Glencairn House in the High Street, which is earmarked for a new Dumbarton Museum and Library.

NOTEBOOK by Bill Heaney

Mary Kelly is the old woman who sold fish from the steps of Glencairn House in Dumbarton High Street.

If you remember this fishwife then reincarnation is indeed a fact of life and afterlife, and we welcome you on your second coming.

Old Mary used to sell fish from the Quay when Docherty’s boats brought their catches of herring – silver darlings – back from sea.

Or from down the Firth of Clyde, off the Isle of Arran, where they were joined by hardy fishermen from then faraway places such as Ayr, Troon, Girvan, Irvine and Dunure.

Brodick is another of these, as is the tiny harbour at Ballantrae at the foot of the rolling Ayrshire hills, which are said to have been the setting for author/advocate Robert Louis Stevenson’s masterpiece Kidnapped, featuring the Master of Ballantrae.

Which makes me wonder about West Dunbartonshire Council’s latest proposal to create a museum and library for £4.6 million at Glencairn House, which is Dumbarton’s oldest building.

Museums are designed to remind us of how things were.  What do we believe would qualify for inclusion in such a place in Dumbarton?

Would it be Mary Kelly? Would it be the fish landings at the Quay?

Or other things, like the day a whale was brought on a cart up from the River Clyde, where it had been washed up on a sand bank on the shore near Keil School, Brucehill and Havoc?

There are many interesting stories about Dumbarton that people should be reminded of and which are currently all but ignored.

Hatter's Castle AJ CroninTake AJ Cronin, right, for example, although I am told that streets in the new development of flats alongside the boardwalk between the High Street and Dumbarton Rock, will be named after the great writer and his work.

Dumbarton was a Protestant town until 1850. Councillors down the years have overlooked Cronin, principally because he was the child of a mixed marriage.

The establishment on both sides of the religious divide were not enamoured of the fact that his father came from a poor, Irish Catholic farming background.

Protestants loathed him because he was what he was, even though he went to Dumbarton Academy for a time before transferring to St Aloysius College in Glasgow.

The Catholics didn’t like him because he was “posh” and attended a Protestant school, not one of theirs.

People at that time lived in a small-minded, bigoted society- many of them still do – although their focus in the 21st century appears to be on football, not faith.

They haven’t gone away you know and, just like the poor, it appears they will always be with us – at least, in my view, until segregated schools are abolished.

I don’t say that segregation is the principal cause of bigotry and sectarianism, but simply ask the question: Does it help? Well, ask yourself, does it?

Any museum established in Dumbarton would have to look at the community’s achievements and failings, laying rose-coloured spectacles to one side.

It would need to observe closely the Sons and Daughters of the Rock.

After all the place is the people, the good, the bad and the ugly people.

The current Heritage Room at Dumbarton Library in Strathleven Place is excellent, but it is not enough.

It is a poor relation to Clydebank which has its own museum and an imposing library next door to the town hall in Dumbarton Road.

It is remarkable that what the Council have in mind for Dumbarton Museum will depend on grants from outside bodies.

This makes one wonder why it’s not being funded internally by the Council itself.

Before we set out on a mission to build the new Dumbarton Museum and Library in Glencairn House, we will need a strategy and a plan, which is acceptable across the community. The whole community.

Who, for example, will decide what is important to keep and what is not?

We used to have a Library Committee in Dumbarton where local people who were well educated and widely read, and knew the history of the town, took their seats and made important decisions.

The present crop of councillors has shown by their actions in recent months that they are not fit for purpose.

Church Street council HQ Official OpeningLooked at objectively, the new Burgh Hall does not fit the bill given that it is impossible to observe and hear the important public proceedings which take place around the cheap, Formica-topped tables in the so-called Council Chamber.

And now social workers are threatening to go on strike because, apart from the fact that they are overworked, underpaid and under pressure, the spaces allocated for them to work in within the Burgh Hall do not have the necessary privacy to conduct the sensitive work they do.

The renovation of this building cost £15 million and counting. It was a great idea but it hasn’t delivered on so many fronts which is unsurprising since some amateurs within the Council management had a say in what it should look like.

I wonder if the final figure for what it cost, like the information on the Council’s true financial state which was sought out by Audit Scotland for their flattering Best Value Report last year, is being deliberately kept hidden?

Looking at the plans for Glencairn House, I am persuaded that this is an important and worthwhile project which would be welcomed by the community who should be asked to contribute not just ideas about structure and content – but (some of the) money to pay for it.

This project should only happen if all the obvious obstacles to Dumbarton becoming a tourist town are dealt with in the interim.

Otherwise it’s just pie in the sky, a pipe dream and at a cost of nearly £5 million a very expensive one at that.

Parking and traffic management in Dumbarton is just one of the many nightmares which the Council should sort out before it even thinks about doing anything else.

  • I note that the staff working on the initial consultation, which is not supposed to start until the end of the month,  are the same people who told me they were too busy to do what they were hired for, which was to accommodate questions from journalists such as myself. 

Whale caught in Dumbarton near Brucehill on June 21 1905

On the whale’s back – picture taken outside Glencairn House in 1905.

The official line from the Council on this is that the £4.6 million project would see the vacant Glencairn House on Dumbarton High Street redeveloped as a purpose-built library and museum.

Outline plans propose using the existing historic three-storey building, and adding a new four-storey extension to the rear with “stunning” views over the River Leven and Dumbarton Castle.

The building would include dedicated spaces for children and families, computer use and quiet study alongside a wide selection of fiction and non-fiction items in a variety of high-demand formats.

A relaxing recreational space will also be included featuring a coffee station. The venue would also offer improved physical access, enabling level access via the main entrance on the High Street, with an internal lift to each floor.

The museum facilities would include an entire floor dedicated to local history floor and incorporating an exhibition space. This would be further supported by displays of artefacts throughout all floors of the building. Items that could be displayed regularly for the first time include a Roman Medallion from 193AD, the bronze ‘Skellat Bell’ from around 900AD, Sir Jackie Stewart’s Dubonnet trophy, and fine art from the Overtoun Collection.

Alongside the library and museum, the proposals would also turn the B-Listed building into a social hub, offering meeting and event spaces for community use as well as a flexible event area for exhibitions and public displays.

Hatter's Castle libraryThe current Dumbarton Library building, right,  would be transformed into a community collections store and archive, open to the public. This new facility would, for the first time, enable access to the stored objects and documents in West Dunbartonshire’s heritage collections.

It would also create new and exciting opportunities for the local community and visitors to the area to engage with, explore and learn more about the collections.

This includes access to a huge volume of documents that describe the history of the area such as a letter under the Privy Seal of James III; a charter signed by Mary Queen of Scots; and a Commission by King James VI to the Bailies of Dumbarton to apprehend and try persons suspected of witchcraft, signed by the King himself.

The proposals will be presented to Councillors at a meeting of the Infrastructure, Regeneration and Economic Development Committee on Wednesday, 15 May.

Officers are seeking permission from Committee to undertake a public consultation to see if there is support for the project. This would begin in late May 2019 and last for three weeks.

Bennie MalcolmMalcolm Bennie, left, Strategic Lead for Communications, Culture and Communities, said: “Glencairn House presents a great opportunity for this Council to create a new library for Dumbarton, with purpose-built, modern facilities that are more accessible for residents. It would also provide a permanent museum celebrating the history of this area which is something the community has previously supported.

“In addition the proposal would protect the history and heritage of this area by giving a new purpose to the oldest building in West Dunbartonshire, and provide a new sustainable future for the existing library building.

“It is for Councillors to decide if this is something they are interested in progressing to a public consultation. If they give approval then the engagement would allow local people to give their views and shape whether and how this proposal can be taken forward.”

Glencairn House dates from 1623 and was constructed to be the townhouse for the local Earls of Glencairn. It was also the site where national poet Robert Burns received his freemanship of the town in 1787.

Further information can be found on the Committee paper by visiting


One comment

  1. You are spot on with your comments. We have so much heritage that needs to be dusted down and made to shine. Such a shame that it’s not.

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