Monday, August 26, 2013

Dundurn Castle--A Victorian Experience: Part 1 The Upstairs

Dundurn Castle is a historic treasure which can be found in Hamilton, Ontario, about a 40 minute drive west of Toronto on the shore of Lake Ontario. While not a true 'castle' it is certainly a gorgeous example of a Victorian mansion built in the early 18oo's, when Canada was on the cusp of becoming a full fledged country. It's a truly remarkable estate (now a museum), consisting of a full upstairs for the family to reside in as well as downstairs for the servants, an enormous garden, a cock house (for cock fights out of sight of the delicate ladies), vast acres of parkland and a gate house (now a military museum which is also worth checking out and included in the admission to see the Castle)--all built during a time when most colonist's homes were a field stone cottage at best, but more likely a wooden cabin.

For the locals, Dundurn Castle would have been as opulent as you could get, a home built to entertain high-society and visiting nobility, and establish its owner, Sir Allan Napier MacNab as a man of importance, influence and ancestry.

Naturally, I fell in love with it all and took as many pictures as our tour guide would allow without me lagging too far behind the group (unfortunately I was NOT allowed to explore the house by myself *insert frowny face*) I've paired it down to a chosen few favorites. So, without further preamble, here is the upstairs portion of Dundurn Castle:

Front entranceway with colonnade.
Rear of the mansion.
Sir Allan MacNab's study and library.
 I will forever think of this when I imagine a laird's study when reading Scottish historicals. Fantastic tartan curtains from the clan MacNab, the ancestral seat of which was Dundurn on Loch Earn, Perthshire, Scotland. Unfortunately, I could not get close enough to see what selection of texts MacNab had on his bookshelves (darn tour guides and their rules), but I imagine that as he had a lengthy career in parliament, he would have been very learned.
Aunt Sophia's bedroom.
I hope the gorgeousness of this bedroom and it's furnishings (the drapery over the bed is beyond beautiful) were a comfort to Sophia as she certainly deserved some peace. At the ripe old age of 24, within a span of a few short weeks she lost her young son Napier, her husband David (Sir Allan MacNab's younger brother) and her infant son, David (named after his father). Deep in her grief, she came to live at Dundurn Castle in her own suite of rooms, to be with her sister, Lady Mary MacNab, wife of Sir Allan. (yes, that's right, the brothers married sisters, so it's a bit confusing) Aunt Sophia took over running the household after Lady Mary became ill and died of tuberculosis, caring for Sir Allan's children in the absence of their mother.
Children's work table in their nursery suite.
 Ladies were taught at home with a governess or tutor whereas boys were
sent away to school. Suitable subjects were music, art and
embroidery, all of which I would have failed at, except perhaps
for art :)
Birdcage on the children's windowsill.

Dining room fit for a king with silver candelabra and a magnificent crystal chandelier,
originally lit by candles, but now electric.

The Drawing Room.
After dinner entertaining happened here before the gentlemen might retire to discuss business and
smoke in MacNab's study. Anyone for a game of whist? How about charades or a song?
Simply gorgeous!

This unfortunate photograph was the best I could do without being allowed to use my flash *insert another frowny face*
and there being no lights in this closet-style room. Can you guess what the wooden box
with the lid is? That's right, it's a toilet. But not just any pit and board. It's a flushing toilet with a cistern. The height of
luxury during Victorian times for the low, low cost of...$250.00. To put that into perspective
$250.00 Canadian dollars in 1835 could buy a whole house (not this house of course, but a regular one.)

One of three pianos we passed during the tour. Music was more than
an accomplishment during Victorian times, it was a way of life.

Grand spiraling staircase leading down to the main entryway. Unlike many of the
rooms in the house with large windows to let in light, I found the entryway
quite gloomy with the heavy double doors closed, and therefore difficult to photograph.

Sir MacNab's bed.
His room and it's off suite dressing chamber are the biggest in the house. That bed is really
something, isn't it? Fit for a king.

Sir MacNab's dressing room with a cupboard for his washstand. His butler
served as valet and would lay out his clothes each day, ensuring they were in good

Lady Mary enjoyed charity work, which unfortunately led to her catching Tuberculosis, an
incurable illness in Victorian times. Medicines, like those above, were mostly tinctures and
powders used for keeping the patient comfortable while nature took it's course, and sometimes they did more harm than good. For more on 19th century remedies, please click here.


View of the rear grounds from the Drawing Room looking out onto
Burlington Bay (the blue bits in the distance). The shore of Lake Ontario is craggy here
and it is said the view inspired MacNab to buy the land, reminding him
somewhat of Scotland. True or not, he certainly built a beautiful home for himself and his
family, and a lasting legacy enjoyed by hundreds of visitors, almost 200 years later.
Next up: Dundurn Castle from downstairs, a different view of Victorian life in Canada.
Thanks for stopping by!


  1. Great post Kate. AND you behaved on the guided tour. What money these people had.

    1. Thanks Shehanne! I was very tempted to stray and spend hours looking at all of the amazing things they have preserved in that house, but the tour guide counted heads to make certain no one was missing, lol. Maybe one day they will let me in with kid gloves on if I beg and plead :) And yes, amazing amounts of money involved in making that home. Impressive considering MacNab was a self made man, having arrived in Canada only 6 years before starting to build his mansion, with just a law degree to his name and a drive to succeed to get him started.

  2. I love these kinds of tours! The tartan curtains make perfect sense, although they caught me by surprise. I love them. I can't wait to see the downstairs, and see how the other half lived. Fun post, Kate. :)

    1. Thanks, Sutton! There was a collective indrawn breath from everyone as we entered that room, with the sun shining through the window and setting the bright red in the tartan curtains ablaze. Coupled with the dark oak panelling and furniture, it was a real 'moment' which I'm certain MacNab hoped for from all of his guests as he showed off both his pride in his heritage and his importance as a person. I did not get as many good pictures of the downstairs due to the gloominess of the quarters (poor lighting), but enough to show the interesting contrast between the upstairs and downstairs of the household domains. Will have them posted for you soon :)