Dumbarton Rock which stirs the hearts of exiles the world over. Picture by Tom Gardiner
By MT Rainey
It was near the top of my bucket list. Among distant exotica like the temples at Bagan, the Atacama Desert in Chile and Scott’s Hut in the Antarctic, I wanted to see Dumbarton Rock. Well, not see it exactly. I saw it almost every day for 21 years, but climb it. Recorded as a fortress since the 5th century, my home town castle, the rock of the Clyde, my rock, remained unassailed by me. Until today. Now, there’s an easy way to do it, a hard way and a well hard way. To the international geekery of elite rock climbers, it is affectionately known as Dumby. This massive volcanic boulder on the shores of the Clyde calls out to them with a siren song of routes like The Persistence of Vision, Negative Creep and Sufferance. They come from all over the world to name, tackle and conquer each vertiginous inch of these sheer, shining slabs. None of that extraordinary species was there today though. A couple of Italian tourists were taking the easy route, along the ancient ramparts, encircling the rock. Hardly a romantic outing. Clanking with fifteen centuries of ghosts in armour, these run from the entrance at The Governor’s House to the Spanish Batteries, where an arsenal of big guns would have protected the confluence of the Clyde and the Leven and the gateway to the Ancient Capital of Strathclyde. It wasn’t this history that I was here to see today though, but my own. I wanted to see my home town laid out before me like a carpet and I wanted to do it the hard way. 365 steep steps, one for every day of the year, lifted me breathless to the top of the Rock, where a low wind hummed in suddenly bright sunshine and the Saltire slapped and whipped angrily, in sympathy with the times. Very far below and beyond was every place I knew and loved before I left.
Levengrove Park in all its summer glory. Picture by Michael Moffatt
The old bridge over the Leven, Levengrove Park, the boatyards, the Kiel School and the Carmelite Convent. The housing schemes which would have been newish when I was born: Brucehill, Castlehill and the red roofs of Bellsmyre. The Glasgow overspill estates to the West. The bonded warehouses and the beautiful ruin of the red brick Distillery tower, once alive with workers and wages and a monthly bonus bottle. I could see clearly how the modern town had turned its back on the beautiful rivers; how it had shunned the workaday shipyards and warehouses and turned inwards towards supermarkets and shopping. Yet the old topography of the town persisted.
Familiar streets demolished for a one-way system and famous buildings long gone hovered holographically in my memory. Church Street and The Artisan. Casci’s Cafe, impossibly sophisticated when my tastes were still more ice cream than coffee. Minnie Steel’s sweet shop in College Park Street, or Mary Baker’s penny candy trays in a Church Street shop window – a pocket money dilemma. The Rialto picture house, where I thrilled to Viva Las Vegas and screamed through A Hard Day’s Night. The Dumbarton Burgh Hall, grand, grey stoned and surely indestructible, destroyed by fire. Through the decaying facade down there, I can still see my over excited pantomime debut – which was also, happily, my swansong. Eyes lifting now to the other monuments of memory that cradled my childhood. To the East, the magnificent steppes of the Long Crags, beloved hills that were framed in my bedroom window, memories carved in glass. Often walked, but not often enough.
Casci’s Cafe in Church Street where author AJ Cronin hung out after school.
To the North, but close, belonging to us, the snow-covered shoulders of Ben Lomond like a guardian angel. Then past gentle green Carman Hill to the far reaches of the Clyde, past Greenock and Gourock, where she opens up to join the Gareloch, Loch Long and The Holy Loch, out to the Firth of Clyde and the sea, where the French ships would have sailed with a five-year-old Mary Queen of Scots from this very Rock, and where nuclear submarines still silently ply the deep channel, taking who knows what to who knows where. I can see the awesome pistons of the Waverley paddle steamer taking us out on a day cruise, or a wee holiday to Millport. Doon the Watter, as they say, though I don’t think we ever actually said that. I can see a thousand days out to Helensburgh, or fewer but memorable long hot sunburnt afternoons at the Ardmore shore. I can see all of that from up here. Turning East, the great straight shipping lane of the Clyde is revealed in a low tide like a silvery street. On up, under the Erskine Bridge past the once mighty shipyards of the Upper Clyde with its hulking cranes idle for years like giant birds by the shore. My uncle was a welder on the QE2, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of its launch in September. We went to see it before it was launched. A few years later, Jimmy Reid staged his work-in and gave his famous “no bevvying” speech as he tried to save the shipyards from closing. As a young student, I went to one of his rallies and was all caught up in it.
Here on Red Clydeside, my lefty soul was forged. Behind the river on a high hill stands Glasgow University, my alma mater. The highest peak of the Glasgow skyline it stands proud and promising, grand and gothic, teeming with character, talent, energy, ideas and eccentricity. We were the lucky generation, most of us from state schools, many of us the first in our families to go there. Glasgow became my town as soon as I stepped off the train. I was lost to Glasgow. Dear Glasgow, full of fascinating contradictions, I can see you from this rock. At the end of this contemplative panorama at White Tower Crag, after about an hour, I reached for my phone to take some pictures. But the battery had died. Probably just as well. These images are recorded mostly in my head, welded with the glue of memory, sealed with the power of emotion and locked up in my heart forever.
MT RAINEY OBE
Dumbarton born MT Rainey was a partner in one of the most successful advertising agencies in London and is now non-executive deputy chairperson of Channel 4 Television. She is a former pupil of Notre Dame, Clerkhill, and a graduate of the University of Glasgow.
Queen Elizabeth ll with John Brown’s managing director John Rannie at the launch of the Cunard liner QE2in Clydebank.