Located at the Burlington heights, the magnificent Dundurn Castle is one of the most recognized landmarks in Hamilton. It is a national historic site that illustrates the unique Canadian life during the mid 19th Century prior to the confederation. The Castle is also one of the rare surviving examples of the picturesque values of Canadian architecture.
Overlooking the Burlington Bay, the Castle is located on Burlington Heights between Hamilton Harbor and the low lying lands known as Cootes Paradise. It is important to know that it is not an actual castle but rather a villa. The ‘Castle’ was added by the residents of Hamilton.
History of Dundurn
The history of this land goes back before the War of 1812. The estate was originally a property of Richard Beasley, who erected a two-story brick resistance on the site in 1800. He shapes the Burlington Heights landscape with his Gregorian styled brick cottage surrounded by fields, orchards, and stands of valuable hardwood.
During the War of 1812, the British military found that Burlington Heights was a perfect vantage point. They soon establish a post here in the estate of Dundurn. The enlisted men sought shelter in Beasley’s shed and barn while the rest camped out in tents on the cold hard ground.
And with that, they start building a tunnel and a gun powder storage. Two decades later, these surviving military elements get incorporated into the construction of the Dundurn Castle by MacNab in the 1830s.
After the war, Beasley’s financial problems eventually forced him to sell his home to John Solomon Cartwright. The following year, Cartwright sold the property to MacNab, who begins the construction of the castle in 1835.
Who was Sir Allan Napier MacNab?
Sir Allan MacNab was the owner of the famous Dundurn Castle. He was born in Niagara. He first arrived in Hamilton from York in 1826 to begin his career as a lawyer. He was nicknamed ‘Boy Hero’ for his role in the War of 1813 at the age of 12.
He holds an important place in the pre-confederation history of Canada. Following his support of the royalist cause in the Upper Canada Rebellion of 1837, Queen Victoria knighted MacNab.
Sir Allan MacNab left a lasting impression in the growing town of Hamilton. With his help, the railway was established, which later made him a railway magnate. He also opened the first bank and represented the area for 30 years in Parliament.
Having lost his first wife, Elizabeth Brookes, he raised two children, Robert and Anne Jane as a widower. In 1831, he married Mary Stuart and had two more children, Sophia and Minnie. During the construction of Dundurn, his son Robert was killed in a hunting accident.
The Dundurn Castle, which was an 18,000 square foot house, took three years and $175,000 to build and was completed in 1835. It was designed by a young English architect, Robert Wetherall. Designed as a fashionable Regency-style villa, “Dundurn” was a Gaelic word for “Strong Fort.”
The main house is an eclectic blend of Classical and Italian motifs, set in a sweeping landscape with panoramic views of the adjacent Burlington Bay. An interesting fact was that the Castle was the first to use the “Italianate style” of architecture in North America.
MacNab and the resident master gardener, William Reid, continued to develop the landscape over their lifetime. Professional landscape and building architects were often hired for this purpose.
After the construction was completed, the Castle became well known in the region for its entertainment. King Edward VII was among some of the famous personalities who had been entertained here.
The Castle, with its gardens, grounds, museum, and many outbuildings, was one of the finest estates in the province of Ontario, Hamilton.
It is interesting to note that her Royal Highness, Camilla, the Dutches of Cornwall, is the Castle’s Patron. She is the great, great, great-granddaughter of Sir Allan MacNab.
Let’s take a quick tour of the primary residence. Built-in 1835, Sir Allan MacNab and his family lived here till 1862. He had three daughters growing up with him and his wife, sisters-in-law, and other family members.
The Castle boasts 72 rooms, but only 42 rooms have been restored and open to the public. The house is built with the modern convenience of the time, which included running water, gaslighting, and an indoor toilet and bath tub.
A very modern home, two-floor of elaborate fancy living for that time. The brick construction was covered in stucco, and interior walls were painted to look like Italian Marbles. Tiles were imported from England. Two and three-story towers stood with shallow pyramidal roofs and french windows. The brackets under the parapet are modillion styled.
The Doric Portico on the South Side was added by architect Frederick Rastrict. The pillars and portico were added for the wedding of MacNab’s daughter, Sophia. The North Loggia functioned as a transitional room between the house and the grounds.
The Drawing room was the most formal room in the Castle. Also known as the ‘Scarlett Room,’ this room was used mainly for entertainment purposes. Because it was used only on rare occasions, the children were not allowed to enter the room. In 1855, the eldest daughter got married in this room.
One exciting aspect of the rooms was that every room had handles; when turned, it would chime the bells downstairs to the servants in the basement.
You would also notice a footstool around the desk and chairs. It was believed that MacNab suffered from gout (Rich Man’s Disease).
The rooms are filled with portraits of the daughters, the lady of the home, Lady MacNab, and other paintings, indicating historical personalities and events.
The Formal Dining room has carvings of Greek Goddesses on the walls. It was used mainly for formal dinners. The room remained closed during the colder months to conserved the heat.
The youngest daughters have their own rooms on the second floor. It was called the ‘Nursery.’ With no other children around, they spend their time studying or engaging in art. You would see images lying in the room. They were actually imported from outside by MacNab for his daughters.
Dundurn Castle Basement
The upstairs was more of a fantastical showpiece, but the rooms in the downstairs were more functional.
A tunnel and the Gun Powder Storage are two important features of the basement. They were actual remnants of the house that used to sit on the land before the castle was built.
This vaulted stone construction used as laundry in Dundurn Castle once housed racks for barrels of gunpowder that was protected by an earthen defensive wall.
When Dundurn Castle was built, they incorporated the tunnel and the gun powder storage into the castle.
The basement was also the place where the servants lived and worked. We see a striking difference in the mode of living between the people living in the main residence and the servants living in the basement. They had their own dining room where they gathered for three meals daily, consisting mainly of stews.
The lower levels also housed the refrigerator, including a large rice pit, a vault, and a distillery. Sir Allan MacNab was a man of true heritage; he installed a beer distillery in the basement.
The Butler’s room is also placed here in the basement. He acted as the middle man between the servants and Sir Allan MacNab.
The Kitchen was as large as any homes of the people living during that time. The bells from the rooms in the main residence were connected to the kitchen. There was a distinct sound for every room, which lets servants know where in the house they were needed.
Dundurn Castle is also known for being the first home with indoor plumbing. The kitchen is decorated with fine ceramics. And gas lightings were installed here, making the servants work longer in the dark.
Hamilton Military Museum
The museum is a white outbuilding facing the Dundurn Castle. The displays include events of the War of 1812, World War I & ll, and the role of women in the military. It exhibits uniforms, medals, weapons, photographs, and other military memorabilia. Materials about Canadian military history is found in the museum’s library.
Dundurn Castle’s Folly
Dundurn Castle also has its own folly. It has front and rear elevations that resemble a temple of neo-classical design. It has a symmetrical octagonal plan with a cupola.
The purpose of the structure still stands a mystery. Various theories have attributed it to a theater, a laundry place, a boathouse, a buttery, an office, or a chapel for MacNab’s Roman Catholic wife. Some have even imagined it as a cockfight ring. A popular theory holds that it must have been an entrance to one of the many tunnels built in the Dundurn Castle.
It is located on the eastern edge of the park. The produce was either used in the castle with the excess donated to the local food bank. The tours of the Dundurn Castle ends in the kitchen.
This 2-acre garden is considered the largest in Canada. Today, researches are carried out in the Castle’s kitchen to study the historic recipes of that time period. Cooking preparations and educational programs are carried out in the kitchen over the wood fire without the use of electricity.
The estate also features a 19th Century entrance gate. It is known for it’s surviving original material and designs.
Dundurn Castle was also believed to be a zoo at one time. The zoo had lions, monkeys, and bison, and were held in the old ‘Cock Pit’ which they used as a shelter.
After the death of Sir Allan Napier MacNab, the estate was used as an institution for deaf-mutes. It was then purchased in 1872 by Donald Mclnnes, who sold Dundurn to the city of Hamilton in 1899. It was purchased for $50,000. The City has been renovating the castle to make it open to the public and had spent around $3 million.
Today, Dundurn Castle has been restored to the year 1855 when MacNab was at the height of his career as a lawyer, landowner, railway magnate, and Premier of United Canada (1854-56). Over 40 rooms, above and below stairs, have been furnished to compare the life of a prominent Victorian family with that of their servants.
If you visit the Castle, you will see costume staff guiding you through the castle and the associated outbuildings, illustrating the life of MacNab’s time.
National Historic Site of Canada
Dundurn Castle was designated as a National Historic Site of Canada in 1988 because the estate gives a comprehensive statement of the picturesque values of Canadian architecture.
This estate integrates an Italian-style main house, a series of gothic revival and classically styled outbuildings with its natural landscape features, remnants of the War of 1812, and 18th Century farm buildings.
Dundurn Castle, which once stood as the most prominent house in British North America, reflects the outsized personality of its builder, Sir Allan Napier MacNab.
Dundurn Castle offers an exciting glimpse of what life was like in the mid-19th Century grand estate. Even if you are not a history enthusiast, you would be thrilled when you see the surviving remnants of the war of 1812.
The Castle was an actual location used by the British as a military post when the War of 1812 kicked off. It was believed that nine men convicted of treason during the war were executed near the present-day Inchbury Street at the eastern end of the Dundurn Castle. But this story is not supported by archaeological research.
If you are traveling to Canada, make “Dundurn Castle” a must-visit in your bucket list. Not only will you witness this picturesque estate on the Burlington Heights with its magnificent residence, but you will also experience what life was like during the time of Sir Allan MacNab. Your knowledge of the history of Canada will certainly be enriched. It’s a fascinating step back to a very different time and way of living.
For more information on Dundurn Castle, click here.
You will discover that it is not just a building; it has a story to tell. Take a virtual tour of the Dundurn Castle and get inspired.