Despite all my time spent in Hamilton growing up, it was not until this November that I visited the great city landmark and National Historic Site – Dundurn Castle. Considering I drive by this great castle everyday on my way to and from work, I am surprised it took me this long to stop in.
Built over the course of three years in the 1830’s by Sir Allan Napier MacNab, the castle used to sit on 35 acres of land that wrapped from its current location all the way around Burlington Bay towards the Royal Botanical Gardens.
MacNab, having been knighted for his defense of upper Canada, made his beginnings in the army, became a lawyer for the Crown and lived to become the Premier (Prime Minster) of the United Province of Canada (to name a few accomplishments). MacNab built, for himself and his modest family of four, this neoclassical inspired 18,000 square foot home boasts 72 rooms, a coach house and servants quarters (that are larger than my home) and state-of-the-art amenities and technologies including gas lights, “running” water and toilets. There was also a guest house that has since been converted by the City of Hamilton to the Hamilton Military Museum.
Now, I’m not one for tours (I much prefer exploring on my own) so was a little disappointed that the only way to see Dundurn Castle is to be led through with a guide. However, our guide – Josh – was very knowledgeable and I really appreciated that he did not rush us through. He let us linger in rooms that were more interesting and was not overbearing or overly dramatic like some other guides I have encountered at other historical locations. One piece of information I am grateful for Josh sharing with us is that Sir Allan Napier MacNab is great-great-great-grandfather to the Duchess of Cornwall – Prince Charles’s wife – Camilla. It was for this reason Charles and Camilla visited Dundurn Castle in 2009 during their trip to Canada.
After purchasing your tickets for $12/ adult at the gift store in the coach house you will be welcomed by your guide and walked towards the great castle. The tour starts by having visitors enter through the servant’s quarters. Interestingly enough, the servants in the Premier’s household were afforded many luxuries including skylights and natural light in their quarters, wall-paper, and white-sugar goodies once per year. This isn’t evident when you first enter the castle but becomes apparent as the tour goes on. I guess you could say that Sir Allan MacNab was the employer of choice in Hamilton in the 1830’s.
Currently the house is dressed as it would be in the 1850’s at the height of MacNab’s career as Premier. The City of Hamilton finished the restoration in the 1960’s and based on family diaries and other historic documents have recreated what the grande home would have looked like. Not more than a few steps after entering the house you will find yourself in the foyer with the grande staircase. The foyer and staircase where important guests would enter into is absolutely gorgeous. The dark hardwood, the deep and rich red fabric lining the steps and the bright gold marble on the walls – just captivating! I was also more than impressed with the number of pianos in the house – considering I’ve played since I was four years old it would have been nice to be able to pause the tour, crossed the rope and tickled the ivories for a while. The architecture outside and within the castle are also spectacular! The dark walnut wood trim is original and is especially noticeable on the first floor. I love the archways and entryways and nooks and crannies and other bits of detail that most homes of the twenty-first century cannot boast. No wonder there are rumours of this castle being haunted, I could not imagine all the creeks and eerie noises this place would make in the middle of the night – definitely spooky!
MacNab’s personal study, the parlour all dressed in pink and red and the 7-sectioned dining room table were also rooms that I found I could have spent much more time in. The upstairs rooms were spacious yet intimate and revealed much about MacNab and his family’s life – a nursery and bedrooms for his daughters, a playing room for the family, drawing rooms and a master room with a gorgeous view of the Bay.
Although not nearly as grande, I enjoyed heading into the basement to see the servant’s quarters, kitchens and storage rooms. The original calling bells are still hanging in the main kitchen and it was there where we were greeted by the MacNab family cook – in costume – and offered some shortbread made with white sugar. I was interested to learn, and I guess it makes sense, that any estate cook would have had long abandoned the idea of becoming a wife and mother and she was the second best paid of all the servants in any home. Second to the butler, the cook made 80% of his wages (usually women made 50% of the wages of men in similar standing) and worked morning until night preparing more than seven meals a day. Four meals for the family (the fourth being afternoon tea) and three for the servants. Considering MacNab’s wife was sick with and eventually died of consumption (what we now know as tuberculosis), the cook actually made many more individual meals according to Mrs. MacNab’s doctor’s orders.
Something I wasn’t expecting was the pitch the cook makes to all guests touring through the home in the winter for all guests to return over Christmas for the open-house and table-fulls of baked goodies. What some might have considered a shameless plug, I consider a wonderful invitation to return to see Dundurn decorated for Christmas – trees, lights and trinkets galore. What a spectacular site that will be I’m sure!
With so many places and things to see at Dundurn, I’m already looking forward to my next visit – which I’m almost positive will be at Christmas. I figure that I can plan on going back to Dundurn at least another half a dozen times and will see something new each trip. I guess that’s the nature of exploring a castle and it is something I could definitely get used to!