Shapinsay: Visiting A Wee Scottish Island

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!”

Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles

In my school library in Canada, there was a curious old volume printed in 1909 called “The Orkney Book.” It was written for schoolchildren living in the Orkney Islands off the north coast of Scotland and told them about their land, culture and history.

This book fascinated me with its stories of Viking warriors and mysterious stone circles. I studied the grainy black and white photos of those remote islands and dreamed of going there. Last week I finally did.

Orkney, as Orcadians call their home, is a group of about 70 islands between the North Sea and North Atlantic. The exact number is a matter of dispute because in addition to the numerous inhabited islands, some with a population as low as one, there are many more uninhabited islands and skerries. When is an island really an island and not just a rock sticking out of the sea? I suspect this has been the subject of many long conversations in Orcadian pubs.

My wife, 6-year-old son and I landed in the tiny airport at Kirkwall, Orkney’s capital. With a population a little above 7,500, it’s not exactly a booming metropolis, but it does account for more than a third of Orkney’s population. What Kirkwall lacks in size it makes up for in history and character. In the broad harbor are moored numerous fishing and pleasure boats and a few larger vessels. Beyond can be seen other islands, green humps rising out of the gray sea.

Dominating the Kirkwall skyline is the 12th century St. Magnus Cathedral built of red sandstone. It was built in 1137 by Earl Rognvald, a Viking at a time when most Vikings were nominally Christian. He built it to house the remains of his uncle Magnus, who had become a saint after having his head split by an axe in traditional Viking fashion. Magnus had been an Earl of the Orkneys, ruling for the Norwegian king along with Magnus’ cousin Hakon, who was Earl of another part of Orkney. This co-rulership led to trouble and when Magnus and Hakon met to sort things out, Hakon betrayed him. Hakon didn’t want his own hands soiled by a kinsman’s blood and called on his cook to perform the foul deed. Soon miracles started happening around Magnus’ grave and he was proclaimed a saint.

Kirkwall also has an excellent museum tracing Orkney’s history from the surprisingly active prehistoric period to the modern day. There’s also a cool Wireless Museum filled with a huge collection of old radios; one from 1912 actually works and on another set you can practice your Morse code. My son was more interested in the old TV where you could play Pong, a video game from an era that must seem as remote to him as the Neolithic.

%Gallery-160901%Our next stop was Stromness, a half-hour bus ride from Kirkwall. As we got off and gazed over the cluster of gray stone buildings huddled around the harbor, my son asked, “Is this the other place they call a city?”

Well, after growing up in Madrid, I guess it doesn’t seem like much of a city to him, but with a little over 2,000 people it’s the second biggest town on the islands. It has a thriving artistic community and many artists display their work at the Pier Arts Centre. There’s also a large museum about the lives of the hardy local sailors, whalers, and explorers of days gone by. Many of the displays are of the things they brought back from their travels, everything from artwork from Niger and Greenland to whalebone scrimshaw and necklaces made from human teeth.

The highlight of our visit to Stromness was walking along the shore and around a promontory. Soon we left the town behind us and looked out over the cold waves. Seals popped their heads out of the water to study us. “Look, a seal! Look, a seal!” my son kept shouting as he spotted another and another. A few rocks became identified as seals too, and spotting more seals took on the uncertainty and excitement that adults generally reserve for UFOs. We clambered over the remains of a World War II gun emplacement, one of many on the islands, and admired the high hills of Hoy island, shown in the photo above.

Both Kirkwall and Stromness are on Orkney’s main island, which Orcadians call the Mainland even though mainland Scotland is barely twenty miles from its southern shores. For those wanting a base from which to get out and about on the islands, either of these two cities is a good bet. Many of Orkney’s top attractions are on the Mainland and Kirkwall and Stromness have regular ferry services to other islands. While we stayed in Kirkwall, my wife and I found Stromness more attractive. Its old architecture and quieter streets had a more traditional feel.

We’d only been on Orkney for 24 hours and we were already hooked. I was looking forward to seeing the countryside and the smaller islands.

This is the first in my series “Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles.”

Coming up next: “The Heart of Neolithic Orkney!”

My adventure travel year: a look back and a look forward

adventure travel, Harar
This was a strange year for me. I didn’t see any new countries but I still had some great adventure travel. I spent two months living in Harar, Ethiopia, writing a series about it for all you fine folks. I’d visited this fascinating medieval walled city back in 2010 during a road trip in Ethiopia and passed through on my way to Somaliland. The three weeks I spent in Harar in 2010 convinced me I had to come back and learn more.

This time, however, I came to settle in for a while. My colleague–local historian, author, and guide Mohammed Jami Guleid (harartourguide–helped me explore Ethiopia’s Somali region and meet the Argobba, a little-visited tribe. Other highlights included feeding a pack of hyenas and meeting a traditional African healer. The best part of my stay, however, was the day-to-day life of visiting friends and making new ones. Harar is a small town and it seemed that by the end of my two months there everyone knew me.

Sadly, that was my only adventure travel in 2011. I didn’t get to do my usual long-distance hike, scheduled in late August right after my birthday. I like to do these to prove to myself that I’m not old yet. In previous years I’ve blogged about hiking the East Highland Way and Hadrian’s Wall. Hopefully I’ll bring you another long-distance hike in 2012.

My main adventure travel destination this coming year is the Orkney Islands. My family will be along for this one and we’ll be exploring these rugged isles far to the north of Scotland. I’ve always wanted to see the Orkneys for their bleak grandeur and archaeological sites such as the mysterious brochs and stone circles like the Ring of Brodgar, pictured below courtesy flickr user joeri-c. Last summer I checked out an Ordnance Survey map of Orkneys and found that the farm right next to it is called “Sean”. Looks like I’m fated to go.

Other plans include a short trip to The Gambia and another trip back to Ethiopia. I need to get some funds for both of these adventures so I can’t guarantee they’ll happen. If they do, you’ll certainly hear about it!

Of course I wasn’t the only Gadling blogger to have adventures. The one that made me most jealous was Alex Robertson Textor’s series on Far Europe, and of course Jon Bowermaster is always doing something cool.

What were your adventure travel highlights for 2011? What are you plans for next year? Share your adventures in the comment section!
adventure travel