Craigdarroch Castle

Our first visit to Craigdarroch Castle was in 1978. Over the years, we have returned to the “Castle” many times to feel a sense of history. There are many stories held safe within these walls.

Robert Dunsmuir, a wealthy coal baron, wanted a family residence for his wife, Joan, and children. With 39 rooms and over 25,000 square feet of living space, the family could spread out comfortably.

It is estimated that Robert Dunsmuir spent up to $500,000 to build his Victorian-era Scottish Baronial mansion, which included granite from British Columbia, tile from San Francisco, and an oak staircase prefabricated in Chicago. Alas, Robert Dunsmuir died in April 1889, seventeen months before construction on the castle was completed.

The Dunsmuir Saga by Terry Reksten tells the story of Robert and Joan Dunsmuir, who immigrated from Scotland and became the richest family in British Columbia.   It is a story of hard work, luck, ruthlessness, and tragedy.  With Robert’s passing, family squabbles played havoc on the family finances.  The fortune was eventually spent by Robert’s grandchildren.  

Craigdarroch Castle remains a symbol of power and progress.  Now, the Castle belongs to all of us.

The Dunsmuir Family (1890–1908)

Military Hospital (1919–1921)

Victoria College (1921–1946)

Victoria School Board Office (1946–1968)

Victoria Conservatory of Music (1969–1979)

Craigdarroch Castle museum (1979–Present)

“A story in the New York Times announced: “Premier sued by his Mother”. As a result of the legal action, Joan and James did not speak for years. When she died in 1908 having lived in Craigdarroch for 18 years, the local newspaper reported that James (then serving as Lieutenant-Governor of British Columbia) was not expected to attend her funeral. At the last minute he changed his mind and did attend. During the service, he broke down and wept.” The Castle Website

51 Thoughts

    1. Very well said, Cindy. You have been to Butchart Gardens, haven’t you? Their family history stands in sharp contrast to the Dunsmuir family. Ownership of The Gardens remains within the Butchart family; the owner and managing director since 2001 is the Butcharts’ great-granddaughter Robin-Lee Clarke. Both families gave much to British Columbia.

      Liked by 2 people

  1. Is this near downtown Victoria? We visited a castle from there in 2006, and that sounds like the name. The only castle ever visited, and I can’t remember a single thing about it. Shame on me!

    Virtual hugs,

    Judie

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    1. This is the Castle that you visited. There is so much to remember about this building that it is easy to forget the details. That is why return for a visit every time we are in Victoria. There has been wonderful upgrades to the tourist centre and story placards. What I come away with is the story of a family that had so much but seemed to miss out on the importance of love within a family structure. Sending many hugs back your way.

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    1. It is indeed, Graham. Going through Craigdarroch reminds me of the English manor houses/castles that have been given over to the National Trust. The cost of upkeep is exorbitant, plus we live in a world where smaller dwellings are more in line with our current lifestyles. Buildings have an existence of their own. We borrow our homes for a while. And when we leave them, a new story arrives. Thank you for going back in time with me.

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    1. How very well said, my friend. Our homes are borrowed until we move and transfer ownership to another. The home that I lived in as a child, has been demolished, but the memories are alive and I remember it as it was: the laughter, the tears, the milestones. A reminder to live today so as to remember it, with joy, tomorrow.

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    1. There are so many ties between Canada and Scotland. Robert Dunsmuir came from Hurlford, a village in East Ayrshire. He did not have an easy life even though he came from a prosperous family. In 1832, his mother, father, grandmother and 2 of this 3 sisters died within days of each other in a cholera epidemic which swept the area. He moved to Canada in 1847. I read the Dunsmuir Saga several years ago and am thinking of reading it again. Thank you for coming back into history with me. Hugs and more hugs!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh yes there are ties. Tons. The Glencoe Lochan is another one. I did a post re it way back and how Lord Strahcona of railroad fame was a humble lad from Struan here but how the story of the Locahn was incredibly romantic. . Not to mention a beautiful place..and prob the only easy bit of Glencoe! Anway I always love your stories my sister. .

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      2. I just found the story of Locahn, Shehanne. Thank you so much for introducing me to this connection. I love that we are clansisters – another great tie between Canada and Scotland.

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    1. I think it has gone through several restorations, beginning during WWI with the federal Department of Soldiers Civil Re-establishment. Craigdarroch was opened as a military hospital in September 1919. And then there was the time Craigdarroch was a college and music conservatory. What was built for one family cared for many. The Robert Dunsmuir story is complex and an excellent example of how one man became rich during the Victoria era. Many who worked for him considered him a Robber Baron: https://onthisspot.ca/cities/nanaimo/dunsmuirs. While Craigdarroch is located in Victoria, the family lived in Nanaimo.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for these beautiful photos and the great commentary, Rebecca. I visited this castle briefly once, and I am glad to see it again and learn more about the family and the castle. Someone on the tour, maybe our guide, remarked about family fortunes: “Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations.” What happened to the Dunsmuir family fortunes and businesses? Were they lost in family squabbling?

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    1. I must reread the Dunsmuir Saga again The squabbling was intense and created enormous animosity between family members, but there was also the stewardship issue. Robert Dunsmuir was brilliant in building the family fortune, but maintaining the wealth was difficult for his children. While they could not build upon Robert’s legacy, his children had an amazing ability of spending the money. James, the son, became premier of British Columbia and later lieutenant governor of the province. The Dunsmuir children’s stories are just as interesting and worthy of a mini-series, in my opinion.

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    1. There is a poignancy of experiencing a building that had so many stories associated within each room. One story that I was especially interested to read was about Francis Kelsey, who graduated in Victoria Collage (housed in Cairgdarroch Castle) class of 1931-1932. She went on to obtain a Master of Science degree from McGill University, Montreal and a PhD in pharmacology and Medical Degree from the University of Chicago. As a senior scientist with the US Food and Drug Administration, she resisted pressure to grant FDA approval of the drug thalidomide, thus saving a multitude of American babies from birth deformities. She received the President’s Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service from President John F. Kennedy at the White House on August 7,1962. So many stories held safe in the walls of buildings.

      Liked by 3 people

  3. Thank you for sharing this bit of history with us. It’s always interesting to see how wealth is handled by subsequent generations and whether their properties pass into the public or remain in private ownership. Their lives are often memorialized in writing and sometimes television series. Very interesting, and I wonder what they would think of their legacy!

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    1. A very good question, Mary Jo. Robert Dunsmuir is one of the most controversial men in B.C.’s history. The other Victoria Family that had great influence was Robert and Jennie Butchart, who created the famous Butchart Gardens. https://www.butchartgardens.com/our-story/. I understand the gardens remain a family business to this day. Two different legacies – both families contributed to British Columbia. I think that you would enjoy reading the Dunsmuir Saga.

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Well that was certainly a very spacious and grand residence. What a pity that Robert didn’t live to see it completed. As for the family squabbles over the estate, who was it who said, “Say not you know another entirely until you’ve divided an inheritance with him.”😳

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    1. That is a brilliant quote, Sylvia. You had me scurrying over the internet to find out who gave us that gem. I found out it was Johann Kasparov Lavater, German Theologian who lived from 1741 – 1801. I have a feeling that Robert Dunsmuir missed that quote. He certainly didn’t prepare for the eventuality of a family squabble. Craigdarroch is spacious indeed. One of the more interesting rooms was the “smoking room” that has a couple of silver smoker’s sets and one hookah originating from the Middle East. Daughters, Jessie Dunsmuir smoked cigarettes and Maud Dunsmuir smoked a pipe and cigarettes, something that was probably considered sophisticated and stylish at the time. How times change the more we learn and progress. I am delighted that you came back in time with me. Hugs and more hugs!

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Wow……that piece of wisdom does go back a long way. Some things never change. Money is often a bone of contention even in the most seemingly peaceful of families. They obviously didn’t smoke the pipe of peace. 😀 *Hugs* back to you, dear Rebecca. xxx

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  5. I really enjoyed, Rebecca, your most interesting trip to Hurlford, the Dunsmuir familiy and their gorgeous castle! I loocked up on the map, where it is exactly and saw that we had been nearby when we were hiking in Scotland! Unfortunately, it happens frequentley that later generation of a family don’t succeed in managing their wealth, such as the Buddenbroocks/Thomas Mann. Many thanks and a big hug:)

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    1. The idea of “shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves in three generations” has plagued many families over the centuries. In Canada, the famous Eaton’s retail empire collapsed by the 4th generation. It was a great place to shop and we all felt the loss. I read that the wealth attrition rate is high based on loss of the family business, the lack of instilling stewardship skill sets in the next generation, the lack of entrepreneurial spirit etc. As I was revisiting Craigdarroch via my 2019 photographs, I found myself thinking that it isn’t only families that lose wealth. Nations who do not provide or encourage education and training to an emerging generation/workforce, loses a nation’s wealth. Thank you for the great conversation and for heading back into history with me, Martina! Sending hugs back your way.

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      1. I have never heard before this day “shortsleeves to shortsleeves”, Rebecca, but thank you for using it:) You have given good reasons why these family businesses collaps and maybe we can also add “being to well off”. I am afraid that, if this kind of family companies are bought by rich investors, maybe from Asia, it is a real desaster, as you say, for the whole nation!
        These conversations are also precious for me and I wish you a very good day.

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  6. Thank you for this excellent account of some of British Columbia’s history. Beautiful building, built by a father who wanted something good for his family. Tragedy often follows wealth, unfortunately, and for this family. However, it seems that tears were proof of some repentance–too late! ! I am glad, though. that the building was put to good use and is still filling an important place. Thanks for this part of our history.

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    1. The Dunsmuir family history is complex with many twists and turns. It is not an easy read because it reminds us that we live with the choices we made in the years ahead. I will be reading The Dunsmuir Saga again – it has been years since I first read it. Robert Dunsmuir was a dynamic force in the history of British Columbia. I am delighted that you joined me at Craigdarroch Castle!! Hugs and love!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. The castle and its rooms are absolutely beautiful, Rebecca, and I loved your stellar presentation, as always. But I have very mixed feelings about the wealth, “conspicuous consumption,” and exploitation of workers this kind of building embodies. Plus all that wealth certainly doesn’t guarantee happiness for various generations of a family. Still, a feast for the eyes!

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    1. I am with you on the wealth and conspicuous consumption. Robert Dunsmuir was ruthless and considered a Robber Baron by many of his employees. His story is not an easy read, even though Robert experienced great tragedies in his lifetime. But there is another story that comes out of Craigdarroch which caught my attention. Francis Kelsey was a graduate of the collage that was housed in Craigdarroch. This is a news clip that provides the details of her amazing courage, and determination to go against great odds. I get goosebumps every time I read about Francis Kelsey. https://youtu.be/ykeREfe1Jpc. Thank you for joining me at Craigdarroch.

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    1. I agree, Julie. The squabbles reduced the family to living in emotional poverty. I am grateful that this landmark has been preserved and that it was used to benefit many people over the years.. The care and attention to detail of volunteers and staff was excellent. It was a self-guided tour which I always appreciate. Sending hugs!

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    1. I am grateful that there has been care taken in the preserving the “castle”. Today, as I drove past a construction site, I noticed that a building had been demolished. I tried to remember what the building looked like and realized that I had no recollection of what was now rubble. I thought of all the conversations, laughter, and events that happened within those walls. Building have stories, some are remembered in history books, but others are remembered in our hearts. Thank you for joining me at Craigdarroch Castle. There is a tea house close by – let’s stop by for afternoon tea!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. Lavinia – you would love this place because of the musical instruments that are scattered throughout the rooms. Victoria Conservatory of Music occupied this mansion from 1969 – 1979. Can you imagine what it was like to study music in a home that went back to the Victorian era.

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  8. It’s an amazing castle!
    You did a wonderful job covering the history and making a lovely tour of it, with your photos.
    Yes, now it belongs to all of us. Unfortunately, the difference between those of wealth and the rest of us remains a Festivus.

    We have a similar castle, perhaps more ostentatious, here in Toronto.
    Casa Loma also now belongs to the people. https://casaloma.ca/

    A man built it for his wife. She had an ensuite, larger than many of today’s new condo apartments. Her multi-directional shower heads could be set to include her favourite perfume, from a variety of choices.

    Of note is that Craigdarroch Castle was a military hospital, 1919 – 1921.
    WWI ended on November 11,1918.
    They say it was soldiers returning from Europe that brought the pandemic of that time to N. America.
    Thank you for another look at our lives, past and present, here on Lady Budd!
    xoxo

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    1. The gap between rich and poor continues to be a concern to many. I just read that Canada’s two richest cities, Greater Toronto and Metro Vancouver, have the highest working poverty rates in the country — 9.1 per cent and 8.7 per cent in 2012. The UN poverty facts and figures suggests that the “fallout from the pandemic threatens to push over 70 million people into extreme poverty.” Craigdarroch Castle remains a testament that wealth is fleeting and can be lost within a couple of generations. What sustains a family, a community goes beyond money (although you need it to put food on the table) and reaches into the areas of belonging, sharing, and working together to resolve issues. We live in interesting times. Wasn’t it Tommy Douglas who said. “Courage, my friends; ’tis not too late to build a better world.”

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      1. Those percentages are too high for a civilized society. My, my greed is an awful thing!
        Yet, I believe it. Covid turned my neighbourhood into a refuge for the homeless. Not everyone is an alcoholic or drug addict. I saw a girl child…7-8 years living in one of the camps.
        There was a man in a wheelchair.
        The city took over an apartment building in my hood, for displaced people. Still, no matter how many they remove from the homeless camps, more come out of the woodwork. (is that PC to say…I don’t know anymore) They put in portable toilets, and apparently have been vaccinating the homeless.

        Tommy Douglas is important to how we are as Canadians. He did help build a slightly better world for us during his lifetime. We have Old Age Pensions, UI and Welfare. Unfortunately, these programs are abused often.

        I know I mentioned to you that I worked with his daughter, Shirley Douglas. She was a total joy! I’m so honoured to have more than met her.

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      2. Oh, Resa, I weep! As William Wilberforce said so many years ago, “You may choose to look the other way but you can never say again that you did not know.” Shirley Douglas was amazing. Together, you made an dynamic duo. 🤗🤗🤗❤️❤️❤️

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  9. This is an interesting history, Rebecca. This story reminds me of McCaig’s Tower in Oben Scotland which was also incomplete when it’s creator died. A labour of love. It always intrigues me how the third generation often destroys the legacy built by the first generation. I think it has to do with the way the children are brought up. To much comfort in wealth is ruinous.

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    1. You have brought up profound insight, Robbie. If valuation is based on wealth, it is a poor benchmark indeed for it does not ignite the spirit of creativity or entrepreneurship. Case in point – cities hold many street names that came from wealthy families, which have gone into historical obscurity. John Stuart McCaig believed that this tower would provide work for local stonemasons – a lofty goal. It is a certainly a lasting monument to the McCraig family. There is more to this story that I want to explore. I know that the Dunsmuir grandchildren frittered the fortune, but there is more to the story that I want to explore, specifically the way Robert Dunsmuir worked with his two sons. By the way, we would have passed each other on the streets of Oban. We never made it up the hill (saw it lit up at night from the perspective of the Oban boardwalk) so I was delighted when you shared photos of your family visit to the Tower. Thank you for reminding me about McCraig’s tower. Sending hugs along with my gratitude for going back into history.

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  10. It is my pleasure, Rebecca. I am enjoying learning more about Canada. I don’t know much Canadian and American history compared to European history. I am researching America’s part in WW1 for my new book, The Soldier and the Radium Girl, and, of course, Canadian soldiers pop up. Canada played a role in the whole radium saga too. If you do find out more about either of this interesting places, please share it. I am always interested in your insights.

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