You can’t miss Dumbarton: the dramatic volcanic rock that dominates the town can be seen for miles around, making it a landmark for Glaswegians as well as locals.

Situated magnificently on the northern bank of the Clyde, astride the River Leven, this ancient settlement features prominently in the political and economic story of the nation, as its castle and shipbuilding history attest.

These days, however, Dumbarton is something of a neglected gem. You may find yourself passing though on the way to somewhere else - Loch Lomond or the west Highlands - without really taking much notice. But if you don’t stop, you’re missing out. There is much to enjoy in this compact town and its environs, including history, geology, architecture and some of the loveliest walks in west central Scotland. Plus, the homemade sausage rolls are delicious.

Historical highlights

Meaning “Fort of the Britons” in Gaelic, Dumbarton was once the capital of the medieval Kingdom of Alclud, or Strathclyde, and previously known as Dunbretane. The “m” is thought to have replaced the “n” around 300 years ago, a fact that still confuses and perplexes non-locals.

Scotland's Insider Guide: Drymen

The town became a Royal Burgh in 1222 and was badly affected by the Black death in the 1350s. The six-year-old Mary, Queen of Scots stayed in Dumbarton Castle in 1548 before being sent to the French court.

An important trading port for centuries, by the early 1800s Dumbarton was renowned for its glass. Later in the century shipbuilding became the major industry. Vessels including the Cutty Sark and paddle steamers that sailed from Scotland across the world were built in the town.

In the early 2000s Dumbarton became home to BBC Scotland soap River City. Famous sons include Talking Heads frontman David Byrne, who emigrated to the US as a child, and writer and physician AJ Cronin, author of The Citadel. Prince Harry and his wife Meghan are known in Scotland as the Earl and Countess of Dumbarton.

What to do

The best way to arrive in Dumbarton is by train, which takes around 30 minutes from Glasgow city centre. The town’s impressive Victorian station is well worth a look, and the coffee at the kiosk is good.

As you walk through the town, note the clutch of attractive and historic 18th and 19th century buildings around the High Street – including the library and municipal buildings - highlighting Dumbarton’s place as a former county town. Glencairn House, the oldest surviving building, dates back to 1623.

Making your way towards the rock, be sure to stop off at the Denny Ship Model Experiment Tank on Castle Street, run by the Scottish Maritime Museum, which gives a unique - and hugely enjoyable - insight into the innovative shipbuilding operation run by Denny Brothers from 1800 to 1963.

Those looking to explore the wider history of the town should visit the Library and Heritage Centre on Strathleven Place, which holds a wonderful collection of maps, pictures, postcards, newspapers and books.

Dumbarton Castle, meanwhile, is a an absolute must-visit. Just about every big character from Scottish history has visited at some point, from William Wallace to Robert the Bruce, and the aforementioned Mary, Queen of Scots, who was making her way there when her army was defeated at the Battle of Langside. The Georgian Governor’s House and surrounding military fortifications are fascinating, but for me the most enjoyable part of the visit is climbing White Tower Crag, which offers stunning panoramic views of river, city, hill and mountain, from Glasgow to Loch Lomond and beyond.

Levengrove Park is another gem, as pointed out by many locals including Ian Baillie, Carolann Ramsay and Chris Pollock. Fellow Dumbarton resident Tom Gardiner adds: “The park runs right along the Clyde shore and was recently refurbished thanks to lottery funding. The magnificent floral displays, new training centre and cafe make it a pleasure to visit.”

Scotland's Insider Guide: Drymen

Scottish history buffs will be in their element in the park – keep your eyes peeled for the medieval well and monument commemorating the town’s links with Robert the Bruce. The King is known to have lived his final years in the area, and his internal organs are buried in Levengrove Park. 

Zoe Weir, meanwhile, recommends a visit to nearby Havoc Meadows. “It’s just along the shore path from Levengrove Park and one of Scotland's best coastal grassland sites for butterflies,” she says. “The meadow and adjacent shore are sites of special scientific interest, brimming with wildflowers, orchids, curlews and redshanks. The wet cliff bordering the meadow is home to large colonies of rare ferns. According to legend the cliff cavelet was used by William Wallace to escape from the English, and in ancient times Vikings camped nearby while besieging the rock.”

Where to eat

Julie Paterson is a big fan of The Rock Kitchen and Bakehouse on Dumbarton High Street. “It's a great wee place where everything made fresh. Breakfasts and homebaking are particularly good.” After tasting the homemade sausage rolls and pies, I'm a convert.

For the best scone in town, you can’t beat the Vault 94 Atomic Diner on Glasgow Road, just up from the castle. The sandwiches, cakes and brownies are also delicious, while the punk-themed artwork is great fun.

Local favourite The Taj on West Bridgend offers a tasty selection of tandoori favourites, while The Glencairn Lounge serves traditional bar meals in cosy surroundings.

If it’s a fish supper you’re after, you can’t beat Andy’s Golden Fry on the High Street.

Where to shop:

Social enterprise Made Zero, in Glasgow Road, is all about promoting local makers, designers and artisans, and stocks a lovely selection of sustainable gifts, homeware and accessories.

Keen knitters and sowers won’t wont to miss nearby Threads, where the friendly, knowledgeable staff will help bring your craft projects to life.

Where to stay:

Country living: Built in 1798, the Dumbuck House Hotel offers elegant rooms, a popular restaurant and views across the river. Rooms from £69.

Castle View: If you’d rather have your own apartment Airbnb lists a number of possibilities, including a comfortable one-bedroom traditional flat near the town centre from £44 a night.

Cottage B&B: Just a 10-minute drive away in Alexandria, the Cloudside B&B promises a warm welcome, cosy accommodation and tasty breakfast. From £85.

What to do nearby

River City fans won’t want to miss the opportunity to see Shieldinch icons such as The Ship and the Oyster Café on a tour of the purpose-built set. Contact BBC Scotland for details.

Just two miles outside Dumbarton is Overtoun House. The house, a handsome Scots Baronial manor which features in films including Cloud Atlas and Regeneration, is now a healing centre and only allows access to the café at weekends. But the beautiful grounds, with woodland walks, wildlife trails and picnic areas galore, are fully open to the public.

In the weeks to come I’ll be visiting Gourock, Queensferry, Applecross and the Glasgow neighbourhood of Mount Florida. Send your hints and tips to: