Island Destinations - Shapinsay


...The Viking sanctuary

Dealing with the sometimes mischievous, even malevolent, Orkney fairy folk in centuries past was always a problem and each island had one or more fairy doctors. In Shapinsay, according the tradition, one such 19th-century 'trowie doctor' could be seen dancing and flapping his arms by night on a hilltop. The tiny folk did not, alas, make themselves visible on these occasions.

The green and fertile island of Shapinsay lies a pleasant 25-minute crossing by ferry from Kirkwall. The MV Shapinsay, commissioned in 1989 operates a regular service throughout the day.

As you sail out of the shelter of Kirkwall Bay, old gun emplacements can be seen along the Point of Carness while on the left lies Thieves Holm. Tradition has it that this little isle was home to banished thieves and witches but now it is the haunt of Cormorants, Kittiwakes and seals.

Crossing The String, the deep water exit from Kirkwall Bay, the Victorian turrets of Balfour Castle loom ahead. To the right is the uninhabited island of Helliar Holm with its automatic lighthouse.

Approaching Shapinsay Pier and ro-ro terminal the scene is one of warm stone colours of traditional drystane walls and the pleasing symmetry of the village street. Balfour village was built in the late 18th century as a home for smiths, carpenters and masons employed on the Balfour estate.

Much further back in time the calm waters of Elwick Bay echoed to the bustle of the 100-vessel Viking fleet of King Hakon which sheltered here in 1263 before setting off for the Battle of Largs.


Shapinsay is low-lying with its highest point being Ward Hill at 210 feet (64 metres) from where on a clear day a breathtaking view of almost all the other Orkney isles is possible. The island is six miles (10 km) at its longest and in common with most of Orkney the island is made up of Middle Old Red Sandstone.

Interesting features of the island are its storm beaches or as they are known locally 'ayres' a name rooted in the Old Norse meaning a strip of sea water completely shut off from the ocean by narrow necks of land. Look for these at Vasa Loch, Lairo Water and for the natural process near completion at the Ouse.