Welcome to Dunoon
Dunoon, on the east coast of the mountainous Cowal Peninsula and on the Firth of Clyde, is the largest town in Argyll. Its attractive location, easily accessed by ferry, helps to explain how Dunoon has developed as a retreat for wealthy Glaswegians and as a holiday resort for those less wealthy. At Dunoon a steep sided mound sits atop an area of coastline which juts out slightly into the firth. This vantage point, most commonly known as Castle Hill, gives us a clue into the early origins of Dunoon. In fact, the origin of the name may be derived from the old Celtic dun-nain meaning green hill.
Dunoon Pier from Castle Hill on the Firth of Clyde
Anyone interested in exploring Dunoon’s history, as well as getting a good overall impression of the town, would be well advised to start at Castle Hill. At the foot of the northern slope lies Castle House, the grand early Victorian turreted mansion which is undoubtedly Dunoon’s landmark building. Although originally built as a private residence for James Ewing, Lord Provost of Glasgow, and later transformed into a library, it has since become a museum. Here the history of Argyll, Cowal and Dunoon is explained in a number of displays. Amongst the most interesting items exhibited are a number of early stone age artefacts from Cowal (such as an Neolithic pot) which testify to the longevity of human settlement on the peninsula.
Climbing up to the hill’s summit takes you, as the exhibitions will have explained, to the focal point of medieval Dunoon and medieval Cowal, as well as to a point which affords spectacular views of Dunoon and across the Firth of Clyde. All that remains of bygone days are a couple of boulders overgrown with grass and disturbed earth which mark the foundations of a castle. When the first fort was built here is anyone’s guess. It is seems likely that such a prominent site would have been used since prehistoric times. Some believe that Fergus mac Eric, founder of the Scottish kingdom in Argyll c.500 AD, established a fortification here. In the following centuries it may even have been used as a launch pad for the invasion and settlement of the Firth of Clyde area. Alas, no evidence of a fort predating the 11th century has yet been uncovered.
Legend has it that Clan Lamont owe their origins to a line of these early Scots kings who stayed behind in Argyll when regal power shifted east to Perthshire in the 9th century. Certainly the Lamonts were the dominant family in Cowal by the 13th century. By this time the Lamonts were clearly ruling from their fortification on Castle Hill at Dunoon.
At the end of the century the Lamonts sided with John Balliol in the dynastic conflict with Robert the Bruce. This proved to be a costly decision, however wise it initially appeared considering the seeming improbability of Robert’s triumph against all of his opponents at home and abroad. But triumph Robert did and when securely in power he quite understandably took measures to remove those who had failed to support him. He sent an army of loyal Campbells and Stewarts to seize Cowal in the early 14th century who carved up much of the former Lamont lands. During this campaign Dunoon Castle was seized by supporters of Bruce and granted to Walter Stewart who was charged with subduing the territory. When Walter’s descendant, Robert II, ascended to the throne Dunoon Castle became a royal possession.
The Lamonts, however, did not disappear. They remained in Cowal based in the castles of Toward and Ascog. The Campbell guardians of Dunoon, who ruled much of Cowal on behalf of the Stewarts, would sporadically come into conflict with the ousted local elite. The worst example of this conflict getting out of hand was in 1646, during the Civil War, when a group of Campbells arrested around one hundred and forty Lamonts. About one hundred were shot or stabbed to death and 36 ‘special gentlemen’ of the Lamonts were hung from a single tree in Dunoon Churchyard. A memorial to the dead sits on top of Castle Hill. Despite attempts at a Campbell cover up, when those responsible were brought to justice, albeit 16 years later, they were executed. The atrocity also ended the often grisly history of Dunoon Castle and shortly afterwards it was abandoned and fell into ruin. In the 19th century its stone was quarried to build Castle House.
The town that grew up around the fort most probably fell into decline after the abandonment of Dunoon Castle. Nonetheless, by the 17th century Dunoon was established as a fishing centre and one of the peninsula’s primary markets and subsequently did not disappear from the map. At the dawn of the 19th century it was little more than a village made up of a collection of wooden houses. However, the effects of industrialisation were set to transform Dunoon. James Ewing, Lord Provost of Glasgow, led the way by popularising Dunoon amongst Glasgow’s elite and within decades of the construction of Castle House many of the grand buildings of Dunoon were in place. The advent of paddle steamers also made the town accessible to the growing population of less wealthy Glaswegians who could now afford short breaks in Dunoon. The last sea going paddle steamer, The Waverley, still calls at Dunoon’s impressive Victorian pier.
While Dunoon’s place as a tourist centre was damaged by the advent of cheap air travel to sunnier foreign shores, Dunoon remains a popular destination repackaged for a more adventurous traveller. Accordingly Dunoon has much to offer the visitor.