Private Castle Scotland
Contact us

Balfour Castle and the Island of Shapinsay

Castle History


Balfour Castle was the creation of two distinguished men; David Balfour, the 4th Laird of Balfour and Trenaby and David Bryce, the pre-eminent Scottish architect of his generation and leading exponent of the Scottish Baronial style.  Bryce's designs incorporated the old Balfour house of Cliffdale, described by contemporaries as a "finely proportioned Georgian villa".


The very first Balfour to arrive in Shapinsay planted trees in the late eighteenth century. These new plantings grew into the magnificent woodlands we see today.  Not only is this now the largest wooded area in Orkney but the trees also provide excellent shelter for the Castle and the Victorian walled garden.

Walled Garden

Balfour architect David Bryce also designed the two-acre walled kitchen garden which still fulfils its primary function of providing the Castle's kitchen with its fresh produce right the way through the year.

Traditional Sunken Gardens

The traditional sunken gardens sit just to the west of the main house.  After the Second World War they fell into disrepair but today they have been lovingly restored and incorporate a delightful water feature and recently planted maze.  Ladies Walk leads to the walled gardens, the path’s width designed to accommodate the full skirts of the ladies' Victorian dresses.  Follow in their footsteps in more modern attire such as wellingtons, perhaps not as elegant but infinitely more practical.

History of Shapinsay

A Viking Heritage

Shapinsay, whose name in Norse reputedly means 'helpful island' because of the safe harbour offered to the Viking longship fleets, is today home to a population of approximately 300 people. Six miles at its longest, this island gem is the nearest northern isle to Orkney's capital town Kirkwall. 

Elwick Bay in the Castle's foreground has a proud Viking heritage, as King Haakon of Norway set sail from here in 1263 with a 100 vessel Viking fleet to The Battle of Largs. Longships of yesteryear have given way to our regular ferry the MV Shapinsay , fishing boats, visiting yachts and our own charter 'Reggie'. 

A farming revolution

Essentially a farming island, Shapinsay's green and fertile land is home to award-winning cattle, beef and lamb. David Balfour also changed the face of farming on the island , meticulously planning out square, 10-acre fields in place of the traditionally cultivated runrigs, boosting the farming capacity of the land from 700 to over 6000 acres in a 26 year period. Shapinsay underwent its own farming revolution in the hands of the Balfours.

Natural History

Inlets of water, created by trapped sea water known locally as 'ayres' are home to an impressive variety of wildfowl such as sheldrakes, grebes, shovelers and mallards. Look to the skies for glimpses of Hen-Harriers, Arctic Skuas or maybe even a short-eared owl.

There are resident seal colonies and on occasion pods of killer whales are spotted out at sea. Further flora and fauna include sea campion, cuckoo flower, primrose and a rare bee found only in Orkney, Shetland, Hebrides and in smaller numbers on the northern coast of mainland Scotland, the magnificent Great Yellow Bumblebee.

An Iron Age Dwelling

Shapinsay boasts beautiful, coastal walks and has a marvellously preserved Iron Age dwelling, Burroughston Broch, excavated in the 1860's by David Balfour and James Petrie. Historically known as The Viking Sanctuary, Shapinsay still affords safety and seclusion on her shores and there is no better base to admire the island's charms from than the unrivalled luxury of Balfour Castle.