Friday: Larnach Castle!

It’s my tour of the castle today! Shock horror… I’m the only person on the tour! Go me! 

Be warned: the story of Larnach castle is a tragedy of epic proportions and it is not a typical castle (compared to castle in the UK for example). This was intended to be the home of the richest man on the South Island, this was his family mansion. 

William Larnach was born in 1833 in Australia to Scottish parents, eventually becoming a sort of adopted Kiwi. He made his fortune during the time of the gold rush. He was pretty smart and realised he’d make more money becoming a banker than labouring in the mines. The gold rush took off around Queenstown in the direction of Dunedin. The latter became the central hub of all of this activity because of the harbour – every ship sailed in here. 

The banking bubble burst due to gold rush and Larnach got offered the job of manager of the bank of Otago to try to save the bank. So he moved to the area, and as he progressed in his career, he decided to plant some roots. He bought land (1,000 acres) on the hill because of the panoramic views. It took a long time to build and he was very forward thinking for the time.

Larnach eventually got into politics and became the finance minister of New Zealand (where parliament is based). But this is perhaps where the tragedy begins…

Sadly, he was in Wellington when he got the news that his first wife had died suddenly. At this time, the youngest child was only a baby, so Larnach ended up marrying his sister-in-law (his first wife’s half sister), she already lived with them so perhaps it was a convenience thing. 

Anyway, this didn’t last more than a few years as his second wife ended up dying of blood poisoning after surgery, ironically she was the same age her half-sister had been when she passed. 

Larnach met his 3rd wife in Wellington. There are several important details here: 1) she was 21 years his junior 2) she moved to the castle from Wellington which was essentially like moving from the city to the country. She felt very isolated. It is suggested that Larnachs’ oldest son was roughly the same age as his third wife, and they began to spend more time together. After this, at some point, one of his daughters died from typhoid aged just 21. 

The last part is particularly mysterious… Apparently Larnach received an anonymous letter, with a Dunedin postage stamp which stated his third wife and son were having an affair. He committed suicide in the parliament buildings (they didn’t mention this on my parliament tour!) at the age of 65.

The children sold the castle to the government in 1903 and it became a lunatic asylum (but they don’t talk about this at the Castle and there’s a lot of original features that survived). Later, the Barker family bought it in a state of disrepair in the 1960s and have invested greatly. 

(I’m not sure why but I have the game of thrones theme tune playing over and over in my head right now… I think it’s because this family name sounds like they could be part of it).

The gothic style comes from the Scottish influence but there are also verandas from Australia, glass from France, fireplace tiles from the UK (Stoke on Trent) and slate tiles from Wales, but many materials were sourced locally too. Many original features were easily identified because William Larnach used to stick labels with his name on.


There’s a noticeable painting on the wall which shows the castle in 1889 but there are no trees in the picture! Apparently Larnach didn’t like the trees to obscure his view.  

The house was a real work of art, Larnach even employed a family to move here for 7 years to do all the woodwork. The Ballroom was built 10 years after the castle was finished because his children complained the city was too far away and it was hard to socialise. This made the castle a place for entertaining – 4 future prime ministers even visited here. 


I was struck by how many birds there were, stuffed or carved into wood or even stone. Particularly as the guy cut down so many trees around this area. The thing that stuck with me most about the stuffed birds was the sheer variety of them! I’ve never seen some of them in my entire life and it’s entirely possible I never will – I couldn’t even identify the species of many of them. 

This is one of my favourite features, it’s especially made stain glass which encompasses the family coat of arms, a thistle to represent Scotland, an English Rose for England, a shamrock for Ireland and the fern for New Zealand. It really was beautiful.


Unless you have a car, a tour is the only way to reach the castle and I’d highly recommend it. I really enjoyed it. This didn’t take up the full day, only a couple of hours but I’m packing and going to the cinema to see the new Tarantino film The Hateful Eight.

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