C.S. Lewis once wrote “Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” Having been a guest at Balfour Castle, I feel I now am. Short of an Aryan maiden dangling her long plait from one of its Baronial turrets, Balfour is the stuff of which fairy tales are really made.
Situated on Shapinsay (a middle-sized Orkney island), Balfour is the world’s most northerly castle hotel and feels like an enchanted land. Sadly, getting there isn’t as simple as entering a magic wardrobe or mounting a valiant white steed; it’s a rewarding schlep. After two flights and a cab from Kirkwall airport to the town quay, I was on a boat over to Shapinsay, the castle approaching like a crown on the horizon.
Dizzy with fresh air, I found myself wide-eyed at the enveloping skies and craggy pastures dusted with cottages. It felt epic – austere, even – until Mick (aka David McCowan Hill, Balfour marketing mogul and my companion during the stay) pointed out a tall structure in the foreground of the castle. A Victorian saltwater shower, this is known as “the douche”. I smirked; he chortled. We were going to have fun.
In a nutshell: the castle was built in 1847, the lovechild of two Davids: David Balfour, its then-owner and namesake, and David Bryce, Scotland’s great Victorian architect. Though it remained property of the Balfours for a further century, it changed hands in the sixties and, in February 2009, once again.
Having been an impressive but possibly stuffy shooting destination, Balfour is now undergoing a makeover at the hefty expense of the Harrison family. Their rebrand and renovation of the place has added touches of modern luxury without compromising its authenticity or original features. It remains a genuine working castle.
The Harrisons shrewdly chose to emphasise Balfour’s edible offer to create broader appeal. They took on 2009’s Scottish Chef of the Year, Jean-Baptiste Bady (JB), whose goal is to win Orkney its first Michelin star. And he’s more than qualified to do so. JB trained at the late Bernard Loiseau’s now infamous 3* La Cote d’Or and, by 2007, was Head Chef at Perthshire’s Kinnaird House Hotel.
Like Raymond Blanc (his inspiration), JB likes local, preferably home-sourced, food. On his direction, Balfour’s gardens now harvest a range of goods (figs and vines, even!), and there are plans to launch Balfour Castle-branded jams from their fruits. Well-versed in Scottish produce, JB also capitalises on the surrounding shores, Balfour’s plentiful wild fowl, and free-range Orkney beef in his cuisine.
Indeed, this is a region where the bovine population far outweighs the human, the result of which hit my plate on my second night. JB’s method of slow-cooking thick local fillets in a plate warmer rendered chewing almost unnecessary: it melted in the mouth, accompanied by wild garlic mash, peas and red wine jus. I might as well never eat beef again. It don’t come better.
JB tries to limit each dish to three strong flavours, a recurring motif over my stay. Lobster rillette with cardamom and tomato dressing; two types of chicken (roast and steamed) with ratatouille and polenta; Orkney scallops with beetroot carpaccio and beurre blanc. You get the idea. Classic French meets sustainable Scottish. Puddings came in the form of strawberry millefeuille and a Valrhona dark chocolate dome filled with mango; bread rolls were tiny, soft, crusty and home-made; the canapés teased us with Scottish flair: mackerel pate in spoons, haggis balls, prawn cocktail on cucumber. Needless to say I left feeling barrel-like, human taxidermy stuffed with haute cuisine.
Wine and Whisky run like water at Balfour. Orkney is responsible for two premium scotch brands – Highland Park and the lesser-known Scapa, both of which take pride of place on a rattling trolley of spirits. We drank Nuit Saint-Georges, Chablis Grand Cru and a 1994 Rioja Reserva (thumbs up), and enjoyed a library peppered with complimentary Marlboro Lights…the stuff of which glorious conversation and horrendous hangovers are made.
The Harrisons have preserved the rustic grandeur of Balfour’s downstairs but substantially changed the bedrooms, to stunning effect. There are now nine exquisite boudoirs, with added period features and cloud-like beds. But perhaps most awesome are the bathrooms. Each has a bespoke du Gournay wallpaper (that’s hand-painted silk, ya’ll), deep claw-foot bath tubs (I was told mine had been a Victorian testicle-washer – which, in my stupor, I believed), and extensive set of exclusive smellies.
If a castle with great beds, baths and grub isn’t enough to tempt you (all my boxes were ticked), then there’s a wealth of activities on offer. Shooting and fishing for the bloodthirsty, walking and bird watching for the intrepid. Estate Factor Nick Thake, a qualified Orkney guide, can share his encyclopaedic knowledge of the castle and beyond. We did a trip to island Lamb Holm, seeing the site at which the Germans sank the HMS Royal Oak in 1939 and the Italian Chapel, constructed in 1942 by Italian prisoners of war with just two Nissen huts. With its spa, billiards and cinema rooms, the castle may be a world in itself, but it is a waste not to explore the barren beauty of Orkney.
On my last evening, I went up to one of the turrets and soaked up the surrounding triptych of land, sea and sky. That even such unchartered territory exists in the clamour of Britain today is special, let alone crowned with a Victorian castle. Magic like this rightly commands a premium. Its very existence hints that fairy tales aren’t such castles in the air.
Balfour Castle, Shapinsay, Orkney, KW17 2DY. Tel. (+44) 1856 711 282. Website.