A gloriously sunny day has been forecast, so I thought it might be opportune to have a day on Shapinsey visiting as many sites as I could, so packing sandwiches and a flask I'm ready for the off.
A short walk from the house in Kirkwall and I’m at the pier in time for the 08.15 ferry over to the island. As I sit on deck, the sun is already warm with scarcely a breeze, and as the boat approaches the dock at Balfour village I’m afforded a fine view of the chambered cairn on the unihabited islet of Helliar Holm.
Deciding to head firstly to the broch, as it is the furthest site away from the ferry, and having been stranded before overnight on an island due to forgetting the time in my enthusiasm to see as many megalithic remains as possible, I’m not keen to repeat the mistake!
I love a long walk in to visit a site, not only does it somehow feel more adventurous, but it gives you time to appreciate the landscape, and the monument’s place in it. It helps me to feel more connected with the place, and visualise how things might have looked back in time when the monument was built. It is however a good five miles from Balfour village to the broch, so for anyone more sensible who doesn’t fancy quite such an exertion I’d recommend hiring a bicycle in Kirkwall. Shapinsay is a great place for cycling being mostly flat and virtually traffic free (it’s also a lot cheaper than the extortionate cost for bringing a car over from Mainland).
As I head to the northern part of the island a low sea mist still clings over the ground, not yet having been burnt off by the sun, and the closer I get to the broch the worse visibility becomes. Soon all around me is grey, and the muffled calls of the sea birds lend an eerie atmosphere to the walk as I see not another soul around.
Approaching the broch, which is well signposted from the road, initially all that is visible is a green mound, surrounded by an outer bank and information board. Heading around to the entrance I am confronted by a very fine doorway, with a fantastic lintel. Inside the broch things only get better. What can I say about the place? Compact and bijou with recent renovation, bags of character, with loads of original features, and a great seaside location, perfect for the discerning modern antiquarian.
Seriously though it has a fantastic interior, some highlights including a Skara Brae style dresser, ingenious ground water collecting well (which still works!) and a spy hole in the guardroom to check on visitors outside the front door. I was blown away.
As Wideford mentions in his fieldnotes you can get a good overhead view of the inside from the top. I wasn’t too crazy about the slightly intrusive wooden railings circling the summit, but I suppose nowadays health and safety demands it. Also well done to the idiot(s) who decided to throw the remains of their picnic down into the well (why people with such little respect for these places bother visiting somewhere that takes considerable effort to reach I’ll never know).
After spending a while here the sun finally starts to burn off the low cloud, allowing me to look out to sea and hoping to catch a glimpse of some seals, who often like to beach themselves on the shore by the broch, but alas there are no selkies to be seen today.
If you get the chance do visit, I’ve enjoyed this place more than some of its more impressive/famous nearby neighbours, and for me it’s now Orkney’s top of the brochs.
A very well preserved broch on Shapinsay where they took the decision to only excavate the interior , which means you can walk along the top and take pictures of the inside as well as from the inside .