Just 25 minutes away from Orkney’s capital, Shapinsay is a green, fertile, low-lying island, full of wildlife and boasting a vibrant community.
The ferry – which travels to and from Kirkwall several times a day – arrives in the tiny but charming village of Balfour. One of the most picturesque in Orkney, it’s an early example of a planned village and was built in the late 1700s. It still retains much of its original character, with the single street overlooked by stone cottages that originally housed workers on the sprawling Balfour estate, home of the grand Balfour Castle. These days the castle is privately-owned, but it’s still a striking sight.
In the village you’ll find an excellent Heritage Centre in the island’s former smithy. It tells the story of Shapinsay's past with a fantastic collection of displays, photographs and documents. You can also pick up some local crafts and delicious jams and chutneys from island-based business Orkney Isles Preserves.
Elsewhere in the village you’ll see the Dishan Tower, a saltwater shower, and its neighbouring sea-washed toilet – two of the more eclectic buildings in Orkney! The village also features a well-stocked shop and post office.
Once you start exploring the island proper, you’ll quickly notice the neatly regimented patterns of fields and long, straight roads. This symmetrical layout came about in the mid-1850s, led by island laird David Balfour. The fertile farmland here produces some of the finest livestock in Orkney, with cattle and sheep numbers far exceeding the human population of around 300.
Like most areas of Orkney, Shapinsay has plenty of history to explore. One of the finest sites here is the Iron Age Burroughston Broch, tucked away close to the shore in the north east corner of the island. Surrounded by rough grass, the broch has a slightly unkempt appearance which only adds to its authenticity.
The other main attraction on offer in Shapinsay is its wildlife. From basking seals below the village shop, to one of the finest RSPB reserves in Orkney, the island is a brilliant place to experience nature at its best. Shapinsay is rich in flora and fauna with a surprising diversity of habitats including wetlands and costal heath. As a result, a wide variety of breeding birds, wildflowers and lichens can be seen.
The RSPB’s Mill Dam reserve overlooks wetlands that are a haven for waders, ducks, gulls, geese and much more. The hide is the perfect place to spend an hour to two spotting a remarkable range of wildlife. Maritime heath, cliffs and beaches also offer the perfect habitat for seabirds, and keep your eyes peeled for orca and other cetaceans too.
Shapinsay's proximity to Kirkwall means the island boasts an excellent ferry service.
The ro-ro ferry runs to and from Balfour village in Shapinsay throughout the day, making the island a popular destination for day trippers and commuters.