Note From the Road: Driving in Scotland
There are many places where I am quite comfortable driving. Give me a clear map and I’m fine. People ask if I have problems driving on the left, as I am currently doing in Scotland, and I generally don't. Maintain a robust vigilance at all times, and that should see you through safely. I have to say, however, that driving in some of the more picturesquely remote parts of Scotland have made me realize that there are a few seemingly immutable circumstances that may well prove vexing.
Before I go on, one general gripe about renting a car—anywhere. After the eager representative has plied you with options, forms and several places where you must affix your initials—all of which will enrich the parent company—they will then try to cheerily hustle you on your way so that they can process another customer. At this point, I always ask for a local map and explicit directions on how to get from the rental location to the relevant major thoroughfare. Then I am usually met with awkward silence.
I began my Scottish sojourn in Glasgow, where the car rental agency’s computers were down, and in any case no matter how hard they tried, there was no way they could Google an accurate map to find my road. So I was handed a photocopy of a map that got fuzzy just when things got complicated. And there was no mention of the significant construction that meant a major “diversion” (detour) to get to the bridge I needed. None of this was particularly well marked on the roads themselves, and it was a tense interlude to really get underway. How pointless. All they needed was a good, up-to-date map. But that seemed beyond the capabilities of Avis.
Onto driving in Scotland in general:
1) Signage is very good. Until you are in some remote part of the country—which is frequently—and then you are presented with a series of town names, none of which seem to be on your map, with arrows pointing in directions you aren’t quite sure are correct. The answer is to make sure you always have a detailed map—the Ordnance Survey maps for all parts of Scotland are excellent, and always feature detailed directions.
2) Although you’ve been driving at your own pace with no one behind you, when you do arrive at an indecipherable sign and are trying to work it out, another car will come whizzing up behind you, forcing you to make a move—essentially a toss of the dice—on some new direction.
3) Even when the signs are faultless, the trimming of trees and bushes around them sometimes isn’t. This happened to us twice, just tantalizing glimpses of information peeking through branches and growth. We made our best guess and forged ahead, right once, wrong once.
4) For the most part, the roads are fine, with plenty of clearance. Except in those cases where rock formations or other obstructions require the road to narrow. Even if you have the road to yourself, when you reach one of these spots, a large van or tourist bus will inevitably meet you. Slow down and hold tight.
5) The rugged terrain makes for breathtaking scenery. It also makes for breathtakingly sharp turns. These almost always occur at the top of a rise, making visibility even more challenging. As with a narrowing road, this is where, despite having encountered no other traffic for several miles, a huge, log-carrying lorry will approach as you reach the apex of the rise and begin the turn. Slow down and hold tight.
6) If you experience none of the above, then there are always the sheep. They are the real rulers of the road, and they seem to especially enjoy flopping down on a nice little tuft of grass so positioned that their heads and necks rest on the road, forcing you to divert. Or suddenly a whole flock will decide to block the road before you. Some postcards refer to this as a “Scottish traffic jam.” Don’t honk your horn—they don’t care. Don’t try to nudge them; they’ll collapse and die and you’ll be in big trouble. Just follow the flock.
7) All that said, the roads are in good condition, and most have ample places at the side to pull over and let automobiles behind you to pass, so that you can continue at your own comfortable pace. Until the next hill, turn, or one-lane bridge.
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