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Balfour castle shapinsay.jpg
Balfour Castle
Island: Shapinsay
Grid reference: HY479164
Location: 59°1’48"N, 2°54’25"W
Post town: Orkney
Postcode: KW17
Dialling code: 01856
Local Government
Council: Orkney Islands
Orkney and Shetland

Balfour is the village on the island of Shapinsay, Orkney. The village lies on Elwick Bay

The village has a harbour, with mock defensive walls built at the same time as the castle in the nineteenth century.[1] A stone built into the walls gives the date as "1725", which is more than a little misleading as David Balfour, the laird who had the castle and the walls built, began the work only after 1846 when he inherited the estate; the stone was taken from Noltland Castle on the island of Westray.[2]

A car ferry to Kirkwall, operated by Orkney Ferries, sails from a pier at the harbour. This became a roll-on/roll-off service in 1990.[3]


In 1263, King Haakon IV of Norway anchored in Elwick Bay before sailing south to engage the Scots in war, which ended in his defeat at the Battle of Largs in October.[4]

The site of the village was known as Shoreside until the 1840s, and owes it origin to generations of the Balfour family, beginning with Thomas Balfour in the 1780s. Thomas Balfour, a former tenant farmer, acquired a private income by marrying the sister of an Earl.[2] With his new-found wealth, he bought the estate of Sound, whose estate house had been burned down in revenge for the then owner's support of the 1745 Jacobite Rising. In 1782, to make way for a new residence, Balfour cleared cottars from the south-west of the island, and appropriated part of the common, building the village of Shoreside to house those evicted.[2] To help finance his building work, Thomas Balfour borrowed money from his brother John, who made his fortune serving with the British East India Company.

In 1846, Thomas's grandson, David Balfour, inherited the estate, which now encompassed the whole of the island. The following year, he recruited an Edinburgh architect, David Bryce, to transform Cliffdale House into the Scottish Baronial Balfour Castle.[5]

At the same time, David Balfour turned his eyes to Shoreside, which he renamed "Balfour". He made many changes to the village; some of the village was demolished in order to improve the view from the castle,[1] but many improvements were made too. Balfour added an imposing gatehouse, now the village pub and home to the local football team; a water mill and a gas works which remained operational until the 1920s.[1] In order to supply the water mill, a river was dammed, creating the wetland known as Mill Dam.

The last of the Balfour family died in 1960 with no children, despite having had four wives. The castle was purchased by Tadeusz Zawadzki, a Polish Cavalry officer and now operates as a hotel.[6]

Electricity was introduced by way of an undersea cable in the 1970s.[3]

Balfour's main street

Notable buildings

Balfour's former smithy is now home to the Shapinsay Heritage Centre, a craft shop and a café. The village also includes a shop and the island's only petrol pump.[1]

Mill Dam

Mill Dam is a wetland habitat by Balfour, created artificially by David Balfour to provide a water supply to the village. It is now a significant bird habitat, owned and managed by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

The Mill Dam reserve is home to many species of birds, including water rails, pintails, waders and black-headed gulls.[7] Whooper Swans have also been known to breed here.[4]


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 "Balfour Feature Page". Undiscovered Scotland. Retrieved 2007-08-13. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 2.2 Thomson, William PL (2001) The new history of Orkney Edinburgh, Mercat Press
  3. 3.0 3.1 Smith, Robin The Making of Scotland (2001) Edinburgh, Canongate
  4. 4.0 4.1 Haswell-Smith, Hamish. (2004) The Scottish Islands. Edinburgh. Canongate.
  5. "Balfour Castle Feature Page". Undiscovered Scotland. Retrieved 2007-08-13. 
  6. "Balfour Castle website". Retrieved 2007-08-14. 
  7. "Overview of Shapinsay". The Gazetteer for Scotland. Retrieved 2007-08-14. 

Outside links

Balfour feature page on Undiscovered Scotland Balfour Castle feature page on Undiscovered Scotland Balfour on the Gazetteer for Scotland