Balfour Castle, designed by David Bryce around 1846-50, and incorporating the earlier house of Cliffdale, is a large Scots Baronial mansion of three-storeys. The Old Walled Garden with ruined lean-to buildings, relating to the House of Sound is situated at the western end of the policies close to the site of the original house. Adjoining this walled garden are a series of walled compartments dating from the 17th and early-18th centuries. The Castle and its lawns are separated from the parkland by a ha-ha, which defines the southern edge of the lawns. An important component of the landscape is the woodland, Orkney's largest mixed woodland, planted in around 1800 and comprising sycamore, horse chestnut, alder (Alnus glutinosa), larch (Larix europaeus), rowan, Swedish whitebeam (Sorbus intermedia), white willow (Salix alba) and wych elm (Ulmus glabra).
Type of Site
A mid 19th century designed landscape with formal gardens and Orkney's largest woodland, complementing a Scots baronial castle, and incorporating earlier features.
Location and Setting
Shapinsay is a flattish island about 4km east of mainland Orkney. Balfour Castle stands in the south-west corner of Shapinsay, directly on the coast, on the west side of Elwick Bay. It is a prominent landmark on arrival by ferry at Elwick. The woodlands and the Castle form distinctive components of the landscape, identifiable from a considerable distance.
The designed landscape occupies gentle south facing slopes, with views across to mainland Orkney. The general orientation of the designed landscape follows the pattern of the north-south/east-west gridiron of fields laid out over the whole of Shapinsay.
The designed landscape forms the nucleus of an extensive improvement landscape laid out on Shapinsay. By 1819 a designed landscape existed around Cliffdale, Major Balfour's seat, which included the existing policy woodlands (Matheson, 1819). The current extent of the designed landscape of 29ha (72 acres) laid out 1846-50 remains unchanged in extent to the present day (1879-80, OS 6"; 1900, OS 6").
Balfour Castle, designed by David Bryce c 1846-50, and incorporating the earlier house of Cliffdale, is a large Scots Baronial mansion of three-storeys and garret with a four-storey tower rising above the main entrance. The offices are a single-storey range built of stugged ashlar. The Old Walled Garden with ruined lean-to buildings, relating to the House of Sound is situated at the western end of the policies close to the site of the original house. Adjoining this walled garden are a series of walled compartments dating from the 17th and early 18th centuries. A Garden Gateway, is dated 1674 and is a remnant of the House of Sound, converted to house an ornamental seat. The Terraced Gardens with retaining walls, steps and ha-ha were designed by Bryce, c 1850. Remnants of railings of the terraced gardens exist. The Gate Lodge designed by Bryce, c 1850, comprises an arch with mock portcullis flanked by twin lodges with a corbelled parapet topping the whole gateway. The Dishan Tower, a 17th century circular doocot, is positioned on the shore, and was adapted into a douche house in the 19th century. This was embellished by a corbelled and crenellated parapet and crow stepped cap house. It has been placed so as to act as an eyecatcher in the view from the Castle south-east towards Helliar Holm. Gate piers of dressed stone piers capped with pyramids, flank the north east approach and stand within Balfour village.
To the north-east of the Castle is the mid-19th century Walled Garden with glasshouses, offices and cottages. Drystone rubble free-standing walls define the perimeter of the policies and line some of the footpaths.
Drives and Approaches
Initially, the principal approach to Balfour Castle was from the east, via the Portcullis Gate which provides direct access to the harbour. After passing through the gate the east drive follows the ha-ha with views over pasture, to the south. It then swings to the north-west passing a series of grass terraces before reaching the Castle forecourt.
The secondary approach from the north-east, lies through a gateway, flanked by pyramidal capped piers. This north-east drive severs part of the village before passing through woodlands, to emerge into the parkland to the east of the Castle. Here it sweeps southwards to join up with the east drive. In its northernmost section this drive forms a straight diagonal axis (south-west to north-east) which extends beyond the Castle gateway to form the main village street.
Paths and Walks
Within the designed landscape other footpaths and drives take straight, predominantly east to west alignments. In the woodland there is a central, east-west route which forms a major design axis, linking the area of gardens associated with the House of Sound to the later Walled Garden. The eastern section of the path is known as the 'Ladies Walk'. An herbaceous border backed by a wall and by a clipped hawthorn hedge lines it. This footpath has an accentuated camber to provide a dry walking surface, and terminates at the glasshouse adjoining the Walled Garden. The western section is less formal, consisting of a woodland drive lined on its southern side by a drystone wall. It terminates at the western (Sound) boundary where it connects with a track running north-south.
Mid-point along this central axis there is a junction with a drive leading southwards to the Castle, and northwards to lead along the northern woodland boundary.
A Conservatory on the west front of the Castle links the drawing room with the garden. A raised walk leads westwards from the Conservatory, past the terraced gardens into a garden compartment originally associated with the House of Sound and terminated by a late 17th century gateway in the western boundary wall.
The Castle and its lawns are separated from the parkland by a ha-ha, which defines the southern edge of the lawns. Two low, parapeted, bastions project southward from the ha-ha. The west bastion has an integral staircase providing access to the lower parkland. The east bastion, surmounted by a flagstaff, stands at the point at which the ha-ha changes from a straight to a curving section. South of the ha-ha an area of rough pasture extends across the south facing slopes to the shoreline. At its western end the pasture is enclosed by a spur of woodland and a sheepfold adjacent to the old Pier of Sound. The island of Helliar Holm, a partly sloping island lies to the south.
On the east front of the Castle there is a large, oval lawn with grass terraces on its south west side. The north side of the oval lawn was cut into woodland but this has recently been infilled by woodland planting. The eastern and southern boundaries of the lawn are defined by the north east drive. Beyond the drive the parkland extends eastwards to the 'Portcullis' Gate Lodge. This area is grazed.
South-west of the Castle is a series of formal rectangular lawns enclosed by footpaths, which are now overgrown. The western lawn is slightly sunken and was originally used as a bowling green. It is overlooked by the raised walk from the Conservatory.
An important component of the landscape is the woodland, Orkney's largest mixed woodland, planted c 1800 and comprising sycamore, horse chestnut, alder (Alnus glutinosa), larch (Larix europaeus), rowan, Swedish whitebeam (Sorbus intermedia), white willow (Salix alba) and wych elm (Ulmus glabra). Later additions to the woodlands include beech and spruce. The woodlands have a singular wind-sheared form with dense contorted canopies, increasing in height towards the centre of the woodland. The shelter provided by the woodland is an essential characteristic of the Balfour designed landscape as it provides an amenable micro-climate for the Walled Garden and for walks through the policies.
A series of three sunken gardens are laid out to the west of the Castle. These are enclosed by formal earth embankments topped by paths with flights of stone steps leading down into the sheltered gardens. Each garden was formally laid out with a scheme of flower beds, some enclosed by low railings. These beds no longer exist and two of the gardens have been planted with spruce.
At the western end of the policies are a number of 17th century walled enclosures which survive from the gardens laid out around the House of Sound and later Cliffdale House. These are mainly overgrown and derelict with remnants of a Rhododendron shrubbery within the southernmost enclosure (traversed by the walkway terminating at the old gateway).
The rectangular walled garden is oriented north-south and internally subdivided by a brick wall. The northern compartment is square and divided into quarters by axial footpaths. A glasshouse, since demolished, was set centrally against the north wall. The southern compartment is rectangular and bisected by a central footpath, which passes through an arched gate in the dividing wall.
A gardener's cottage forms part of the walled garden's eastern boundary. An ornamental glasshouse stands outside the garden, at its south eastern corner.
The walled garden is operational and is used to produce fruit and vegetables for the Castle Hotel. Notable horticultural features are the fine espalier trees, which still thrive on the garden walls. These demonstrate several forms of espalier training and are carefully maintained.
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Balfour Castle is a Private House.
The following is from the Historic Environment Scotland Gardens and Designed Landscapes Inventory. For the most up-to-date Inventory entry, please visit the Historic Environment Scotland website:
Reason for Inclusion
A large and ambitious mid 19th century designed landscape comprised of formal gardens and Orkney's largest woodland which together form the integral setting of Balfour Castle. One of the architect David Bryce's (1803-76) first large commissions, who also remodelled the grounds incorporating earlier features, in collaboration with garden designer Craigie Inglis Halett.
Main Phases of Landscape Development
1846-50, incorporating 17th century and 18th century elements.
The estate of Sound covered the westerly part of Shapinsay, passing from the Tulloch family to the Buchanans in the 17th century and to the Feas of Clestrain, in Stronsay in the 1720s. The House of Sound was burnt by Hanoverian troops in 1746 but was replaced. Laings of Papdale acquired the estate in 1770 and then in 1782 it was sold to Major Thomas Balfour.
Balfour began a series of agricultural improvements on Shapinsay and c 1785 founded Balfour village which was settled with 'joiners, carpenters, weavers, tailors'' (Sinclair, 1795-8). His considerable improvements involved:
'an extensive garden laid out; the lands are substantially inclosed and judiciously cultivated with the English plough; many barren fields are, by cultivation, made fertile'. In short Cliffdale, which is the name of this gentleman's seat, taken in conjunction with its appendages, exhibits to the eyes of a stranger coming from the sea, or from Kirkwall, rather the appearance of a neat little villa in the vicinity of some opulent city, than of a gentleman's house recently raised in a remote sequestered part of the kingdom.'
Built by Balfour, Cliffdale was an L-shaped house, the focus of a designed landscape (Matheson, 1819). The walled gardens from the 17th century House of Sound, the woodland plantation, the Doocot, the principal east-west access routes and Balfour village all comprise an overall scheme.
By 1844 the whole island had been acquired by the Balfour Estate when Captain William Balfour bought out Samuel Laing of Papdale. The estate was transferred to the Balfours of Trenabie in Westray.
In 1843-4, Colonel David Balfour commissioned the architect David Bryce to design Balfour Castle. Thus Cliffdale House was incorporated as service accommodation with, to the south, a new range consisting of a Scots Baronial mansion. It took more than three years to build, largely from stone quarried on the island, and was completed in 1847.
The Castle grounds were remodelled by David Bryce in association with the garden designer Craigie Inglis Halkett of Cramond (Edinburgh), whose best known work is the garden of St. Martin's Abbey near Perth, undertaken in 1855. Halkett's precise role is unknown although a letter from Bryce to David Balfour in 1847, clearly suggests that Bryce designed the architectural elements of the terraced gardens, leaving the layout of flower beds to be determined separately. The Halkett family was acquainted with a branch of the Balfour family based in Perth, and this connection may have led to Craigie Inglis' commission.
During the 1850s there was an extensive landscape scheme aimed at improving the setting of the Castle and its approach from the village. Part of the village was demolished to allow a diagonal approach from the north east, through the woodland. Bryce designed a gateway with corbelled parapet, mock portcullis and flanking lodges forming a new entrance from the harbour, c 1850. The Dishan Tower, a circular doocot dating from the 17th century, was adapted as a 'douche house' and a 'two holer' lavatory, flushed by the tides, was constructed on the pier.
The old Walled Gardens were replaced by a new Walled Garden to the north east of the Castle sheltered by the woodland. Earthwork terraces and rubble built ha-has were also constructed to the east and the south of the Castle respectively. To the west of the Castle, terraced and sunken gardens were laid out to link with a series of garden enclosures, formerly associated with the House of Sound, including a gateway which was adapted for use as a sheltered seat. The woodland was extended westwards to provide shelter and enclosure for the new Castle and its gardens.
The scheme at Balfour Castle was one aspect of Colonel Balfour's comprehensive programme of agricultural improvements throughout Shapinsay. This involved land improvement through drainage, deep cultivation and enclosure within a distinctive gridiron pattern of drystone dykes. Crofters were resettled to maximise the productivity of the land and numerous agricultural innovations were introduced to improve the quality of livestock and cereal production in Shapinsay and throughout Orkney. A model farm was developed to the north of Balfour village and a mill constructed in 1883. In order to improve transport links with the Mainland and other islands, the harbour was improved, its pier having been extended in 1861.
During the Second World War, the Castle was opened to the public at stated times during the summer months. Its many objets d'art and the extensive gardens attracted many visitors and the proceeds, given in war time to war charities, were later disbursed among the various social organisations represented on the island. The Balfour family remained at Balfour Castle until 1962 when the estate was sold to the Zawadski family.
The Castle retains its original fixtures and furniture and now operates as a Castle Hotel. The Walled Gardens still function as a productive garden and together with the grounds are maintained by the Zawadski family and gardeners. The terraced flower gardens have been replanted with conifers to provide additional shelter. Garden restoration and conservation is ongoing.
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- Features & Designations
Historic Environment Scotland An Inventory of Gardens and Designed Landscapes in Scotland
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