Shapinsay Shapinsay


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.

Inside Explore Orkney

Tankerness House Gardens at the Orkney Museum in Kirkwall


Orkney's capital dates back to Norse times, in the 11th century, when it was called Kirkjuvagr (Church of the bay).

A view of Stromness from Brinkies Brae - image by Fionn McArthur


Stromness poet and author George Mackay Brown once wrote that the town's 'streets uncoiled like a sailor's rope from North to South'. Quaint closes and narrow old streets huddled between stone buildings of historical interest is the delight that is Stromness. Orkney’s second largest town is an architectural gem that inspires artists and writers and is a favourite with visitors.

Sunrise over Mull Head in Orkney - image by Rick Fleet

East Mainland

The area east and south east of Kirkwall is cattle country, with low lying and fertile farmland. Although the East Mainland doesn't have a World Heritage Site, it does have its own nature reserve, sea caves, beaches, historical sites and attractive villages to explore.

Sunrise over a west mainland loch in Orkney

West Mainland

Orkney's West Mainland hosts a collection of some of the finest archaeological sites to be found anywhere in Europe. It's home to the Heart of Neolithic Orkney UNESCO World Heritage Site, and welcomes thousands of visitors every year.

This wind turbine was one of the first installed in the east mainland


Burray is a small island linked to the east mainland of Orkney and South Ronaldsay by the Churchill Barriers. Once only accessible by boat, the farming and fishing community is now linked forever by the causeways.

Hoxa in South Ronaldsay has spectacular views over Scapa Flow

South Ronaldsay

After you cross the fourth and final Churchill Barrier, you'll arrive in the largest settlement outside Kirkwall in the east, the attractive harbour village of St Margaret’s Hope in South Ronaldsay.

A view of Red Head and the Calf of Eday


Eday is at the centre of Orkney’s North Isles and has a rich heritage and history to explore, as well as being at the forefront of research for the modern renewable energy industry.

Wartime defences at Stanger Head in Flotta


Flotta is an island that has changed much over the years. From its role at the very heart of Orkney's military history to the building of the Flotta Oil Terminal in the 1970s, it has always played an important part in our economy and heritage.

Looking across to the Kame in Hoy

Hoy and Graemsay

Hoy is Orkney’s second largest island and dramatically rises from the sea with mountainous moorland and glacial valleys, appearing more like a highland landscape than a typical Orkney low-lying island.

North Ronaldsay's new lighthouse at Dennis Head

North Ronaldsay

The island's unique seaweed eating sheep, an Old Beacon featured on prime time television and the flight path for thousands of migratory birds have all helped put North Ronaldsay on the map.

At the pier in Papa Westray

Papa Westray

Take the world’s shortest scheduled flight and see northern Europe’s oldest house on one of Orkney’s smallest inhabited islands with a big community heart.

Rousay boasts a spectacular coastline - image by Max Fletcher

Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre

Rousay, Egilsay and Wyre host some of Orkney's most magical archaeological and historical sites - with ancient brochs, cairns and tales of Vikings.

An aerial view of the Holms of Ayre in Sanday


Sanday by name and sandy by nature, the largest island of Orkney’s North Isles has beautiful sandy bays and dunes, turquoise seas and a gentle, fertile landscape.

A view across to Whitehall pier in Stronsay


Stronsay is a beautiful island to visit and live on with magical sandy beaches backed by dunes, a stunning coastline and a main settlement with grand houses dating back to the herring fishery days.

A view of the Rapness ferry terminal at the south end of Westray


Westray is known as the Queen o’ the Isles and is a vibrant place to live, work and visit.