Old-castle adventure on a windy Scottish island. Former home of barons now a `living museum'

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

As our ferry approached Elwick Bay in Shapinsay Island, the baronial towers of Balfour Castle dominated the treeless landscape. It was late August, and we were headed for a living museum, built in the early 19th century by the powerful Balfour Scottish lairds. We had done some pre-trip reading and, before our earlier nine-day stay in Edinburgh, had made reservations with castle owner Catherine Zawadski. Mrs. Zawadski picked us up at the dock in the castle's van. As we started up the winding road to the castle, she told us that from this sheltered bay, Norwegian King Haakon's 100 ships sailed 723 years ago to the Battle of Largs and were defeated by his British enemy.

Shapinsay Island itself is one of the central Orkney islands in the archipelago, often missed by people traveling in Scotland. The islands were first inhabited by Stone Age farmers and herders 7,000 years ago, then by the Celts, and then, in the 9th century, by the Vikings.

We weren't prepared for Shapinsay's cool and windy summer weather, nor for the barrenness of the landscape. Except for the forest of sycamore trees on Shapinsay, planted by the Balfours, trees don't grow in the Orkneys. Here, residents have to rely on the rich red sandstone soil to grow crops and raise sheep and cattle. Rain clouds will appear suddenly, spill their contents, then travel on as the sun breaks through.

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Our reading didn't adequately prepare us for the castle or the delightful Zawadski family, either. On arrival, we learned that when David Balfour, the last of the dynasty, died without heirs, the Zawadskis bought the farm and then the castle.

Catherine, now a widow, and her two sons and daughter manage the huge castle, three one-acre walled gardens, and 500 sheep and cattle. Several years ago, they started accepting guests to help meet expenses. The nightly per-person rate includes three meals and afternoon tea, along with the run of the castle.

Castle visitors will relive the mid-19th-century elegance the Balfours and their guests enjoyed. Our third-floor bedroom had 14-foot ceilings, a huge canopy bed (with the welcome addition of an electric heating pad), a marble fireplace, and a window with a view of the sheep and cows grazing in the pasture below.

Behind a large pier glass mirror, we discovered a door leading to the corner turret room - still with pegs on which the earlier Balfours hung clothes.

The castle's second floor is a picture gallery of oil portraits of the Balfour family, with the style of clothing reflecting the period of each portrait. On statues on the landing as well as over the castle entrance are found the Balfour's coat-of-arms. On the walls are framed engravings of Orkney maps, one dated 1665. Other rooms in Balfour Castle are the formal dining room, a drawing room, and a small chapel with a pulpit and pump organ.

Our hosts served breakfasts in the kitchen between 8 and 9 o'clock. By American standards, the meal was huge, with porridge that far excelled oatmeal in taste and bulk. The Zawadskis have their own milk cow, and the table cream is thick and yellow. The breakfasts proved to be an essential beginning for long walks around the island.

Lunch at 1 o'clock might include a Balfour castle specialty of kedgeree, adapted from the Indian dish of rice, eggs, and seasoning, with small pieces of smoked fish. Later, around 7 o'clock, guests gather in the library with son Christopher for refreshments and conversation before dinner.

Our two castle dinners were pork and baked chicken, both served with fresh vegetables from the castle gardens, and a light pudding topped with the thick yellow cream and fresh strawberries.

We discovered the castle's walled gardens on returning from a long walk to Vasa Loch, one of the island's bird-watching spots in May and June.

The three gardens with two large Victorian greenhouses are walled to protect the potatoes, onions, kale, cauliflower, artichokes, rhubarb, and apple trees from the winds.

Although it is one of the smaller Orkneys, Shapinsay offers visitors miles of country walking, past neat farms divided into 10-acre fields by Col. David Balfour in the 1850s. The islands in general offer some excellent spring and early summer bird watching, when petrels, puffins, and shags (a variety of cormorant) perch on the rocky cliffs or nest in caves.

There has been little archaeological excavation here, compared with the Mainland island, but there are remnants of a stone megalith, a chambered cairn named Bloody Castle, and Linton Chapel, dating to the 12th-century Norsemen.

One afternoon, Christopher took us out to the castle's uninhabited Helliar Holm island, with its imposing but deserted lighthouse. A flock of seaweed-eating sheep are shorn once a year on the island, and there are the ruins of a broch (round fort), a chapel, and a cairn. He swung his boat near the island's rocky north shore, where a hundred gray seals or ``selkies'' basked. If we approached too near, they slid off into the water.

Our two-night stay ended all too quickly. But like our fellow guests, we agreed we'd try to come back in June for a longer stay when the birds are thick on Shapinsay's coast.

Practical information

For information on Balfour Castle, write to Catherine Zawadski, Balfour Castle, Shapinsay Island, the Orkneys, Scotland, U.K. Tel.: 0856-71282.

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