It lies less than two km from Mainland, separated by The String. It is low lying and the coastline is varied in scale and elevation with areas of sheltered sand and shingle beaches contrasting with stretches of low cliffs. Inland, the landscape is widely settled, but with areas of heather moorland behind the sea cliffs in the east.
A prominent feature on the skyline, Balfour Castle is a baronial castle with landscaped grounds and woodland, unique to the island and North isles. Balfour, the main settlement, located on the south coast, is a planned Victorian village. The island is primarily a farmed landscape, with a large part of the island set out in a regular network of four-hectare fields dating from comprehensive agricultural improvements undertaken in the 18th and 19th century.
Shapinsay is rich in archaeology. Neolithic remains are lacking but the Mor Stein and associated monuments provide a good example of the use of that corner of Shapinsay as a ‘landscape of the dead’ in the Bronze Age. Numerous broch sites attest to a flourishing and increasingly complex Iron Age population who looked further afield across the sea, as well as to their immediate island surroundings. Place names evidence a Norse presence and the hints of infrastructure such as piers and weirs at Veantrow Bay attest to its use as a harbour for sailing craft before the mainstream development and organisation of Kirkwall. The twentieth century is evidenced by the well-preserved wartime batteries and infrastructure at Garth. A dummy airfield at Cot-on-the-hill was more ephemeral, but the decoy bunker survives. Significant remains survive from World War II in relatively good condition on the northwest point of Shapinsay, marking the location as an important one in the defensive circle that was built up around Scapa Flow.
Both the RSPB and the Scottish Wildlife Trust (SWT) have reserves on the island. RSPB’s Mill Dam reserve is an important wetland site with breeding waders and wildfowl and wintering Whooper Swans. The SWT reserve has extensive areas of heathland, supporting a variety of breeding birds including wildfowl, waders, raptors and cliff-nesting seabirds and plants including Juniper. The East Hill is the largest remaining area of heath in Shapinsay and is important for breeding moorland birds, wildfowl and its lichen-rich heath.