More than a whiff of Scottish heritage hangs in the cool Dunedin air. Dunedin’s hilly harbour side terrain is filled with streets and suburbs that mirror places in Scotland. Names like Clyde Hill, Belleknowes and Kenmure are as Scottish as Dunedin itself, which is the Celtic word for Edinburgh. The statue of Robert Burns, Scotland’s most famous poet, stands in the centre of the Octagon. And the South Island city’s moody weather does wonders to enhance Dunedin’s Scottish atmosphere. Its grand Victorian and Edwardian architecture completes the picture to make it easy to think of Dunedin as a wee patch of Scotland in the South Pacific.
Things to do in Dunedin
None of this is obvious to me when I arrive at Dunedin Airport – 30km from the city – on a freezing winter’s night. The route from the airport to Larnach Castle, which sits on a ridge of the Otago Peninsula, turns into a dark and winding road where I drive high above the city with the lights of Dunedin twinkling in the valley beneath.
The headlights of my rented Ford beam through layers of mist and darkness, turning trees into glowing ghostly shapes half-hidden by swirls of mist. Camp Road ends at a set of soaring iron gates. I jump out of the car and jab at the intercom, peering anxiously over my shoulder into the forest. The gates creak open, not soon enough, and I drive up to the building’s steep front steps.
Larnach Castle is only a 20-minute drive from Dunedin but when it was built in 1871, it was in a remote and isolated spot.
In the main dining room, the dinner table is set for myself and two other guests. We’re served a three-course meal in much the same way original owner, William Larnach, might have entertained in the 19th century.
Larnach, who was descended from Scottish stock, was a wealthy banker from NSW who moved to Dunedin in 1871 with wife Eliza, their four children and Eliza’s sister Mary. He hired 200 workmen to complete his new home, which took three years to build and 12 more years for European craftsmen to complete the interior.
No expense was spared. Materials came from all over the world: marble from Italy, slate from Wales, tiles from England and glass from Venice.
These days Larnach Castle is a key attraction in Dunedin. The gardens are rated by the New Zealand Gardens Trust as a Garden of International Significance. And the original home is a museum with rooms furnished with period furniture from Larnach’s era.
History of the castle
When Eliza died of a stroke at 38, William Larnach promptly married her younger, prettier sister, Mary, who also died at 38 of blood poisoning. At age 57, a merchant baron and MP, Larnach married for a third time to the much younger Constance de Bathe Brandon. But his luck turned and in 1898, on the brink of bankruptcy, he shot himself after discovering his wife was having an affair with his son Douglas. After a family feud over the terms of his will, the castle was sold off and used as a home for shell-shocked soldiers and a mental hospital.
After hearing this tragic history, I’m convinced that my cosy room in Larnach Lodge’s farm building wing is haunted. The four-poster bed is comfy and the room has stunning views of the Otago Peninsula. But it comes with banging, creaking and groaning noises which has my imagination going wild. It keeps me awake for half the night but also puts me in the right frame of mind to delve deeper into Dunedin’s history.
In Dunedin city, I admire steepled churches and grand architecture. The city’s most ornate building is the Flemish Renaissance railway station, which has a mosaic floor of almost 750,000 Royal Doulton porcelain tiles. The 1km long platform is the longest in New Zealand and is used each year as a catwalk for the South Island’s main fashion show.
Chocolate and beer
Cadbury World and Speight’s Brewery have informative tours that whisk me into the past. There are plenty of chocolate samples given out during Cadbury World’s guided factory tour. A fun time to visit is during the Cadbury Jaffa Race (in July each year) when 25,000 jaffas race down the world’s steepest street, Baldwin Street.
The Speights Beer Tour is a journey through the history of beer making, the history of Speights Brewery (it dates back to 1876) and a lesson on the beer-making processes. The best part of the tour ends in the brewery pub where beer lovers can help themselves to as much beer as they can drink in half an hour.
The Otago Settlers Museum tells the story of the people who formed the backbone of the city, from the Maori to the early Scottish settlers through to the first Chinese who came to work the Otago Goldfields in 1865. Inside the museum, there’s a recreation of the steerage quarters of an immigrant ship bound for Otago and an interactive exhibit that depicts the epic voyages faced by the early Scots.
No trip to Dunedin is complete without spending a day on the Otago Peninsula watching the sea lions, yellow-eyed penguins, New Zealand fur seals and Royal Albatross. But the Royal Albatross Centre at Taiaroa Head also has a historic relic hidden beneath the nature reserve.
A guided tour of the underground tunnels reveals an underground circular gun pit which holds the world’s only Armstrong Disappearing Gun still in working condition. Fort Taiaroa was established (over 100 years ago) to counter the threat of invasion from Russia.
Back in Dunedin I end my trip at a moody whiskey bar on Stuart Street, Albar, with a bowl of haggis and a choice of 50 different whiskeys from Scotland. It’s a fine finale to my visit of this wee speck of Scottish heritage in the South Pacific.
Air New Zealand has flights to Dunedin via Auckland, Wellington or Christchurch.
Rent a car from major car rental companies at Dunedin Airport.
Larnach Lodge has rooms from $260 a night, tel: +643 476 1616. Admission to the castle and gardens is free for guests but otherwise costs $27 for adults and $10 for children.