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Traditions and Stories of Scottish Castles
Dumbarton Castle

Dumbarton Castle

AMONG the natural phenomena in Scotland the peak of Dumbarton Rock holds no inconsiderable place. Rising abruptly from the banks of the Clyde, and rearing its rugged front erect in solitary state from a comparatively level country, its effect is striking and peculiar. Geologists maintain that they can trace the range of mountains of which Dumbarton is the termination, far away north, through the Kilpatrick and Campsie Hills up to the Grampians.

This uncouth rock is full of memories that carry us far back in the annals of our country, and it forms a connecting link betwixt the chivalrous times that have long vanished and our present utilitarian days. Long before the period of written history Dumbarton existed as a tower of strength for the primitive natives. The misty period of Scottish story, in which Fingal and Ossian with their warlike band appear, is connected with our own times by the hill of Balclutha, the scene of their exploits, the home of their triumph and victory. If corroborative proof were required that this Castle steep was the seat of Fingal, the recent discoveries of canoes and other relics in the district might readily afford it. But the songs of Ossian are sufficiently precise to indicate the locality with certainty. And even in those remote times Balclutha was regarded as having existed from far-distant ages, and exhibiting the reverses and vicissitudes common to all earthly things. For thus sings Ossian:-

"I have seen the walls of Balclutha, but they are desolate. The fire had resounded in the halls, and the voice of the people is heard no more. The stream of Clutha was removed from its place by the fall of the walls. The thistle shook there its lonely head; the moss whistled in the wind. Why dost thou build the wall, son of the winged days? Thou lookest from thy towers to-day; yet a few years and the blast of the desert comes. It howls in thy empty courts, and whistles round thy hall-worn shield."

A long .Controversy, began in 1762 and still continued in 1926, arose regarding the authenticity of James Macpherson’s translation of the Ossian poems; but experts in the language maintain that Macpherson founded many of his versions upon Gaelic originals, and in some of them introduced episodes from Irish history. The question will probably never be decided absolutely either way. It is certain, however, that the Ossian poems published by Macpherson were translated into all the European languages, and attained great popularity.

Balclutha formed a stronghold of the aborigines at a very early period, and came under the notice of the Romans when they invaded Caledonia. A military nation by profession, such as the Romans were, could not but perceive its importance as a fortress. Its commanding site from which the road and the river could be controlled, would at once point it out as a most desirable outpost from which the invaders might menace the inhabitants, and the difficulty of access which it presented naturally rendered it almost impregnable. When Antoninus, therefore, began his great undertaking of the Roman Wall from the Clyde to the Forth, he selected Dumbarton as the starting-point, since he there could control all ingress to Scotland from the Western Sea by the way of the Clyde. And here was founded the ancient burgh of Dumbarton, at the base of the rock, which appears in Roman annals under the name of "Theodosia," after one of the most eminent generals commanding the invasion.

And thus, with a continuity which is easily traced, we find that the Balclutha of Ossian becomes the Alcluith of the Britons of Strathclyde, the Theodosla of the Romans, the Dunbrittain of the Scots, and the Dunbartane or Dumbarton of more recent times. Yet, though its antiquity is thus established, one hesitates to accept the statements of Geoffrey of Monmouth, who gravely records the name of the contemporary of King David of Israel who ruled in his ancestral halls on the banks of Clyde.

The Roman invasion gave place to the Danish, and still Dumbarton was esteemed an enviable point of vantage. In 870 A.D. it endured a siege of four months by the Danes under Olave, and was finally captured by them. From this time onwards the Castle frequently changed its masters, and upon its weather-beaten front was traced the passing history of the country as it alternated betwixt freedom and slavery. It was not, however, until the Earls of Lennox had risen into power that the attention of the Scottish Kings was seriously attracted towards Dumbarton. The title of this ancient house was derived from Levenax or Lennox, the district through which the Leven river flows on its way from Loch Lomond to join the Clyde at the base of the Castle Rock. The Earls of Lennox seemed to have ruled the surrounding country with a high hand, issuing their almost regal mandates from the Castle of "Dunbretane." And so intolerable had the yoke become that in 1238 Alexander II., whilst confirming a charter of land to them, expressly excluded the Castle from it, and retained it as a royal possession. A quarter of a century later it again formed the centre of attack during the Norwegian invasion under Haco. That its importance as a stronghold was thoroughly appreciated in those warlike times we may learn from the fact that Edward I. of England, acting in his self-assumed character of Lord Paramount, directed Nicholas de Segrave, the Castellan, to put Balliol in possession of it.

A peculiar interest attaches to Dumbarton in connection with Sir William Wallace. Sir John Menteith, his betrayer, or, at least, his captor, was Castellan at the time, and carried the unfortunate patriot to his fortress, under a pledge that he would suffer no harm. But no sooner had he obtained full possession of his person than he handed him over to the English soldiers, and defiled his hands by accepting the bribe of perjury and unfaithfulness. It would be rash to conclude from this transaction that Menteith was other than a brave man in battle, for his later exploits at Bannockburn somewhat atoned for his treachery. But it cannot be denied that the principles of this execrated man were "unstable as water." Indeed, he seems to have been a prototype of the famous American politician, who summed up his creed shortly: "I believe in one party, and that is myself."

He was untrue to Wallace, faithless to Bruce, treacherous to Edward, and mistrusted alike by countryman and stranger. A curious story is related in connection with King Robert. When that illustrious monarch had made some way in the country south of the Clyde, he crossed to Dumbarton, and, being joined by Malcolm, Earl of Lennox, he laid siege to the Castle, then held by Menteith. Meantime, the Governor, deceived by his past actions, Bruce attempted to bribe; but the ambitious Castellan would hear of no less a reward than the Earldom of Lennox. The King could not for a moment endure the thought of dispossessing one of his most faithful followers even to gain so important a position, and only the remonstrances of the good Earl Malcolm, who professed himself ready to resign his honours for so desirable an object, at length prevailed. A treaty was made, whereby Menteith undertook  to deliver up the Castle to Bruce for the lands and title of Earl of Lennox. But a carpenter named Rolland, who had gained some knowledge of Menteith’s designs, warned the King that he would be betrayed unless most watchful.

Nothing daunted, but thoroughly on the alert, the brave Robert Bruce pursued his way to the Castle. He was met at the gate by Menteith, who delivered up the keys with all due pomp and solemnity. But ere sitting down at meat with him the wary King desired to be shown over the Castle. Closely followed by his own attendants, he inspected every corner of the fortress, and noticed with rising doubt that Menteith carefully avoided opening the door of one cellar in particular. His suspicions were aroused, and, calling his guard to arms, he forced the door and found within the chamber a body of English troops, who were doubtless secreted there so as to take the citadel by surprise. The unhappy Governor, who had thus over-reached himself, was at once secured. But those were times in which strict justice might not be done, and Bruce could ill afford to execute one valiant knight, however grave his misdemeanour. Menteith was promised a full pardon for his treason if he would join the Scottish Army on the eve of Bannockburn. And so mightily did he wield his sword on that memorable occasion that he was not only restored to liberty, but also loaded with honour.

A romantic story connected with Dumbarton is still preserved in the traditions of the Castle. When David II. returned from England, there followed in his train a Welshwoman named Catherine Mortimer, upon whom he had bestowed tokens of favour. Jealous of her influence with the King, the ambitious Earl of Angus hired two ruffians to accomplish her assassination. Apprised by their employer of her movements, they waylaid her upon a lonely moor near Melrose, and murdered her in cold blood. A deed so abhorrent, even in that lawless age, called loudly for vengeance, and as the complicity of Angus was an open secret, the enraged King ordered him to be confined in Dumbarton Castle, whilst the remains of his victim were interred with great solemnity at Dunfermline. But the year 1361, which succeeded his incarceration, was a fatal one for the Lennox country, as the plague broke out there with great virulence, destroying nearly one-hall of the inhabitants, and numbering amongst its victims the unhappy Earl of Angus.

It would be tedious to relate all the sieges which this venerable Castle has endured; but the story of the connection of James IV. with it must not be omitted. At the Court of this unfortunate monarch no nobleman was more beloved and respected than Lord Darnley, afterwards Earl of Lennox. His youth, his talents, and the promise of success which they afforded, pointed him out as one of the men whom the King delighteth to honour. And thus, among other munificent gifts, we find that in 1479 "the Castell of Dunbretane," with all the revenues pertaining to it, was bestowed upon him by his too generous sovereign. For nine years did Darnley bask in the sunshine of the royal countenance; but

"Vaulting ambition that o’erleaps itself
And falls on t’other side"

at length overcame him. In 1488 his plots against the King were discovered, and he was degraded from his rank. Fortune played shuttlecock with him in the following year. In February all the Acts of Parliament against him were rescinded, and he was restored to favour; but in July of the same year orders were given to besiege the Castle of Crookston, Dumbarton and Duchall, which belonged to himself and his sons, and to execute the extreme penalties for treason against them. So great was the feeling adverse to Damley that King James himself took horse to lead the attack. Assembling his troops at Glasgow, he marched first against Duchall, which he reduced in seven days. Directing his army against Crookston, he soon forced a capitulation, and, with the laurels from these victories fresh upon him, he joined with the Earl of Argyll against Dumbarton. But here, though ultimately successful, he found victory not so easy as he had anticipated. Despite the assistance which the King had of all the Scottish artillery, including Mons Meg from Edinburgh Castle, it took a considerable time to reduce the garrison. In despair the King was at last compelled to raise the siege and confess himself foiled by his powerful subject. Returning, however, in the month of September, he again opened his battery against Dumbarton, and succeeded in obtaining possession of it, though only upon the conditions of a full pardon for Darnley, now Earl of Lennox.

Whether the difficulty of conquering it had endeared the Castle to him or not it is not possible to tell, but certainly Dumbarton became one of the most cherished residences of King James IV. after this time. It is interesting to notice how frequently Dumbarton appears in the Records of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, whose debit and credit accounts afford much information to the historian. For instance, there is this curious entry:-

"1494—5, Mars. 19. Item, To the Pyper of Dumbartane, be the King’s command, xiiij sh’."

Whether this piper was the famous Rory Murphy, whose name still exists in local song and story, is not recorded.

After the lamentable death of King James at Flodden the country was rent by the several factions of the Queen-Mother and the Earl of Arran, who both strove for the Regency. The latter nobleman, assisted by the Earls of Lennox and Glencairn, attacked Dumbarton successfully. In the quaint words of the chronicler of that time:—In ane mirk, wyndy nicht, the xij of Januar (1514), they under-myndit the nedderpole of the yett of Dunbartane, and enterit thairat, and tuik the Castell, and put furth the Lord Erskine, then Capitane thereof." But their triumph was of short duration, as the arrival of Albany caused the overthrow of the Earl of Arran, and Lennox was imprisoned in Edinburgh until he delivered up Dumbarton.

For thirty years after, the possession of this Castle indicated the supremacy of the one or the other party. The political principles of the nobility of those days were very slip-shod indeed, and Earl Lennox was a type of his peers. In 1546 he again took and fortified the Castle, holding it for the young Queen of Scots. But shortly after he listened to the charming voice of Henry of England, who sought to conquer Scotland by marrying Queen Mary to his son Edward. Meanwhile the Chevalier de Brosse had been despatched from France to Dumbarton with stores and treasures to assist the cause of the Queen; and, unaware of the change in the political opinions of Lennox, he was induced by that wily nobleman to place his precious load in the Castle for safety. No sooner had this been done than the Earl quietly took possession of the treasure in the name of Henry VIII., and turned the duped and bewildered Chevalier out of Dumbarton.

In 1547 the unfortunate young Queen was conveyed to Dumbarton, as affording the most secure shelter for her from English force and fraud, and it was here that she suffered from an attack of smallpox, which was then the scourge of Scotland. And in a melancholy hour did she embark for France from Dumbarton, taking leave of the Queen-Mother on the greensward at the base of the Rock, and bidding a gay farewell to Scotland as her barque floated swiftly down the Clyde. To this regal residence she returned no more, for her next attempt to reach it was foiled at Langside, and she never again beheld the rugged rock, and her hospitable refuge, from which she had first set out in all the bloom of youth and hope.

For two years after her flight to England Lord Fleming held the Castle in her name, and defeated the besiegers under the Regent Moray, who strove for its possession. But it was wrested from him by one of the boldest assaults recorded in history. In 1571, whilst Lennox lay ill at Glasgow, having been injured by a fall from his horse, this forlorn hope was planned, and entrusted for its execution to Captain Crawford of Jordanhill. It was proposed to attempt the Castle by escalade. One of the soldiers of the Castle, whose wife had been whipped by the Governor for some trifling offence, deserted, and joined the proposed assaulting party, acting as their guide. Late in the evening, while the mist hung over the hill-top, the band set forth upon their perilous expedition, marching in single file, the foremost of the party carrying the ladders, and all keeping together in the darkness by holding a rope which passed from man to man. Stealthily approaching the base of the rock, they began to tie their ladders together, and to place them in position at the most precipitous portion of the mountain. The reason for thus multiplying the difficulty of the adventure was a sound one,  as the event proved, and Crawford’s own words show that the schemw had been deeply pondered: "Because thai suspectit nocht the heighest pairt o’ the craig, thair was not ane watche in that pairt of the wall above, within sex scoir of futes to the pairt that we entered."

The ascent began under evil auspices, for the first ladder broke with the weight of the men ere one had reached a landing-place. When tied and eked as well as possible it was still two fathoms short of the point they wished to reach. The leader and one of his men, therefore, boldly clambered up the face of the rock to an overhanging tree which grew in a cleft above, and, swinging the ladder by ropes tied thereto, thus enabled the band to attain another eminence. But here an unlooked for difficulty arose. One of the men was subject to epilepsy, and the excitement of the attack had brought on a fit whilst he was in the act of ascending the ladder. Humanity and prudence alike forbade that he should be thrown to the ground, and yet their own safety must be secured by their ascending over him. Fertile in expedients, the Captain directed that he should be tied to the ladder with ropes, and then, by turning it the whole of the men were enabled to pass over his body without injuring him. When they reached the summit two of the band leaped over the wall and slew the nearest sentinel, so that the entire troop entered the Castle ere an alarm had been given, and possessed themselves of it with comparative ease. No one who has examined the appearance of the rock at the point of assault will doubt the bravery of Captain Crawford and his gallant followers.

With one other story of bloodless capture this record of Dumbarton Castle may be concluded. In the troublous times when the dominant party sought to force Episcopacy upon the Scottish nation, the burgh of Dumbarton was governed by Provost Sempill, a tried and trusty Covenanter, whilst the Castellane was Sir William Stewart, as faithful an Episcopalian. Shortly after the Assembly of Glasgow had abolished the new form of religion and denounced the Bishops, the Provost and Council of Dumbarton concluded that it was their duty to take their venerable fortress out of the keeping of a recusant who differed from them in religious matters. They therefore met one Sunday in the house of the Provost, and sent an invitation to Sir William Stewart to dine there after service in the Chapel. Suspecting no treachery, he came unattended amongst them, and was at once met with a demand for the keys of the Castle. In vain he protested that he had them not, and he was ultimately compelled to send a messenger to procure them. Then, under threat of instant death in case of betraying them, he was forced to give the password for the night, and to exchange clothes with one of his captors. In the twilight the sham Governor easily gained an entrance to the Castle, and soon placed his party in possession of it, without the shedding of blood.

The romance of Dumbarton Castle has to a large extent departed since the transference of the Scottish Court to London. No longer a kingly residence, it has only been visited once by royalty since Queen Mary abode there, when in 1847 the late Queen Victoria inspected the ancient fortress. But its importance as a bulwark against invasion is greater now than in the time of Hako the Dane, since a foreign foe, if unopposed there, may enter by the Clyde to the richest portion of Scotland, and over-run and devastate the very heart of the kingdom. And any system of shore fortification which does not include Dumbarton invites invasion by negligence. The wisdom of our fathers in this respect was greater than ours, and they would not have left so important a post to be defended by cannons with oxidized touch-holes, loaded with balls which may have stood exposed to the storm since the 19th century was young. If these are to form our defensive artillery, let us discard our latest machine-guns, and return to more primitive weapons, and then

"At the sight of Dumbarton once again,
We’ll cock up our bannets and march amain;
Wi’ braid claymores hangin’ doun to our heel,
To whang at the bannocks o’ barley-meal."

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