was 'fairytale grotto'.
Stairs and archways lead you up and up through the interior of this living volcanic rock. There is lots of greenery, songbirds and a trickling water course that flows under the portcullis. You feel like you are in a magical rock garden.
The castle has been built to fit within the rock, taking advantage of the natural contours of the rock. It means that there are stairs and pathways cut into the rock, buildings stuck between the rock and sometimes you have to squeeze by rough chunks of rock to continue on your way.
This combination of fortress and nature is what makes Dumbarton Castle unique and exciting to explore.
When you get to the top of the rock this gives the best impression of the wildness of this place. The highest point is 74m. You feel like you are on a Highland mountain or lonely moor and that you should have brought hiking boots and a windproof jacket. The steward at the ticket office had told me "if it is bad weather it can get really bleak up here."
The views from up here are worth the effort. You can see Ben Lomond on the horizon, which was snow covered during my vist.
I enjoyed walking the outer wall to the Bower Battery. From here cannons could fire onto the route up the river. It was so calm and peaceful when I visited with barely a ripple on the water and the only sound came from seagulls.
The vast majority of the visit is outside. There are few interiors to explore. You can go inside the guardhouse where there are information panels and I spotted a fireplace with coats of arms as decoration.
The most distinctive building within the complex is the Governor's House which was covered in scaffolding during my visit. I noticed that there were curtains on the windows of the top floor, "so I asked the steward if anybody lived there. He said "the property manager used to, but there are roof problems and other issues, so it will take a few years to fix."
Getting here using the train
From Glasgow it takes about 30 minutes to reach Dumbarton East. Services are frequent at four per hour.
If you are using the West Highland Line and want to stop off to visit Dumbarton Castle be aware that the West Highland train only calls at Dumbarton Central, not Dumbarton East. This means that you will need to cycle to Dumbarton Central, just over one mile from the castle, to get a West Highland train. There is a lunchtime departure of a West Highland train from Dumbarton Central, so you could spend the morning at the castle and then catch the train northwards.