The unitary authority of West Dunbartonshire covers around 70 square miles of the West of Scotland. It stretches from the River Clyde to the shores of Loch Lomond, and is surrounded by the districts of (clockwise from due north):
- East Dunbartonshire
- Argyll and Bute
The area is home to over 93,000 people, mainly in the towns of Alexandria, Clydebank and Dumbarton. The council was formed in April 1996 from the union of the Clydebank and Dumbarton district councils.
Dumbarton lies on the north bank of the River Clyde, at the mouth of the River Leven. Its most recognisible feature is the large volcanic plug which towers over it from the Clyde 2. This holds the key to most of the early history of the area. Known as Alcluith or Dumbarton Rock, it was topped by a fortress of the Strathclyde Britons. This fortress was the scene of sieges by combined forces of Picts and Northumbrians in 756, known as the first and second Losses of the Rock.
The town recovered from these attacks and by 870 was a thriving British settlement and capital of Strathclyde. Unfortunately in this year, the rock was besieged by a combined force of Norse and Irish Vikings for over 15 weeks, laying waste to the town on the rock 3 and taking the remaining population away to Dublin as slaves.
Dumbarton was made a Royal Burgh by King Alexander II in 1222, at which point in time it was still recognised as the capital of Strathclyde, despite the uniting of Scotland by Malcolm II. It continued to develop, the focus of the town moving gradually north to its present location. However the rock continued to play an important part in Scottish history. It is claimed that William Wallace was held in the castle prior to his removal south in 13054 and Mary, Queen of Scots stayed there after the battle of Pinkie Cleuch, before sailing to France and marriage.
By the 1800s, Dumbarton had become an important area of heavy industry; the industrial revolution causing a huge change in the character and nature of the West of Scotland. Main industries in the town at this time included shipbuilding and glassmaking, in addition to the busy port. Shipbuilding continued to be vital to the local economy until the decline of the Clydebank shipping industry in the 1960s (see below).
Clydebank is much younger than its more historic neighbour. Prior to 1870, the area around the mouth of the River Cart was predominantly rural, and used for farming. This changed in 1871 when J and G Thomson of Govan decided to move their shipyard out of Glasgow to enable larger ships to be built and launched. The Thomson brothers, like good paternalistic Victorian employers took a keen interest in what went on around their works, and after intense campaigning on their part, Clydebank became a Burgh in 1886, with James Thomson becoming the first provost 5. He was also instrumental in developing the housing stock, and procuring transport links to bring workers from Glasgow, the first train running on the Glasgow, Yoker and Clydebank Railway in 1884.
At this time, Clydebank was the fastest-growing town in the country. Other heavy industry soon followed the Thomsons into the area. The year after the railway was opened, the Singer Manufacturing Company opened its giant works at Kilbowie. This was reputed to be the largest and most modern factory in Europe at the time, and included in its fabric the famous Singer clock tower, a four-face baronial edifice similar to Big Ben, but five feet greater in diameter. At its peak in 1960, the firm employed over 16,000 people in Clydebank alone. The railway station in Kilbowie is still called Singer after the factory.
After the decline of heavy industry, Clydebank, and indeed the whole of West Dunbartonshire became an area of high unemployment. In July 1980, Clydebank was designated as the first Local Area Enterprise Zone in Scotland. This gave companies special incentives to bring much needed jobs to the area. This was widely seen as a success, and the model for other enterprise zones from Dumfries and Galloway to the Highlands and Islands. More about the history of Clydebank can be found at The Clydebank Story.
The Vale of Leven and Loch Lomond
Away from the Clyde, the other main population centre in West Dunbartonshire is along the Vale of Leven, from Alexandria, four miles north-west of Dumbarton to Balloch on the shores of Loch Lomond. Alexandria is an industrial town, with roots in the cotton, bleaching and printing trades, which has grown considerably in the last 25 years due to the "Glasgow Overspill" housing initiative. It now encompasses the once distinct villages of Renton, Bonhill and Jamestown to form a town with a population of over 13,4006.
Balloch7 is a charming, if often tourist-crowded village. It is on the southern shores of Loch Lomond, and houses the Loch Lomond Shores visitor centre and upmarket shopping precinct. Trips on the loch are a popular tourist attraction, and the best known operator of these, the MV Maid of the Loch has her base at Balloch Pier.
Things to see and do in West Dunbartonshire
Tourist AttractionsThe Denny Tank Museum
This is located in Dumbarton and is based around the testing tank used by Victorian ship designers working for William Denny, who had a shipyard at Bowling, between Dumbarton and Clydebank. The tank itself, the first of its kind in the world to be built, is the length of a football field, and visitors can also see the tools used by the designers to create and test the models. The tank is still used to this day.
Dumbarton Castle is worth a trip for those interested in slightly earlier history. As mentioned above, it was the original capital of Britain, and surely worth a visit just for that reason! The view from the top down the Clyde is, in the opinion of this researcher, worth the admission fee alone.
The Forth and Clyde Canal
The western end of this canal joins with the River Clyde at Bowling, mid-way between Dumbarton and Clydebank. There is a walkway alongside the canal, which leads through Clydebank town centre and on towards Glasgow. Information boards along the way tell of the history of the canal and surrounding areas. Other guided walks have been set up by West Dunbartonshire council and route details of the Dumbarton Heritage Walk and Clydebank Heritage Walk can be found by following the links.
Football is the number one sport in Scotland. Sadly, however, there is only one West Dunbartonshire football team left in the Scottish Football league, Dumbarton FC, known as the 'Sons of the Rock'. Their home games are played in the shadow of the rock at the attractively named Boghead Park. Founder members of the Scottish football league, they shared the first title with Rangers in 1890.
Sadly two other teams from West Dunbartonshire have left the senior league structure of Scottish football. Clydebank FC, the Bankies, were bought by the directors of the bankrupt (and thus ejected from the league structure) Airdrieonians in 2002 to preserve their league status and become the first 'franchise' club in British football. The full and shameful story can be read here: United Clydebank Supporters.
Vale of Leven, based in Alexandria, is another former league club now competing in junior football8. During the early years of fiercely amateur sport, the club was a major force, winning the Scottish Cup three years in a row from 1877. However the club could not cope economically against teams with significantly greater supporter bases, and Vale slid out of senior football. The team has since been resurrected and, like Clydebank, now plays in the junior football league. It is also worth noting that another team from the Vale of Leven, Renton FC, were the first unofficial world champions, beating West Bromwich Albion of England 4-1 at Hampden Park9 in 1888.
Getting to and around West Dunbartonshire is, as in most of Strathclyde, relatively straightforward. Buses link most parts of the district frequently, including services to and from Glasgow every 20 minutes from Balloch/Alexandria, with Dumbarton/Clydebank to Glasgow services every ten minutes during weekdays.
A faster service to the city is provided by the North Clyde10 railway line, which runs from Helensburgh Central or Balloch through Dumbarton and Clydebank to Queen Street (low level) in the centre of Glasgow and on out to Airdrie and Drumgelloch in Lanarkshire. Timetables and fare information can be found at the Strathclyde Passenger Transport website.
The main trunk road through the district is the A82 which runs from Glasgow, bypassing Dumbarton and Alexandria on the way to Fort William and Inverness. To get to Loch Lomond, turn off the A82 north of Alexandria onto the A811 Stirling road.
Hopefully this has enthused you into visiting this often neglected part of Scotland. If you are travelling in from parts "furren", it may be worth visiting this page on Scottish Dialect first. Happy travelling!
The 'n' was restored to the county name when it was formed in 1996. Confusing isn't it?2Some say that from the Clyde the shape of the rock resembles an elephant. This is the reason that an elephant with a castle on its back is represented on the coats of arms of the town and its football club.3Cue raping and pillaging stereotype. Not all Vikings were like that you know.4Although some historians now doubt this.5For the benefit of non-Scots readers, a provost is roughly equivalent to a mayor.6Source: 2001 Census.7 From the Gaelic Bealach meaning mountain pass, somewhat bizarrely considering it is a lakeside village.8In Scotland, junior football is not football for children, but that played in a league structure that is part of the Scottish Football League.9Scotland's national football stadium, located on the Southside of Glasgow.10Also known as the North Electric Line, which used to be served by the famous Blue Trains.