Shapinsay is only a 25-minute ferry ride from Kirkwall but the atmosphere of this small Orkney island can be soaked up even before you step ashore.
There is a splendid panorama of Shapinsay’s attractive village, Balfour Castle and the lighthouse on Helliar Holm as you cross the channel known as the String and enter Elwick Bay.
Balfour Castle is imposing in its Scottish baronial style and is a calendar house, a Victorian novelty with 12 outside doors, 52 rooms and 365 window panes. There is also extensive woodland (for Orkney) and greenhouses which once grew peaches and figs. It was built for Colonel David Balfour the 4th laird whose farming ‘improvement’ in the 1840s developed agricultural land across the whole island into a grid of 10-acre squares. His pattern of field boundaries and drainage to increase cultivated areas changed the land forever. His grandfather Thomas Balfour’s planned village Shoreside was renamed Balfour Village.
Balfour Castle is now an exclusive members-only hotel. By the harbour you can see David Balfour’s saltwater shower with a dovecot on top, the Douche, and an imposing gateway. Up the picturesque village street is Shapinsay’s Heritage Centre where you can buy crafts and artwork. Crafts including textiles, stained glass, jewellery-making, ceramics and preserves and other home industries thrive on Shapinsay. At the centre you can also learn about the history and trace family trees. William Irving, the father of Rip van Winkle author Washington Irving, was born in Shapinsay in 1740. There is a shop, post office and café, with craft producers to visit too.
There are plenty of interesting ancient sites including Burroughston Broch, excavated in 1862 by David Balfour, and the Odin’s Stone. The landscape is mainly farmland after the improvements but there is a remnant of moorland and heath and the Mill Dam, now the RSPB reserve home for breeding ducks, waders, geese and swans, was created by Colonel Balfour. The Scottish Wildlife Trust’s Holm of Burghlee is ungrazed maritime heathland. Low cliffs and storm beaches provide more habitat for wildlife.
Shapinsay has a thriving community school and the Shapinsay Development Trust works to create new projects and opportunities for islanders, and those keen to sample island life. Its regular ferry service helps people to stay in Shapinsay but work in Kirkwall, and there is also an Out of Hours ferry service operated by the island's Development Trust.
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