Visit Shapinsay

Visit Shapinsay, nestled at the heart of Orkney, so close to the Mainland that the ferry journey takes a mere 25 minutes. Come and savor the gentle charms of this green island of rich pastures where farming has been the way of life for generations. Discover a different world, only minutes away, where visitors are greeted like old friends.

Your visit begins aboard the MV Shapinsay. Leaving Kirkwall Bay, your sea passage takes you past Thieves Holm, a small island on the left where it is rumored that witches and thieves were exiled to fend for themselves. The ferry now enters the String, a narrow deep stretch of water where the North sea and the Atlantic ocean collide. The next landmark is Helliar Holm Lighthouse on the right which was designed by Stevenson and is a beacon to vessels arriving from Norway, Shetland, Faroes and the Scottish mainland. As the ferry steams into Elwick Bay - a refuge, in Viking days, for King Hakon and his fleet - the splendor of the Victorian calendar house Balfour Castle comes into view. The Douche, a drystane tower, rising up from the rocky shore, is the final landmark before the ferry docks at the pier in the village of Balfour.

A brief stroll up the only street of Orkney’s first planned village, built to house the Balfour Estate workers, brings you to Shapinsay’s Heritage Centre. Researching your family tree, curious about island history or looking for beautiful hand-crafted gifts to take home, this centre offers unique insight into island culture. Traditional and modern arts and crafts, such as painting, jewellery, metal work, pottery, glass work, textiles, wood turning, photography and knitting are practiced on the island and may be purchased locally. Several crafts folk welcome visitors to their studios including the potter who can be found in the island water mill on the outskirts of the village. If you would like to try your hand at some of these crafts then take a look at what Haughland House has planned.

An attraction of an older vintage is Burroughston Broch. One of Orkney’s finest examples of an Iron Age site the Broch is found some six miles along the eastern arm of the island, open all year round free of charge. Common and grey seals can often be seen a short walk along the shore from the Broch.

In need of refreshment yet? The island boasts one fine café/restaurant serving the best of local produce. The Smithy Restaurant is found in the village. The island shop and post office is within Balfour village. 

Shapinsay’s landscape is rich and varied. Heather moorland, wetlands, lush green pasture, granite cliffs and sandy beaches are all to be found here. A walk along any of the numerous tracks and quiet roads will reveal colourful and varied species of wild flowers, including delightful gems such as bird’s foot trefoil, heath spotted and northern marsh orchids, ladies smock and tormentil. The brackish lochs and ayres offer spectacular opportunities for bird watching. Vasa, Lairo Water, the Ouse mudflats and sheltered Veantro Bay are all accessible. The craggy north and east coasts are also home to regular colonies of gulls and terns, which bring Arctic Skuas, Hen Harriers and Shelducks to the island. East Hill has heathland birds and flowers and the cliffs support breeding auks.

The RSPB Mill Dam Reserve is a natural marsh with an abundance of breeding wildfowl and waders. Only a mile from the pier, the reserve has a spacious bird hide with wonderful views, a car park, bicycle rack, picnic area and interpretation material. You are welcome to note your observations on the chalk board.
As you wander the quiet byways you will be sharing the landscape with some of the finest prize-winning livestock in Scotland. This small island has produced the County show cattle champion twice in the last decade. Come along to the annual cattle show held the Tuesday before the County show for a sneak preview.