EVER wondered how a football club in Scotland came by its nickname of “the Sons”? Or can you name the town which has one of Scotland’s three great “royal” castles alongside Edinburgh and Stirling? There’s a lot to learn about Dumbarton, a place I know well. And no, I don’t know why the town is Dumbarton but the county is Dunbartonshire.

Today, I reach the third in this series about the ancient towns of Scotland, and I remind you again that National Records of Scotland population figures confirm that Scotland is a “townie” nation, with more people living in towns and villages than in our eight cities combined.

To be included in the list of ancient towns I set some criteria – the columns will all deal with towns up to the year 1900, as I will be doing a future series on 20th-century Scotland, and they all have to be “ancient”, which I interpret as being founded before the Reformation, as religion will be mentioned in many of the columns.

I will be dwelling on the early history of these towns, which all have to have played a role, however small, in the history of our nation and have to have histories that have been thoroughly researched. In the case of Dumbarton, I doubt if there has been a more assiduous local historian anywhere than Dr IMM MacPhail, on whose work today’s column heavily relies.

I remind you that I am a writer about history, not a qualified historian, so much of my work is based on other people’s prior research.

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In the case of Dr Iain Murdoch Macleod MacPhail it is simply impossible to write about Dumbarton without referring to his books and researches on the town and its surrounding area. I always knew him as Doc MacPhail, and a real lad o’pairts he was.

A keen Gaelic scholar – his family hailed from the Outer Hebrides – MacPhail graduated with honours from Glasgow University and gained his doctorate at Prague University.

His long career in education saw him become principal teacher of history at Clydebank High School. His biggest contributions to Scottish history teaching were the two books he wrote in the 1950s, which were the first nationally accepted textbooks for teaching Scottish history to children. He also wrote several books about Dumbarton including the definitive history of Dumbarton Castle.

A keen rower on Loch Lomond, he was also a runner, and gave decades of service to Dumbarton Athletic Club as a committee member and as president. I’ve written of him elsewhere as one of my mentors and I treasure his books that include his insightful work on the Clydebank Blitz and my personal favourite, The Crofters’ War.

And so to Dumbarton, which stands at the confluence of the River Leven and River Clyde and which has played a big and often unacknowledged part in the history of our nation.

With its proximity to Glasgow, the town has almost faded into insignificance beside the city but for centuries there was no doubt as to which was the more important of the two settlements.

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As with Edinburgh and Stirling, Dumbarton’s strategic significance was established more than

300 million years ago when volcanic activity left a “plug” of basalt some 240 feet (73m) high in an impregnable position overlooking the Clyde with views up the River Leven into the ancient lands around Loch Lomond that became known as Levenax or Lennox.

There was a fortification on the Rock in the Iron Age and thus Dumbarton Castle has the longest recorded history of any castle in Scotland. Back then it was known as Alt Clut – there are variant spellings but I stick to the one I know – which roughly translates as “high rock of the Clyde”.

Alt Clut was known to the Romans during their occupation of Britain as it was just a few miles from the western end of the Antonine Wall. There were claims that this site was a Roman fortification called Theodosia but Doc MacPhail gave short shrift to that nonsense.

HE wrote: “The statement by Joseph Irving and older historians that there was a Roman naval station called Theodosia at Dumbarton in the latter part of the fourth century, however, is one which has no archaeological evidence to support it, for it is derived not from any genuine source but from the fertile imagination of Charles Bertram, the literary forger.

“Bertram, an English teacher in Copenhagen, produced in 1758 a forged history of Britain in Roman and post-Roman times, which was accepted by all historians for a century.

“The forgery was exposed independently by two scholars in the late 1860s; but the errors of Bertram continued to be found in many histories down to this century.”

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So not Theodosia but Alt Clut, which became the capital of the Brythonic kingdom of Strathclyde that stretched from north of Loch Lomond as far south as Penrith in northern England at its greatest extent.

Strathclyde was an independent kingdom of Celtic tribes linked by the Brythonic tongue that flourished from the fifth century until it was absorbed into the growing state of Alba that became Scotland.

It was during the period when the Romans were abandoning Britain that legends grew up around Alt Clut, especially a link to Merlin, the wizard of King Arthur’s Camelot.

It is possible that there was confusion with a strange figure called Merlin, an early poet who was supposed to live in the area. As always with the first millennium in Scotland, there is little written history about Dumbarton in that period, but we know that the first reference to it was in a letter by St Patrick in the late fifth century.

The letter was addressed to a king-warrior called Coroticus in Latin, who has been identified with Ceretic Guletic, king of Strathclyde who was based at Alt Clut, and who may thus have been the first Dumbartonian in written history.

The saint gave the king a hard time and excommunicated his war band that had captured people that Patrick had converted: “Soldiers whom I no longer call my fellow citizens, or citizens of the Roman saints, but fellow citizens of the devils, in consequence of their evil deeds; who live in death, after the hostile rite of the barbarians; associates of the Scots and Apostate Picts; desirous of glutting themselves with the blood of innocent Christians, multitudes of whom I have begotten in God and confirmed in Christ.”

Over time Alt Clut acquired a strong castle and became “the fort of the Britons”, Dun Breatainn evolving eventually into Dumbarton. The Venerable Bede, writing in 731, mentions only two places in Scotland, one of them being the strong fortress of Alt Clut. It was still Alt Clut when it was captured by a force of Picts in 756 but was retaken a few days later.

Alt Clut’s fate was sealed when a large force of Vikings came from their settlement at Dublin and laid siege to the castle in 870 or 871. After four months, its water supply dried up and the inhabitants, who included many local people who were sheltering inside the fortress, were taken away to Ireland as slaves.

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Irish chroniclers said 200 shiploads were transported – with their town destroyed and the capital of Strathclyde moving to Govan.

Although it remained an important town and port for the lands of the Lennox, it wasn’t until the 13th century that Dumbarton came to national prominence again.

Having built a new royal castle on the Rock as a defence against Norwegian invasion, in 1222, Alexander II, King of Scots, granted the town the status of a royal burgh with a charter that emphasised trading rights.

THE octo-centenary of the long-lost charter was celebrated two years ago and for once the ancient history of the town was well publicised.

The growing importance of Glasgow diminished Dumbarton’s standing but the castle was still the most important stronghold in west central Scotland by the time of the Wars of Independence. It was the last castle to fall to the invasion of Edward I of England in 1298.

Longshanks’s appointee as keeper, Sir John Menteith, infamously captured Sir William Wallace and briefly incarcerated him in the castle before sending him south to his martyrdom.

Robert the Bruce besieged the castle in 1309 and captured it. Unlike other fortresses, he did not destroy it. He also appears to have done a deal with Menteith who is reputed to have fought bravely for the winning side at Bannockburn.

Bruce took a real shine to the hinterland of Dumbarton, spending his final months at a manor house between Cardross and what is now Renton in the Vale of Leven, which will feature in a future column on the Little Moscows of Scotland.

When Bruce died, his viscera were removed so the body and skull could be transported for burial at Dunfermline Abbey while his heart was taken on a crusade by Sir James Douglas. The royal viscera were buried at St Serf’s Church in Dumbarton and that event is commemorated in the town’s Levengrove Park.

Historic Environment Scotland, in whose care the castle now rests, gives a potted history of the castle’s next two centuries: “The castle’s location away from Scotland’s political heartland lessened its importance somewhat. But it also made Dumbarton a good back door through which her rulers could come and go with relative ease. It sheltered David II (in 1333-4) and Mary Queen of Scots (in 1548) until ships could take them to France and safety.”

Mary revisited the castle during her reign and it was Dumbarton she was trying to reach when the Battle of Langside saw her defeated and exiled.

Meanwhile, Dumbarton was developing as a burgh in its own right. Its main thoroughfares were High Street, Church Street and College Street – their names survive to this day.

In 1361, the plague hit Dumbarton hard and in 1452 the town was razed by followers of the rebel would-be usurper James the Fat but the castle held out under Sir John Colquhoun.

King James IV made Dumbarton Castle his western base for his many sallies up and down the country. The castle was at the centre of the many intrigues by the nobles of Scotland, before the Reformation in which Dumbarton joined in the general fervour for Protestantism.

The castle never regained its importance as a royal fortress but housed a military garrison down the centuries, even during the Second World War. None of the medieval castle remains, with most of the buildings on the Rock dating from the 18th century when it was fortified against the Jacobites.

Dumbarton’s latter importance as a town came from its position as the host of local authority and court administrations but in the 19th-century Dumbarton was at the heart of a revolution on Clydeside – the development of shipbuilding.

Probably the world’s most famous sailing ship, the Cutty Sark, was built at Dumbarton and launched in 1869. The famous Denny yard was responsible for many innovations and they will feature in a future column on museums.

Glassmaking and whisky production became local industries of note and it used to be said the value of whisky in bond around Dumbarton exceeded the value of gold in Fort Knox.

Dumbarton was at the centre of another revolution, the development of modern football based on the passing game as practised by Dumbarton, Vale of Leven and Renton along with Queen’s Park, the quartet dominating Scottish football in the 1870s and 1880s.

Dumbarton were soon known as the Sons of the Rock, and nowadays the club plays in its shadow.