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Historic Dunedin castle rich in myth

Published: 8:48AM Thursday July 14, 2005 Source: One News

If the City of Dunedin is "the Edinburgh of the South" then it must have a castle, which it does.

And what castle would be complete without ghost stories?

Larnach Castle, built a few kilometres out of Dunedin in 1871 by business tycoon and politician William Larnach, and its reputed ghosts are tied in with personal tragedies that beset his family.

Or perhaps some eerie tales came from the castle's days as a hospital for the mentally ill, one of its many uses for many owners over the years.

Nowadays the castle, a mixture of Gothic Revival and Colonial style, set amid 14 hectares of grounds, are a prime tourist attraction.

It has been owned since 1967 by the Barker family - a longer period than William Larnach, who shot himself in a Parliament committee room in 1898.

More than 100,000 visitors a year enjoy panoramic views of Otago harbour some 300m below, and its splendid gardens have been named as being "of national significance" by the New Zealand Gardens Trust.

Guests stay in 12 themed rooms in the castle lodge, take breakfast in the adjacent former stables and dinner in a castle dining room.

Also included in the tariff is admission to the castle - and it's on tours of the ornate interior that the ghost stories usually come in.

They're helped along by the figure of a "floating lady" suspended from the ceiling in a room known as Constance's Boudoir, named for William Larnach's third wife - who allegedly had an affair with his second son.

Who is the floating lady? "She can be what you imagine her to be," said our guide enigmatically.

Perhaps it is Constance herself, whose ivory silk wedding dress is on display in the boudoir.

Another tale is that Kate Larnach, the patriarch's favourite daughter, haunts the ballroom which was reputedly built for her as a gift for her 21st birthday - she died of typhoid five years later.

Larnach's first wife Eliza Jane died of apoplexy in the South Bedroom - it's said that her "presence" can sometimes be felt in that room's room doorway.

After Eliza's death, Larnach married his wife's sister Mary Alleyne - who five years later also died suddenly, of blood poisoning.

Larnach's third wife Constance was 21 years younger than the 56-year-old William, and scandal erupted when she was accused of having an affair with Larnach's son Donald - who later killed himself in a Dunedin hotel.

Larnach's own suicide came when he faced financial ruin after the collapse of the Colonial Bank.

It has been speculated that his ghost is responsible for the mysterious opening and closing of doors in the castle during the night.

Some hotel workers have reported hearing footsteps late at night and feeling as though someone has touched the back of their necks, making their hair stand on end.

One evening as the castle owner and hotel manager worked late, both heard what sounded like a heavy piece of furniture being pushed along the floor. They found nothing had been moved.

Another time, staff heard heavy breathing from the South Bedroom. The room was empty.

Castle owner Margaret Barker tells of people feeling that someone or something touched them on the back of the neck at the bedroom door of the first Mrs Larnach.

"A clairvoyant told us that this presence is very unhappy," she said. "I think this is the first Mrs Larnach who would be pretty unhappy because after she died Mr Larnach married her sister."

A play about the Larnach family tragedies, titled Larnach - Castle of Lies, was once performed by the Fortune Theatre before 100 invited guests in the castle ballroom.

"It was a night to remember," Margaret Barker said.

"As the guests arrived a terrible storm blew up from nowhere.

The smoke from the fires blew back down the chimneys so that you couldn't see - and your eyes hurt. Hail crashed on the iron roof so that you couldn't hear. Doors mysteriously opened by themselves and it got very cold.

"In the play - just as Larnach shot himself there was a blinding white light. Afterwards at supper people were talking about the lightning strike as Larnach held the gun to his head.

"I said `Oh no that was stage effects.' We asked the stage manager. He said `It was none of our doing, it was lightning.' I think that Larnach was present that night. He didn't like the play."

New Zealand's only castle took 200 men three years to build at a cost in 1871 of 125,000 pounds.

After Larnach's suicide, the property and its furnishings were sold at auction.

Among the castle's uses during the first two-thirds of the 20th century were a holiday retreat for nuns, a mental hospital for shell-shocked World War I soldiers, a restored showplace and a billet for US soldiers in World War II.

It was in "dreadful" condition when the Barker family bought it in 1967, but it was painstakingly restored and refurnished until it became Dunedin's most prestigious tourist property and the scene of many glittering social events.