The Elephant and Castle, High Street, Dumbarton, West Dunbartonshire. (Demolished).
Now here is a quaint pub. Nestled in next to the imposing gateway of the Riverside Parish Church and the shoulders of its well preserved neighbouring pubs, The Clipper and The Counting House, sits the diminutive Elephant and Castle. Well, it used to. It has been demolished. One week it is sitting there. The next time I look it has gone.
The plight of this building is like many others. This one closed down over a decade and a half ago, victim to a shrinking market. A symptom of a struggling high street. Dumbarton's High Street still has that sweep as it follows the curve of the river and aims itself at the Castle on Dumbarton Rock. And it still retains the broadening out in the centre from when it was a bustling medieval market. Today there are a disproportionate number of charity shops. There are still pubs, some of which are actually new and successful, making good use of old and interesting buildings. But the Elephant and Castle has not survived. Nor has it attracted anyone with an interest in its restoration and adaptation to changing times.
The trouble with such buildings is that they are great within a streetscape and contribute to its overall ambience. But they are not of much value in themselves. This one was never anywhere meeting the criteria for becoming listed and the overall streetscape has not been considered worthy of becoming a designated Conservation Area – something that may need to be reconsidering. In spite of all that, the Elephant and Castle was a popular building, even to those who did not support it as a place to drink. The Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland, amongst others, has in the past recognised its limited value in itself, nevertheless proposing that its demolition be deferred until something suitable is offered that makes a convincing alternative. That delay appeared to be happening – until 2017.
But why now?
This seems an odd moment. With the success and inspiration of the local charrette, the setting up of the Dumbarton Town Centre Forum and the successful renewal of the above-mentioned nearby pubs, there has been a great deal of new interest and confidence in the town centre. To this must be added the restoration of the remnants of the nearby Dumbarton Burgh Halls with the building of the new Council offices tucked in behind it as well as proposals to turn the ancient and historic Glencairn Greit House into a museum. The land behind this and towards the Castle, once shipbuilding and distillery industry, is earmarked for development. And with that goes the ambitious project to provide a continuous pedestrian and cycle link right along the River Leven to Dumbarton Castle. Removing the Elephant and Castle can provide a link through to it. But seen in the greater context, is it really justified?
The elephant and the castle remain in urban memory. They are after all the symbols of the town. The exact origins are unclear. Similar symbols are found elsewhere. They appear to represent strength and endurance. The particular choice of an elephant also reminds us of the colonies with which Dumbarton had links at one time. The castle on its back is an obvious reference to Dumbarton Castle, a stronghold, and derives from the hathi howdah, a seating mount.