island and civil parish in Orkney Islands, Scotland, UK

Shapinsay is one of the smaller Orkney Islands, a short ferry ride from Mainland Orkney. Its population in 2011 was 307, with Balfour the only village. The whole island was owned and remodelled in the 19th century by the Balfours; their grandiose castle can't be visited but there are several prehistoric sites such as Burroughston Broch.

It's usually obvious what a Viking placename indicates - think of Westray or Sanday - but no-one knows what Shapins might have been. One suggestion is hjalpandis-øy, helpful island, for the shelter it afforded on the sea approach to Kirkwall.

Get in edit

Shapinsay is close to Mainland and has no air service. Orkney Ferries sail from Kirkwall in a small ro-ro taking 30 min. Until May 2023 the return fares are adult £5.60, child £2.80, conc £4.50, car £18. There are six sailings M-Sa and two on Sunday year-round, and most visitors simply day-trip.

1 Balfour is the ferry port and only village.

Get around edit

You can walk everywhere but might use a bike to get up to the north end.

See edit

  • Balfour village was created from the former Shoreside when the whole island was remodelled. Thomas Balfour married into money in 1780 and began the makeover, and his grandson David Balfour built the castle and (no doubt after much cogitation) renamed the place. The harbour walls and cannon are just decorative. The village heritage centre in the Smithy has closed. The cylindrical tower at the north end was the gasometer, but just to add authenticity, David purloined three ornamental stones including one dated 1725 from Noltland Castle on Westray.
  • Dishan Tower is 200 yards south of the pier and well seen from the ferry. It looks like a lighthouse but was built in the 17th century as a dovecote. In the 19th century it was converted into a showerblock, and became known as The Douche, as the Balfours deemed that what the island was short of was lashings of cold salty water. It's derelict and unsafe.
  • 1 Balfour Castle. Closed. Impressive 19th-century mansion or mock-castle in Scottish Baronial style. It has operated as an upmarket hotel and wedding venue, but is now a private dwelling and closed to the public. You can admire the Gatehouse and the house facade from a distance - indeed it's visible from Kirkwall.    
  • 2 Helliar Holm, the uninhabited islet enclosing the harbour at Balfour, has a lighthouse and the remains of a broch, cairn and chapel. It's tidal but only just, you could wade across at the bottom of a spring low tide, but The String rip current may carry you off towards Norway.
  • 3 Mor Stein is a 3-metre Neolithic standing stone.
  • 4 Castle Bloody is a souterrain, an Iron Age earth house. The stone atop it is a modern addition.
  • 5 Linton Chapel is the fragmentary ruin of a 12th-century chapel.
  • 6 Burroughston Broch is a well-preserved Iron Age broch, with thick dry-stone walls and an interior chamber. It's on the north-east corner of Shapinsay, 4 miles from the ferry pier, follow Hillock Road.
  • 7 Geo of Ork at the north tip of the island is a gully created by waves driving into the natural cleavage plane of the bedrock.

Do edit

Entrance to Burroughston Broch
  • Milldam RSPB Reserve is a mile north of Balfour harbour. The bird hide overlooks a small wetland and lake, created in the 1880s to power a mill. Orkney doesn't have much wetland — whatever isn't naturally well-drained was diligently improved for arable farming in the 19th century — so this reverse creation is an important habitat. It's free to access 24 hours. Other wetlands around the coast are called "ayres": they're brackish lagoons formed where storm waves have piled up a shingle barrier along the beach, blocking the drainage.
  • Ward Hill in the north of the island at 64 m (210 ft) is at no dizzy altitude, but you need stout boots for the uneven soggy terrain.
  • Find obscure Norse and Pictish landmarks. Or better still, fail to find, as they can't possibly live up to their names. Anti-clockwise along the coast from Balfour you might stumble across Noust of Skidi, Steiro, Haco's Ness, Dead Wife's Geo, Skarvie Clett, Dochins Cave, Geo of Jibidi, Swart Helligeo, Piers of Frustigarth, Coopalash, Taing of the Busy, Gany of Gersty, Geo of Ork (the north tip, described above), Point of Veniver, Inskift of Skewnesstoft, Furrow of Traddelton, The Galt, Banks of Runabout, Quoys of Ayreacks, Grukalty Pier, Lang Ridden and Setter Noust, which circles you back to Balfour with a better appreciation of its sonsie name.

Buy edit

  • Thomas Sinclair, Shoreside, Balfour KW17 2GG, +44 1856 711500. M-F 09:00-17:00, Sa 12:00-17:00, Su 14:00-16:00. This is the island's general store and bakery. A pair of Masonic plinths stand outside so try for a discount if you know the funny handshake.

Eat & drink edit

Sorry, you'll need to bring your own packed lunch. The Smithy by the pier has closed down - it used to house the heritage centre, and made a good lunchtime trip from Kirkwall. The pub in the castle gatehouse has likewise folded.

Sleep edit

  • Self-catering accommodation may be available at Iona Cottage.
  • Rip van Winkle may be the inspiration for the island's dormant economy. William Irving was born on Shapinsay in 1740 and emigrated to New York in 1763. Washington Irving was his son and wrote Rip van Winkle and Sleepy Hollow.

Connect edit

As of Oct 2021, the island has no mobile signal from any UK carrier.

Go next edit

Back to Kirkwall and the Mainland is the only option.

This rural area travel guide to Shapinsay is a usable article. It has information on how to get there and on restaurants and hotels. An adventurous person could use this article, but please feel free to improve it by editing the page.