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The most distinctive characteristic of Dumbarton's High Street is it's curve. This echoes that of the River Leven, the reason why the town is here in the first place. The street also widens in the centre, reflecting its typical function as a market space, a space within which to water your horse and turn your cart.

Map 1 : In this map of 1818 by John Hood you can clearly see why the High Street curves as it does. With the Rock and Clyde just out of sight to the south, the Leven reaches northwards and, at least at high tide, forms a relatively sheltered harbour. The town begins to form across what here looks like a promontory. The lagoon has long since been infilled, but at the time restricted expansion northwards. See index.asp?pageid=718419

At this time there were two communal wells in the High Street. You may be able to just make them out as dots. While individual properties would also have probably had wells, these public ones would be essential for those which didn't and also for watering one's horse.

What we don't see is a refence to a town cross or mercat (market) cross as so many towns of this era had, usually marked with a stone cross or similar feature. But we do sometimes see reference to a "town cross" in texts. Perhaps this was simply used in daily parlance, but never specifically marked. There were two possible locations. The intersection of the High Street and the Cross Vennel (roughly where the Artizan Centre now stands; or the intersection of the High Street with Quay Street down to the river... and the quays. 

This small cross road, Quay Street, may appear rather insignificant to us now, but was then very important. Across from it was the Tolbooth, with direct contact with the quayside via this road, which also served as the court and jail / gaol. See index.asp?pageid=733981 Property owners on the river side had direct access to it with their own quays, but everyone else would use this link.

Joseph Irvine writing in 1879 describes the High Street. In the High Street there were houses reared upon every known and unknown principle of architecture - quaint old dwellings, some of them coeval with the Reformation, and all more remarkable for the number than for the size of their apartments. As every builder suited his own taste in the style of his house, an equal  latitude  seems to have been claimed in regard to the situation. One reared his domicile close upon the footway - probably overed it with the overhanging storey - while another left a vacancy of ten to fifteen feet to the front; here there a low fantastic cottage, there a house of lofty and severely plain; one dwelling had its gable to the street, ,the front of another ran parallel to it, a third was entered by a staircase in the inside, and a fourth by a flight of stone steps outside. Though not far from slates,, and in the immediate vicinity of large glass works, many of the dwelling-houses, of the time we speak were as innocent as the could well be of those accessories to health, and comfort. Thatch was not uncommon covering even for houses which had some pretensions to elegance; and, so far was light was concerned, the windows appeared to be constructed with the sole design of admitting as little as possible. Thus, with irregularities of one kind and another, the High Street, though, upon the whole, semi-circular, had otherwise little appearance it has at present. On a wide open space at the north-east end, and a little above the bridge, were situated the glass works already referred to, which furnished employment to a very large number of skilled workmen, and were known over the world for the fine quality of glass produced in them. On the opposite side, but a little southward, and skirting the street, were the gardens and pleasure-ground possessed by Joseph Dixon, then the proprietor of these works, and for many yearss the chief magistrate of the burgh. On the same side, but removed from the gardens by a row of houses of hte irregular character sketched above, was the Old Tolbooth, situated nearly at the junction of College Street, exactly opposite the street since opened up to the Quay. ......

To the south-end of the High Street was terminated, as now. by the parish church. ...... 

This church is now known as the Riverside Parish Church at C1. See index.asp?pageid=715668. But it was not always so. It superceded the Catholic Church on that site. The reasons for that area tied in with the Reformation. (The situation was later resolved with a new Catholic Church in Strathleven Place). 

Church Street is one of two access roads into the town centre from the east, obviously named for the Parish Church. This church finds itself at a cross roads and dominating the approach as well as the High Street. 

As you see in both this and the earlier map above, the town is linked to the Rock and Castle by a smaller road, now named Castle Street. The Castle was the first reason that a settlement began here. While the harbour potential of the River Leven would have been recognised and utilised from the outset, it was slow to start develop. The area immediately adjacent to the Rock was largely tidal and boggy which contributed to the reason that the town developed some distance away.

Map 2 : This map is from 1859. The town is beginning to look much more tightly packed. Almost all towns of this era would have a major church asserting itself and looking down the length of its main street. This is the case here - even though the High Street curves away. In urban landscape terms this also provides a visual anchor to one end. And in social terms it gives the church predominant authority over daily life and even over the other administative buildings such as the Tolbooth. 

Here we see the Parish Church having replaced the Catholic Church at C1. (At this point the site was reduced with the Denny shipyard being extended). But there is a United Presbyterian Church (only later to become St Augustine’s Episcopal Church) across from it at C2 and other "free churches" at C3 & C4. 

In the previous earlier map you can see the bridge over the Leven linking the fledgling town to the other side, but the High Street is still essentially "the town". In this map though the area is becoming noticeably more densely built up. What began as the Cross Vennel (near where the Artizan Centre now is), has become more established and named College Street (named after the collegiate church at its extremity towards the lagoon). 

The Elephant Hotel is shown at HE, but right close to it is Glencairn Greit House at GH, although here unlabelled. The Tolbooth has gone and in its place is Heggie's Buildings, one building of two parts at HB. (That is where the frontage of the Artizan Centre now is).

The buildings to the river side of the High Street are mainly commercial with properties stretching down to the all important quayside. each of theses had its own section of quay which gave that an irregular edge until rebuilt years later. Those to the other side are more varied; timber yards seem to be squeezed in in several places, a large one being at T. The bowling green is located at B and P indicates the police station. The properties beyond the High Street, such as up College Street, include many houses packed together on their frontage and with deep gardens intended for vegetable gardens. 

It was common for churches to vie for strategically prominent sites. You may notice thet the Bell Centre, originally High Church is not yet built at the corner of High Street and Bridge Street. 

Map 3 : This map is from 1896. You can clearly see the changes, yet you can make out many of the earlier features that still remain. A really major difference is the arrival of the railway. College Street has become the major artery between the station and the commercial heart of High Street. 

It is thanks to postcards of the time, that we have such photographic records. In this one looking north westwards along the curve of the High Street we see the High Church built in 1863/4. It is now the Bell Centre, in perfect counterpoise to the focus at the other end, the Riverside Parish Church. Note the tram and the tramlines.

This is much the same view, but the trams and tramlines have gone. This was taken sometime in the '60s. Glencairn Greit House is on the left with the arches. Just look at all that traffic!

Moving into the noughties, we find the street very congested. Initiatives we set in motion to recognise that while creating a much more attractive and friendly environment for pedestrians. The greater width of the street in the middle provided scope for that and is much as we have today. But it could have been something quite different. Similar challenges were being felt across the country and many town centres resolved that with complete pedestrianisation. A mall. But the shape and the ize of the town centre and its surrounding routes limited the scope that could be done here. Add to that the resistance of pedestrians to walk very far - even parking up the kerbs. So what we have here does work, but at the time was seen as a compromise. It was at this time that the street was made one-way.

And this was also the time that the commercial hearts of town centres across the country were being drawn away by shopping centres and Dumbarton was no different. The commerce of the High Street was changing and shopfronts began to go blank.  This is something that we still feel today.

Almost invisbly at first, another force was coming into play. The internet. While online shopping took decades to really hit hard, when it did its impact was profound. And then the Covid pandemic arrived in 2019 and just about everyone went online to shop, at least for individual items. To cope with this we need to rethink what town centres really are; what they are for. How can we draw people back and restimulate the economy? Can we turn the town centre into a more attractive place to live? Little of the upper floors are actually used. One initiative was to convert some premises into educational facilities. The strongest option is probably that of more restaurants and some newer ones have opened in recent years. Also internet related is the impact on banking, although at this moment Dumbarton town centre has not fully felt this impact.

This is the High Street with a view towards the Bell Centre much as those above, but this one is much more recent. Changes may be slow, but they are nevertheless persistent. Several shops in this picture have since been replaced by others. Motorists can be obstructive and arrogant. You see cars parked up the kerb over the yellow lines and also within the designated loading bays. There is nearly always alternative parking nearby.

The town centre has been designated a Conservation Area (see link below), and following a charrette some years ago to innovately explore all options, other improvements were set in motion, although some are taking time to be realised. One of these is the connectivity between Dumbarton Central Station and the town centre. Another is the riverside footpath to connect with Dumbarton Rock. Changes are also afoot for the Artizan Centre. On the one hand we have the need to make the High Street attractive, a place to visit and enjoy. On another is the need to interconnect its facilities with those beyond - such as the station and parking as well as housing.

NATIONAL LIBRARY OF SCOTLAND (NLS). Maps reproduced with permission :

Map 1 : "1818 map: Archive title : Wood, John, ca. 1780-1847  Title:Plan of Dumbarton. Imprint:Edinburgh : [T. Brown], 1818. https://maps.nls.uk/rec/328 ©

Map 2 : Dumbarton - Sheet XXII.6.11. Surveyed: [1859],https://maps.nls.uk/view/74415249 ©

Map 3 : Dumbartonshire Sheet  XXII.NW
Date revised: 1896, Date Published: 1899   https://maps.nls.uk/view/75498375 ©

jOSEPH IRVING. The Book of Dumbartonshire. Volume II Parishes. W and A.K. Johnston. Edinburgh and London 1879. 

WEST DUNBARTONSHIRE COUNCIL : Dumbarton Town Centre Conservation Area : https://www.west-dunbarton.gov.uk/media/ymeptbnd/dumbarton-tc-conservation-area-appraisal-finalised-2023-04.pdf

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