Botanical Walk – Bennane Head, Ayrshire

This is a moderately easy coastal walk, mostly on the old A77 with more challenging detours to examine the rocky beach and/or cliffs. The walk takes 1.5-3 hours, depending on how many detours are taken. The area has botanical, geological and ornithological interest. The geology is complex, providing a patchwork of ultrabasic rocks with topographic variation which create botanical diversity.

Strong footwear is essential, binoculars will be useful. The best time of year is August. Hazards are: rocky terrain, slippery grass slopes, cliffs, livestock, road traffic, tides.

The flowers look like dandelions, but this plant is tall (60-150 cm) and decorates many of the roadsides in the SW of Scotland in August: it is the Perennial Sow-thistle Sonchus arvensis.

GETTING THERE. If going south on the A77, about 10 km south of Girvan you will see Pebbles Spa and Bennane Shore Holiday Park on the right as the road climbs steeply uphill. Over the crest of the hill there is a great view of the sea and a steep downhill run. Towards the bottom of the run a small road turns right leading to some modern cottages. This road is the old (disused) A77. Take this road and park almost immediately, before you come to the farmer’s gate. Grid ref is NX 092858.

STARTING At the starting point there is agricultural land, some of it highly disturbed and colonised by Sea Mayweed Tripleurospermum maritimum and various weedy species including Mugwort Artimesia vulgaris and Black Nightshade Solanum nigrum. Nearby you can find Common Storksbill Erodium cicutarium, Lesser Burdock Arctium minus and a small patch of Reed Phragmites australis. The large yellow crucifer on the seaward side isSea Radish Raphanus raphanistrum ssp. maritimus which is extremely common on the SW Coast  of Scotland. The tall sowthistle with the large (4 cm) yellow flowers (from August onwards) is also common; it is Perennial Sowthistle Sonchus arvensis. If you look into the ditch to the east of the road you may see the highly poisonous Hemlock Water Dropwort Oenanthe crocata.

Go down to the beach via this gate. If you want to skip the coastal part take the other gate to the right of this one.

It’s best to start by going through the gate labelled Ayrshire Coastal Path and proceeding down to the beach behind the cottages. Common coastal species are here, growing among the marine debris and garden throw-outs. Walk north to the rocks and take a look at the Cairn erected to the memory of Henry Torbet (1912-1983) a Dundonian bank clerk who spent many years of his life as a hermit in the cave on the other side of the road. Cross the road, explore this cave. Have a look at the plants on the rock face at the entrance. The species to be found include Sea Campion Silene maritima, Harebell Campanula rotundifolia, Thrift Armeria maritima, Thyme Thymus polytrichus, Sea Plantain  Plantago maritima and Bucks-horn Plantain Plantago coronopus. Nearby grows the Bloody Cranesbill Geranium sanguineum as well as the more familiar Meadow Cranesbill Geranium pratense. Wild carrot, Daucus carota is rather common. A little further along the road, on the seaward side, is a large population of Soapwort Saponaria officinalis (pink flowers prominent in August). The flowers are double, so this huge population may have come from a garden throw-out. Grid Ref is NX 091862.

This is the cave where the hermit lived.

Hereafter, the route you will follow is the old A77 designated as part of the Ayrshire Coastal Path. It will wind its way up the hill to a car park. To the east of the road is Bennane Head itself, with Ivy-covered cliffs and Prunus spinosa and Crataegus scrub with brambles. To the west stretches the panorama of the Firth of Clyde, with views of Ailsa Craig, the island from which most curling stones in the world have been quarried, now an RSPB reserve with 23,000 pairs of gannets. On a clear day you see Mull of Kintyre, beloved of Paul McCartney. You will now pass through several farm gates and, beware, you may meet livestock. You may see buzzards, peregrines and ravens.

Large population of Soapwort Saponaria officinalis by the roadside

Further up the road the steep cliffs are replaced by a wet grassy bank where you will see Hemp-agrimony Eupatorium cannabinum, Angelica Angelica sylvestris, Devil’s-bit Scabious Succisa pratensis, Marsh Thistle Cirsium palustre, Eyebright Euphrasia agg. and Selfheal Prunella vulgaris. At this point there is a spur off the old road; it is an even older road which eventually re-joins the original old road. There is a grass ley, and evidence of heavy use by livestock;  eutrophic areas are piled up with soil and familiar weeds. You may amuse yourself by trying to identify the resident species of the Goosefoot family; they enjoy unbridled growth here and seem oblivious to the gales and salt-spray from the frequent storms. You may find the pearlwort, Sagina maritima (or is it S. nodosa), growing in the old tarmac with Polygonum aviculare (but it doesn’t look quite right, could it be another Polygonum?).

At several places there are access points to the rocks and shore below; coastal plants can be found there. Unless you are fit and good at rock scrambling, I advise you to find these species later, by going about a km south to an access point at the sign to the village of Colmonell. Go behind the cottage, and head to the beach (there is a vague path). There you can expect to find Sea Beet Beta vulgaris subsp. maritima, and Shore Bindweed Calystigia soldanella with its fleshy reniform leaves. It grows where the sand-binding Marram Grass and Lyme Grass meet the shingle and sand. In one of the cattle-holding pens to the north of the cottage you might see Wild Basil Clinopodium vulgare which grows in this district as a weed of cultivation.

Sea Beet, Beta vulgaris subsp. maritima, growing on shingle beach. It is the wild ancestor of beetroot and Swiss Chard

POSSIBLE RETURN The last gate is a complicated three-gate structure – at this point you might find cattle and you’ll hear vehicles exceeding the speed limit on the new A77; perhaps you’d prefer to turn round and wend your way back to the starting point. Otherwise, you will arrive at the car park, beloved of huge long-distance lorries and smart folk with sports cars. Look around, go over the fence at the south-eastern end; you can find hay-rattle and agrimony. I’ve sometimes found orchids in the grassland around the car park. Real orchid-spotters need to visit the three Bennane Grasslands SSSIs, which hold the only Scottish populations of the Green-winged Orchid Orchis morio. These areas are not accessed easily, and you would need to go online IN ADVANCE to find the details of the farms, and contact the owners.  

This car park is the access point for a famous cave, that of Sawney Bean. He and his family are supposed to have cannibalised passing travellers. Actually, they didn’t. The poor fellow has been slandered. As for his cave, only the fittest can manage to descend to the cave – go to the SE point of the car park, squeeze through the gap in the fence, enjoy breath-taking views before a treacherous descent to what the OS map calls Balcreuchan Port, a decent and secluded beach which gives you access to the cave when the tide is out. I couldn’t find the cave. Homework on google is required. This beach must have been a landing point, connecting with the old road in days of yore. Perhaps where smugglers of strong liquor would comes as the sun was setting over Ailsa Craig.

RETURNING. You can return the way you came, or brave the A77 and its high-speed traffic. There is a narrow walk-way by the A77, and you will see a few more species on the embankment. But it is scary, unpleasant and dangerous to have fast traffic so close.

John Grace

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