The Burren – limestone landscape with fascinating botany

The Burren in Ireland certainly has no exact equivalent in Scotland. A highly unusual limestone landscape with a treasury of wild flowers. A sort of bee heaven.

If I stated that capturing the essence of The Burren is as elusive as its sky-blue spring gentian, would you howl derisively at the pretentious sentiment? Yup, thought so.

So let’s just say you can approach this curious landscape in County Clare from a number of different gateways, some with interpretative centres and maybe a tearoom.

However, partly by accident, we approached The Burren via Father Ted’s House. Tell you something – it looks exactly as the opening sequence of ‘Father Ted’ – in its day one of the funniest pieces of comedy script-writing ever devised for television.

By the way, it’s a private house, sometimes open by appointment for tea and cakes. There, I’ve said enough. The spring gentians await.

Father Ted's house
Just don’t expect to get your cup of tea from Mrs Doyle.

Yes, we reached The Burren by roads that got gradually narrower, grew grass up the centre and then were unsurfaced.

Then we found ourselves in a field where a charming local lady took a small parking fee from us.

She then gave us highly specific directions about what we should see on the circular trail across the limestone and hazelwoods. She sounded as though she knew the trail intimately.

Finally, she deflated our enthusiasm slightly by declaring that ‘she’d never walked it herself and she never will’. Oh, right, OK then, let’s go. I hear you get tea at the end of it…

An Expedition through Limestone Landscapes

No, not quite an expedition: more of a grand day’s walk, actually. Burren is from Irish ‘boireann’, meaning a rocky place.

It’s a weird, scoured kind of landscape on the open limestone pavements or ‘karst’. There are two terms you need to know to impress your fellow-walkers. They are ‘clints’ and ‘grykes’.

Yes, I was puzzled too by these uncompromising monosyllables – but it’s easy to understand when you stand on the weird limestone blocks, the prevailing Burren landscape.

Grykes are the crevices in which the plants flourish, while clints are the top surface of the limestone blocks that form the pavement.

So, you want to keep your feet firmly on the clints and not get your boot stuck in a gryke, as sometimes they can be surprisingly deep. Got that?

Burren limestone
Well, there are quite a few grikes and clints in this slabby scene in The Burren.

The fertile limestone is loved by a variety of plants – so the place is a kind of Shangri-La for botanists.

Equivalent areas in Scotland include, loosely speaking, Perthshire’s Ben Lawers (higher and spikier) and parts of Assynt in the North-West Highlands (also a bit spikey and also where it seems to be permanently raining – IMHO).

Collect your walking stick here
Well, that’s very considerate of them….help yourself to a hazel cudgel to ensure you don’t fall off the clnts and into the grikes.

But there’s nowhere quite like The Burren, where Arctic-alpine species meet some Mediterranean flora.

These very distinctive exposed limestone areas and cliffs cover 1% of Ireland’s total land mass at about 360 sq. km (149 sq miles).

Of that, the Burren National Park at the south-eastern corner occupies a mere 15 sq. km (6 sq. miles) though most of the rest it is designated as a Special Area of Conservation.

This means it isn’t going to be quarried and shaped into alpine plant troughs any time soon – so it’ll still be there when you visit.

And you should definitely go – even if you can’t tell tell your Dryas from your elbow.

(Dryas octopetala – widely distributed lime-loving plant. Also called mountain avens. It’s on our Scottish flowers page. Don’t you hate it when you have to explain everything?)

Cransesbill, Burren
Cranesbill. Not especially rare or exclusive to The Burren but nice to see. Note how some of it is even in focus. How many times do you set off to photograph tiny blooms and the leaves are sharp, while the petals are fuzzy? And the breeze that usually blows doesn’t help either.
A Trail In The Burren

Anyway, off we went, passing a place where there was a whole pile of carefully trimmed hazel sticks. You were welcome to select one for the uneven ground (thoughtful).

Next came a Holy Well or Clootie Well as we would call it in Scotland. And, indeed, yes, it was hung with cloots (strips of cloth).

But never mind all that mumbo-jumbo stuff, we’re here for the spring gentians.

There was twayblade – not quite in flower – and a variety of orchids. Some of them were just starting to flower, making identification difficult. There was cranesbill, blousy and pink, everywhere.

Up through the hazels and over the loose rocks, higher and higher. I started to peer into every crannie. I’d have settled for a mountain avens. Nope.

Orchids in variety in The Burren
There are 20+ orchid species in The Burren. This might be the early purple orchid, but mostly only because it was early (in May) and it’s kinda purple. Then again, it might be some other orchid.
Eyebrights and hawkweeds – complicated!

There were speedwells, eyebrights (especially complicated), hawkweeds (also difficult) and lots of other fine things.

I had a moment of hope when I noted mountain everlasting (Antennaria somethinghardtospell).

In Scotland at least I always associate it with bare places, exposed coastal sites and mountaintops, as well as posh specialist garden centres where the owner is always called a ‘plantsman’.

But no spring gentians. And no mountain avens either.

The timing was right, so I guess we were at the wrong part. Yes, indeed, the Burren is quite a large area.

A Moment Of Magic Amid Hazel And Hawthorn

Exactly which trail we were on that day I’ll leave for you to discover. This for two reasons.

Firstly it isn’t too difficult to find out – but more importantly, if you walk this trail at the very end you’ll find a farmhouse that offers tea, coffee, apple pie and chocolate brownies.

You have to do the trail first, OK? After your life-saving cuppa you pay by making a donation. Whatever you think it’s worth.

And maybe the owner, the farmer, will show you his little garden and the nearby ancient ring fort, now half-lost among the ancient hawthorn and hazels.

Maybe the fairies live there to this day in this silent mossy place.

Then, afterwards, you’ll wonder if you imagined it all – and if you’re a grumpy kind of expert about travel in Scotland then you might even think that for a moment you got close to something almost mystical – in spite of yourself.

And that’s really why I don’t want you all to come crashing through this very special little place. Besides, there are plenty of other walking trails – some of which, I imagine, are festooned with my elusive sky-blue spring gentian.

Hazelwoods of The Burren
A walking stick plantation in the Burren. Actually, no, it’s just a hazel wood. The poetry of WB Yeats comes to mind. That darned Celtic twilight….” I went out to the hazel wood, / Because a fire was in my head, And cut and peeled a hazel wand,/ And hooked a berry to a thread…” – Song of Wandering Aengus
Burren day footnote: the pleasant resort of Lahinch in County Clare. Golf courses beyond houses, middle distance, and popular with surfers, and great golf too, they say. Also popular with footsore folk who have just been clambering about the Burren and who need a cosy pub for refreshments. We found one quite easily.
Near The Burren

We swung by Lahinch, Co Clare, a little coastal resort famed for its surf and its golf courses. The Irish Open was staged here in July 2019, if that’s your sort of thing.

But, again, it provides a compare and contrast moment with Scotland.

If Scotland is the home of golf, then Ireland is where golf goes for its holidays.

Lahinch is popular with surfers too – it’s a wee bit like a small St Andrews, or maybe more like North Berwick.

Wait, though, it also resembles a friendly version of Eyemouth in the Scottish Borders except with a bigger and nicer promenade and better pubs.

Finally, we didn’t visit the nearby Cliffs of Moher on the same day. That would have been too much. But we went on another occasion and the link takes you there.

Oh, we stopped for a Guinness here too – but the family is still disputing at which pub – let me get back to you on that one. Then we drove round the coast and back to Galway.

The Burren or the Cliffs of Moher?

‘Endless things to do at the cliffs of Moher’ says the mystifying headline on the slogan and 1.5 million visitors are drawn there, and the visitor centre.

OK, so they have big cliffs – over 300m / 700ft at their highest point. Now we’ve seen them, it’s just a tick on a list…

But in contrast to the cliffs – tick, did that – we’ll be back to The Burren just as soon as we can. Lots more plants to see in this impressively magical stony place.

NB We’re not actually saying: don’t go to the Cliffs of Moher, but…hmm.

You’d enjoy a Connemara excursion.

More on The Burren on the Ireland National Parks website.