The city of Dunedin considers itself ‘the Edinburgh of the South’ so it seems only fitting that a short drive away along the Otago Peninsula, you will find New Zealand’s only castle. An imposing vision sitting atop a hill, Larnach Castle is infamous, in New Zealand at least, for it’s scandalous history and rumors of ghosts.
Some say calling it a castle is little over the top, given it was never home to royalty and lacks the basic knight armour and swords that are showcased in European castles. From a distance, you could imagine that it was once home to knights and ladies who staged jostling tournaments and protected their domain from invaders.
But the truth of the matter is that it’s not that old (1871) and it was built not by a king but by an Australian born merchant, banker and politician William J.M. Larnach for his wife Eliza Jane and their six children.
Building began in 1871 with no expense was spared – marble was imported from Italy, glass came from Venice, and tiles from England. Special features included a Georgian hanging staircase (the only one in the Southern Hemisphere), carved wooden ceilings, a Venetian glass wall with panels representing England, Ireland, Scotland, and New Zealand, and a one tonne marble bath that took six horses and twelve men haul up the 1000 foot hill to the building site.
Sadly, by the time it was finished in 1876, his beloved wife had died. This was the first of many tragedies to strike Larnach Castle. William Larnach’s luck never improved. He married two more times, but his second wife (Eliza’s half-sister) also died and his third, it was rumoured, had an affair with Larnach’s eldest son, Douglas. William Larnach himself committed suicide in 1898 by shooting himself in the head.
So you can see why there might be ghosts.
The first Mrs. Larnach, who died alone of apoplexy, has been known to make her presence felt near the bedroom in which she died.
Larnachs’ favorite daughter Katie, who died of typhoid in 1888, is said to haunt the ballroom that had been built to celebrate her 21st birthday in 1886.
The tragedies, one after the other, broke the family and caused tremendous legal tussles over the estate.
As a result…
…Larnach Castle was sold and over the years evolved from a rich man’s showplace to a nun’s retreat, a billet for shell-shocked soldiers, a children’s holiday camp, a antiques salesroom, once used as a cabaret, and even became mental asylum. At one stage, during WWII, American soldiers from the signal corps called Larnach Castle home.
It changed owners frequently until finally bought in 1967 by the Barker family who set about restoring Larnach Castle to its former glory. Not an easy task, given that the castle was, by this stage, empty of all furniture, the ballroom had been transformed into a sheep pen, and the building and gardens were in a state of total disrepair. Many told them they were crazy to take on such a mammoth undertaking.
But they persevered and managed, over three decades, to transform the run down building into a thriving business. But better yet, they managed to save a major part of Dunedin’s heritage.
These days Larnach Castle attracts visitors from around the world. Ghost hunters, garden lovers, honeymooners, and travellers – they all come to see this unique castle and gardens that sit commandingly above the Otago Peninsula.
You can visit for the day or stay for the night. But with so many ghosts wandering the halls, you’ll be pleased to know the hotel accommodation is not in the Castle itself but in the separate Larnach Lodge. Built in 1982, it features 12 individually decorated rooms, all with panoramic views of the harbor. While breakfast is served in the adjacent converted stables, you can arrange to have dinner in the castle’s main dining room. Who knows, you might even end up with a ghostly guest or two.