No trip to Orkney is complete without seeing some of the smaller islands. They offer plenty of natural and historic sights as well as peaceful solitude.
Little Shapinsay can be seen from the main harbor at Kirkwall, but visitors often overlook it. Even though it only measures six miles long at its longest and has only about 300 residents, it’s served by a regular car ferry from Kirkwall. My family and I noticed that the locals getting on board at Kirkwall harbor were loaded down with groceries. Apparently there aren’t many shopping opportunities on Shapinsay.
The boat pulled out of Kirkwall and passed some old gun emplacements on the Point of Carness. Orkney was a major base during the two World Wars and there are plenty of remains from that time. We also saw a tiny island called Thieves Holm. Local folklore says thieves and witches were banished here. It’s not too far from the Mainland, but with the water so chilly I doubt anyone could have made the swim. Then we pulled out into The String, the exit from Kirkwall Bay, and felt like we were in the open sea, with clean air blowing on our faces and seagulls wheeling overhead.
%Gallery-161148%Twenty-five minutes later we pulled into Shapinsay harbor. Like most of the islands up here, it’s been inhabited since prehistoric times. There are a couple of megalithic standing stones, including one called the Odin Stone, like the one that used to be near the Standing Stones of Stenness. There’s also an Iron Age broch built by the Picts.
It seems, though, that Shapinsay was mostly a sleepy place inhabited by farmers and fishermen. That all changed in the late 1700s when the Balfour family decided to build an elegant estate on the island. The first step was to build Balfour village for all the workmen, and then work began in earnest on a grand home that looks like a castle. Balfour Castle is now a hotel and a good spot if you want to splash out on a quiet retreat.
And quiet it is. Even in the center of town all we heard is the wind, birdsong and the distant drone of a tractor. After a minute even the tractor cut off. We had a quick coffee at The Smithy, a little cafe/restaurant/pub (you have to multitask when you’re one of the only businesses on the island) and headed out for a coastal hike.
For me, the biggest attraction of Scotland is the countryside, and Shapinsay certainly didn’t disappoint. After a gloomy northern morning, the weather had turned gloriously clear and warm. We chose a five-mile loop hike along the shoreline and through some woods behind Balfour Castle. My 6-year-old son is an experienced hiker and can manage five miles over easy terrain. Of course, when hiking with children make sure you give them a steady supply of water and snacks!
We started out by passing Balfour Village’s little pier and a crumbling old tower called The Douche, which used to be a salt water shower for the local residents. Then we tramped along the stony beach. Orkney is rich in bird life and we saw terns, seagulls, and several other types of birds I couldn’t identify. Every now and then a curious seal would pop its head out of the water and examine us. In the distance we saw a few sailboats and fishing vessels. Otherwise we saw nobody and heard nothing. That was exactly what I wanted.
After climbing a steep slope, our path cut inland and we tramped over lush fields carpeted with yellow, white and purple wildflowers. My son picked a couple for my wife to put in her hair and we headed through a little forest and ended up in the lush garden of Balfour Castle. It wasn’t long before we were back in the village, where we relaxed in the garden of the Smithy looking out over the water and doing nothing for a while except admiring a beautiful day in northern Scotland.
Orkney has plenty of islands to choose from. Do a bit of research ahead of time online and with the local tourism office and head on out. Pay careful attention to the ferry schedule, though, because on many islands the last ferry for the day leaves pretty early.
Don’t miss the rest of my series “Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles.”
Coming up next: “Eynhallow: Visiting Orkney’s Haunted Isle!”