What to see at Dundurn Castle, the former home of Sir Allan MacNab, one of Canada's first premiers. Travellers' tips, historic background, photos of the museum.
What was it like to live in a Canadian “castle” during the middle of the 19th century? Well, that would depend on where you lived – upstairs or downstairs – whether you were the lord or lady of the manor, or one of the resident servants. At Dundurn Castle, you can experience a bit of both lifestyles by touring more than 40 rooms in this beautifully restored historic mansion.
Dundurn was built for Sir Allan Napier MacNab. His family hailed from Scotland, although he himself was born in Newark (now known as Niagara-on-the-Lake) and he grew up in York (now Toronto).
MacNab purchased the land in 1832. He moved his family into his new Regency Italianate mansion in 1835. He lived here for 27 years and died in his bedroom on the second floor. The house is now a museum and is decorated to reflect the period of 1855 when MacNab was the Premier of the United Canadas, the predecessor of Confederation.
Even before you enter the building, you
can tell that Dundurn was once a luxurious place – a “monster home” of its day,
the most costly house in Hamilton, featuring work by that era’s talented
craftsmen. The grounds, which were once much more extensive, still sprawl
around the castle, and include outbuildings, a lovely lawn, and a walled
kitchen garden that once again grows food and flowers. The back yard overlooks the
bay; MacNab bought the property in part for its million dollar view. The classical
pillars lining the York Street side of the mansion are imposing and the
dovecote with its scary MacNab crest gives the building an eccentric feel.
The strange gate and the somewhat
pompous portico announce to the public that this is an “important” place, no
If you were visiting at the time when MacNab lived here, you would have been greeted by one of his staff at the door. Today a costumed guide plays that role. You don’t go in through the front door, though, but through the west entrance after you’ve purchased your tickets in the former stable. When everyone is ready, your guide ushers you through the west wing courtyard, into the house, and into the main hallway.
The entry hall is an assault on the senses. Everything vies for attention: the faux-marble walls hung with oil paintings, the multi-coloured floor tiles, and the grand sweep of the walnut staircase with a grandfather clock standing sentry beside it. A painting of the former lord of the manor hangs front and centre. The hall looks large enough to host a cocktail party.
Of course most important parties would have been held in the drawing room which is just off the hallway – a feminine Victorian fantasy in pink and red. During the Christmas season this is fitted out with a tree and other historically-accurate festive decorations. The velvet sofas and chaise longue, the marble fireplace, the crown molding and ceiling medallions are all designed to impress visitors.
Few of the furnishings, by the way, are original to the house. This is because MacNab’s household furniture was sold at auction by his sister-in-law after his death, to pay off the enormous debts he left behind. “Buy now and pay later” is not a 21st century invention; old MacNab died bankrupt. His house stood empty for four years and then was leased out as a home for the deaf and mute children for a while, then sold to the MacInnes family. At the turn of the 20th century it became a civic museum with military exhibits, scientific specimens and even a small zoo on the grounds. When the city decided to restore the castle as a “house museum” dating to MacNab’s era as a 1967 centennial project, it was too late to track down the location of MacNab’s original furnishings. There are, however, some personal family objects like portraits scattered about the house.
In the dining room, for example, you’ll
find another painting of MacNab, and one of his second wife, Mary, as well.
Mary was the mistress of the castle from 1835 to 1846, the year she died a lung
ailment in one of the upstairs bedrooms.
Another interesting room on the first floor is MacNab’s library, surprisingly small and rather dark and claustrophobic. Bookshelves both line and jut out from the walls at right angles to allow the greatest amount of storage. Tartan curtains reflect the master’s Scottish heritage. Off the library is the gentlemen’s smoking room. This chair boasts the family crest on the back:
The open hallway on the second floor
functioned as a kind of living room for the family. It features sofas, more paintings and an elegant
piano – not one owned by the MacNabs, but one similar to it. Who played the
piano? Usually the girls. Sir Allan was more partial to bag pipes.
Sir Allan’s bedroom looks more like an open-air loft than a sleeping chamber. Perhaps he preferred to work at his desk here rather than the one in his cramped library on the first floor.
In an era when children were to be seen and not heard, the MacNab girls spent a lot of their time squirreled away in their own little suite on the second floor. This included a nursery with two little bedrooms attached to it. There’s a schoolroom at the end of the hallway.
The bathroom at Dundurn Castle is always a big hit with visitors. The gilded Doulton sink with the lion’s head is almost too exquisite to use.
The house was one of the first in the city with indoor plumbing. MacNab was always an “early adopter” when it came to technology. He had gas lighting when most of his neighbours were making do with candles.
Downstairs, in the basement, you’ll find
that life is dramatically different. The walls in the servants’ hall are
cheerfully papered and there’s a cozy feeling to the rustic shelving and the
long table with mismatched chairs, but the working areas are basic to the point
of Dickensian bleakness. The kitchen and laundry rooms are stripped and stark
and even the cook’s bedroom feels cramped and institutional.
In MacNab’s era, the basement was a true factory where live-in staff just happened to bed down. Some of the rooms and passageways look and feel like caves.
The servants produced much of the family’s needs. They grew vegetables and brewed beer. They made bread and candlesticks. A laundry woman came in once a month to mend and clean and press the clothes with heavy irons.
The Dundurn Castle basement actually predates the MacNab house. Before it was built, MacNab instructed the architect to build the house over the foundation of an earlier cottage on the site dating back to 1800. During the War of 1812 the army took over the property and launched its Battle of Stoney Creek from this look-out point on Burlington Heights. There’s a lot of history in these walls.
The grounds are full of memory too. Save some time after the tour of the house to explore them. Read the historic plaques dedicated to the War of 1812 and to the United Empire Loyalists (refugees from an even earlier war). And visit the small Military Museum for more insights into life and death during the 1800s.
Circle round to the side and visit the garden.
Or walk out back and enjoy the stroll towards the water. Here you'll really understand why Macnab bought the property in the first place.
For more information about visiting hours, special events and how to host a birthday party or wedding at the Castle, see Dundurn Castle official site.