From the grand window of the McRae house parlour, Kate and Rob Duncan can see as far south as Rockland, including the spires of Craigdarroch Castle.
The couple purchased and moved into the house, known as Twin Oaks, in August 2015, continuing the McRae family’s pioneer legacy in Saanich. Rob’s a descendant of Ronald and Catharine McRae, who ran a large dairy farm and orchard in the area between Cedar Hill Golf Course and St. Michaels University School.
When it was built in 1892, the house was one of the only on the hill, accessed by a lane off of Cedar Hill. Now it rests at 1525 Oak Crest Drive, overlooking the dairy farm to the south on North Dairy
“Roughly, the farm ran as far north as Derby Road, east to Richmond Road, and south to North Dairy,” Kate says.
One would guess the name North Dairy came from the McRae’s dairy farm, and possible neighbouring dairy farms.
Rob’s grandmother Robin (McRae) Land knew the house, as it was her grandparents, but she actually grew up in another house, which her father Chris (son of Ronald and Catharine) and mother Mary built at 3291 Cedar Hill Rd. Both houses are registered heritage homes in Saanich.
“Really, the families were just down the lane from each other and [Robin] used to visit here all the time,” Rob siad.
Their two young daughters will be the sixth generation to grow up in the Saanich area since Ronald and Catharine moved there in 1892.
What makes Twin Oaks unique is that it stayed in the family, as Rob’s aunt and uncle, Thyra (McRae) and Nigel Gyles, spent their lives in the home until they sold it in 1999.
Earlier in 2015 Kate and Rob, on a whim and with a passion for heritage houses, wrote a letter to the owner who had purchased and resided in Twin Oaks since 1999. Kate grew up in a Samuel Maclure designed house in a row of heritage homes along Avalon Road in Victoria. Rob is a carpenter who specializes in heritage houses.
To their surprise and delight, Twin Oak’s owner was planning on selling the house and happy to return it to a member of the original family.
“When we got here we found family heirlooms in the attic,” Rob said. “Understanding we were the same family, the owner left a tin box of belongings that she inherited with the house.”
In the box were a few letters, a centuries old sword and sheath that Rob guesses came over from Britain, and a series of lace and other small Victorian era garments. One of them is a 1900-era collar of a women’s outfit.
Among the many improvements Rob and Kate have already made was to lift and reinforce the ‘front’ porch. The back of the south-facing two-storey home actually faces Oak Crest Drive. Originally, the south side, or front of the house, faced a laneway that accessed Cedar Hill Road. It is still visible in the back yard, and the trees that once lined it are still visible, though some are in neighbouring yards.
The McRae farm that may have been 40 to 50 acres is now less than an acre. Around it are towering trees including sequoia, which were popular to plant among 1890s Saanichites.
The interior of the house was built with several luxuries, such as the 10-foot-tall pocket doors that separate the parlour from the dining room. Hot water radiators were ordered from afar, just as the many ornate wood trimmings inside and out.
“I love visiting Craigdarroch, it was built about the same time, and it has some of the same features, like the radiators,” Rob says.
Ironically, the house’s original furniture (most of it from Victoria’s Weiler Brothers) was sold in the 1990s. A young Rob scored the sword and a couch at the time. However, Rob and Kate later inherited an antique kitchen table from his uncle. They were unsure where it came from, until they moved into Twin Oaks.
“The table is beautiful but it’s always had a rock to it, we’ve always had to put a shim under one or two of the legs,” Kate says. “Once we brought it in here, it fit perfectly, doesn’t rock at all.”