Graffiti - (used with a singular verb) such markings as a whole or as constituting a particular group.
The 1994 Scottish Mountaineering Club ‘Lowland Outcrops’ guide describes Dumbarton Rock succinctly - ‘Glasgow’s best outdoor training and bouldering area has a climber loyalty that dwarfs other crags in this guide. But as for many who love the seriousness and technicality of the many boulder problems, there are lots of climbers whose blood runs cold at their mere mention. Dumbarton isn’t a crag for the weak-fingered or weak-hearted, but perseverance will strengthen both.’
About 30 minutes drive West of Glasgow, Dumbarton Rock rises abruptly from the surrounding landscape, deftly marking the meeting place of the River Clyde and the River Leven. From miles afar, its rounded lump is clearly visible to the passing motorist, but only upon closer inspection is its true character revealed.
For someone visiting Dumbarton Rock for the first time the short walk from the train station leads past familiar Scottish urban scenery; takeaways, off-licenses, a frontier town Co-Op and industrial wasteland slowly being colonised by cloned new-build housing. Passing through this and reaching the car park of the Dumbarton Football Club stadium, the close proximity of the rock eats up a large portion of the sky but it isn’t until the short muddy path around its side is walked that the towering Northwest face, its smoothness and shape reminiscent of a finely crafted tombstone, becomes strikingly visible. Below the Northwest face sits a tightly packed jumble of huge boulders lying in abstract positions of mutual support, propping each other up after their shared trauma of dissection from the main face. To the North, the sky is given free reign, though shapes are cut from it by the armchair outline of Ben Lomond and a hulking old tower from a long closed whisky distillery. This is the beautiful side of Dumbarton Rock; the opposite side being informed by the local 'youths' for whom the Rock provides a convenient isolation in which to become intoxicated and harbours the detritus of their activities; stratified layers of broken glass, brightly coloured plastic bags, empty beer cans, upturned shopping trolleys, remains of hastily concocted camp-fires and crude graffiti marking the rock in acts of defiance and boredom. However, these brightly coloured scrawlings are intermingled with a different type of graffiti consisting of dabs of chalk marks snaking up prominent lines of the boulders, highlighting the features of the rock at random intervals. These differing graffiti’s tell a story of a strange mix of ingredients that make Dumbarton rock one of the most interesting and addictive climbing spots around.
Dumbarton rock is a very interesting place. Interesting because it’s a place used by different people in different ways, a place where you sometimes see folk fishing, a place where you quite often see local ‘youths’ get pissed, throw stones at the ducks and swans, break bottles on big rocks and it’s also a place where you’ll pretty much always see rock climbers. Despite this being a far cry from idyllic climbing spots such as Yosemite, Fontainbleau or Glen Nevis this combination of people and place results in a spot with a unique character and feeling and it’s fair to say that since the 1970’s Dumbarton rock has been at the forefront of Scottish rock climbing and has recently commanded much attention from the world climbing media.
As well as necessitating a particular style of climbing, Dumbarton Rock resonates with a particular atmosphere due to its semi-urban location. The crude graffiti that adorns the volcanic rock echoes that of the climbers chalk in scrawling maps of meaning upon the rock, the two combining to create a unique display of human intentionality. It is also apt that the engine room of Scottish climbing should be situated right at the heart of Scotland's past heavy industry, a fact that the rock seems not to forget, despite the post-industrial landscape that surrounds it. Indeed, the hard graft that was carried out daily within the ship yards and wood stores that once faced the rock has been adopted by the strongest climbers of each generation that have used Dumbarton Rock to continually push up the standard of Scottish rock climbing to a world class level; step forward Dave Cuthbertson, Gary Latter, Andy Gallagher, Malcolm Smith and Dave Macleod amongst others. It is this successive build up of individual motivations that have combined to form a rich and layered cultural silt surrounding Dumbarton rock climbing, sustaining a community that relates with a shared experience of space and meaning. As John Watson writes in Bouldering in Scotland – 'Dumby will suck in the light from all other bouldering in Scotland; it is the indisputable heart of its philosophy'
Speak to any climber and it’s this process of reading the rock and getting to know it intimately which appeals, for your mind to be completely focused on the movement of your body and totally oblivious to anything else in your life. The process of working very hard problems from failure through to success requires an almost monastic dedication, to be there out on the rock day after day, worshipping at its altar.
For the first timer, Dumbarton Rock can definitely feel like an intimidating place, probably as much to do with some of the rougher locals who frequent it as with the frustratingly smooth, hard and often dangerous climbing. However, spend enough time there and you’ll find the locals are (on the whole) pretty friendly and the place certainly wouldn’t have the character it does without them. Furthermore, the climbing is addictive and it’s a joy to be able to climb and struggle on the same problems as legions of past climbers.
The ever changing light and mood at the rock is sometimes breathtaking and there’s definitely nothing quite like a long, multi coloured Dumby sunset over the Clyde. Go on, even if you’re not a climber you can take in the views, drink a bottle of Buckfast or even visit the Castle!
Written by John Hutchinson