Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 18, 2021

© Christopher Meder Photography

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Doomed in Dunedin

A haunted castle in New Zealand's Otago Peninsula give visitors a frisson of delight

Let me tell you a story. It's a story of love, loss, suicide, ghosts and seals. Yes, seals. The kind that used to bounce balls on their noses until it became "not the done thing." It starts, as all good stories do, once upon a time ...

Way down on the southern tip of the South Island of New Zealand is this charming town called Dunedin ( It is forebodingly mountainous and dramatic, and the weather is decidedly cantankerous — it is the coldest part of the country. And so, with all the Pacific loveliness of New Zealand to chose from, this is where the Scots settled.

They built, in the best Scottish tradition, a university, schools, a medical college, churches and a statue to Robbie Burns. But something was missing: they had no eccentrics. Until William Larnach came to town.

Born in Australia in 1833, Larnach married well. Very well. His wife, Eliza Jane, was not only French aristocracy, she came with a big dowry. The couple moved to Dunedin, where Larnach managed a bank and Eliza Jane bore him six children.

And this is where the story really starts. Larnach was a man of the colonies, fed on a diet of nostalgia for a Britain he had never really known. He had married the colonial version of a princess. So, he did the only logical thing, he set about building her a castle.

Starting in 1871, on a chunk of land with sweeping views of the Pacific, he began construction of one of the most unique buildings in the Southern Hemisphere. He used nothing but the best. The Douglas fir beams came from Canada, the hand-etched glass was from Venice, the ceramic floor tiles were English, and the mosaics were Belgian. He not only brought over Italian marble for the fireplaces, he brought over Italian plasterers to work on the ceiling.

There are flowers, birds and butterflies carved out of mahogany and applied to English oak panels. Three people spent six and a half years carving the ceiling in the main foyer. More than 30 types of wood were used in the house and furnishings. There is even a piano made from the same timber the Maoris use to make war canoes.

Stylistically, it is equally creative. As suits a man caught between two worlds, it blends (or tries to) Gothic revival and Colonial styles. And it has the only Georgian hanging staircase in the Southern Hemisphere.

But I said this was a ghost story, and so it is. The motto of Larnach Castle (, etched onto glass and outlined in ceramic around the estate is "Sans Peur," no fear. Cue the creepy organ music.

The problems started when Larnach's beloved princess had a "fit of apoplexy" and died in an upstairs bedroom. When he wrote to one of his sons, studying in England at the time, he comforted him like only a good Victorian can: "Be steady, persevering and economical and all will come right."

Sadly, he was wrong. Possibly because Larnach soon married his dead wife's sister. Never a good move, as any reader of Gothic tales can tell you. Sure enough, she too died of, you guessed it, apoplexy. And yes, at the exact same age as her sister had died. The castle is, of course, haunted by the two sisters to this day. Even Larnach was forced to admit that "death has been walking through our family."

In spite of his increasingly messy home life, Larnach's political career began to take off. He was made a government minister and even his personal life brightened up when he married his third wife, the obligatory Much Younger Woman. Within months, his favourite daughter died of typhoid. And then his young wife had an affair with his son.

His finances collapsed, his political career was beleaguered and the end was inevitable. On October 12, 1898, in the committee room of the New Zealand parliament, William Larnach blew his brains out.

Over the years, as befits a haunted castle, the building was used as an insane asylum, a billet for soldiers and a convent. Until the Baker family bought it in 1967 and restored it to its resplendent quirkiness. It's open for tours, teas and overnight stays. But it would take some hubris to host a wedding there.

William Larnach left behind more than one of the most complex and quixotic buildings in New Zealand; he left behind something even more important for a new country. He left behind history.

So where are the seals? Well, just up the coast from Larnach Castle is one of the best seal viewing places on the planet. Nature's Wonder Naturally ( leads dunebuggy tours that also take in sweeping views. A network of hides let you get within inches of newborn pups in the wild. Sure, there are also penguins, cormorants and albatrosses, but there is nothing like a frolicking seal pup to scare away the ghosts.

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