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Driving in Scotland

Driving in Scotland

My sister was invited to a wedding in Scotland and asked if I’d like to go with and make a trip of it. She didn’t care where we went as long as we went north to Inverness/Culloden, and so she let me plan our itinerary. If we wanted to only take the train or bus, our options would have been limited for seeing the north beyond Inverness. Isle of Skye was at the top of my list of places to visit, so naturally I concluded that we must drive.

Reluctant at first, my sister consented to driving on one condition—we must rent a stick shift car. No problem; I’ve always wanted to drive a manual transmission car on the “wrong” side of the road. Then a week before the trip she said that she’s not comfortable driving it in the city (Edinburgh being our starting point), so I’m going to have to. At this point I got nervous. I could clearly envision jerking out of the rental parking lot and into the wrong side of the street, all in front of the car rental people who stare with looks of horror, regretting they’d ever rented us a vehicle.

Fortunately this wasn’t the case…in the sense that the car was parked in a garage at the train station and so therefore there were no witnesses. I still had a little bit of a rough start. I didn’t drive jerkily as I had envisioned; once you know how the clutch and gas work together, that motion becomes rote. The issue that I had was spatial—judging how much room there is on the left side of the car as I am now driving from the right. I quickly learned that our car beeped if you got too close to something, and the beeping’s intensity increased the closer you got.

I had my first taste of the beeping when leaving the garage through the ticket barrier. I then used the beeping while driving on the streets of Edinburgh to gauge how much I should pay attention to my sister’s clenching body and arm thrusts to the door. And I learned that the beeping wasn’t foolproof as I hit a parked truck hard enough to turn in our left-side mirror…and our car didn’t make a peep. (Both parked and rented vehicles were fine, for the record.)

We started off that day by driving out of the city to the southwest. In the city and elsewhere, I didn’t find being on the left side of the road to be an issue, in the sense of inadvertently going down the wrong side of the street. Rotaries (of which there are plenty) weren’t a problem either. The only thing that made me double guess direction was that cars can parallel park facing in either direction on the side of the street.

To correct my left-side spatial issue, I started paying attention to the center lane of the two-way road, figuring that if I could barely see it, or if I felt like I was directly on top of it, then I’d be good on both the left and the right (drivers are always more cognizant of what’s happening on their own side, due to a natural aversion to being smashed by another car). I think that trick worked. My sister may have disagreed at times.

Outside of Edinburgh the roads soon became country and one is surrounded by verdant hills and farms. As you enter each town, there are signs that tell you the town’s speed limit, asking you to please respect it, followed by another sign when leaving town thanking you for having done so. They were extremely polite signs. Some towns even had electronic signs that measured your speed and gave you a smiley or frowny face depending on which side of the limit it found you to be. So cute!

We drove to a small town in the southwest that was the birthplace of an ancestor. On the drive we noted that, though the elements of the geography were familiar to us, we’d never seen them put together as they were in Scotland. This observation continued to be true for the rest of our trip. The grass wasn’t grass as I know it; it seemed more like moss and as it covered the rolling hills, it resembled a golf course.

A panorama view of Wanlockhead

It turned out that the town we popped over to see, Wanlockhead, has nothing open to the public, save for a toilet, after the summer season. The one exception, the local pub which is the “highest pub in Scotland,” was closed because it was Monday. So after a bit of walking and “sight-seeing” we headed north.

The drive to Glasgow afforded me my first British highway driving experience. It was fun; I liked changing lanes to the right in order to pass cars on the left. Simple joys.

In Glasgow we ditched the car for the night, took a commuter rail to a great seafood dinner, and walked and shopped. It was in Glasgow that I came to appreciate how chill the Scottish were. It didn’t feel like I was traveling somewhere “foreign,” but rather that I could easily transplant my life here comfortably.  

We hit the road again, heading north and following the road running up the west coast of Loch Lomond. The road was narrow and windy, and often I’d have to slow down slightly at bends because it was impossible to see if there was an oncoming vehicle. It reminded me very much of driving the “Road to Hana” in Maui and was almost as much fun.

Homes at the edge of Loch Lomond

Vegetation and landscape-wise this area seemed familiar to me as it had deciduous trees whose leaves were changing for autumn. It wasn’t until we got north of the lake that things got weird. Small, brown mountains sprung up in an otherwise flat area, separately from each other, and bald on the sides with the exception of patches of coniferous trees. As the road took us in between the mounds, it became windy again and the height of the cliffs above blocked out much of the little sun there had been.

Between the mounds

The Scottish government clearly knows it's got some awe-inspiring geography because, for all points north of Glasgow that we drove, they have made pullover viewing areas with frequent distribution. When we came around and above the mountains from the other side, I was again reminded of Hawaii (the Big Island) as both places resembled Mars to me—red and flat with mountains. We ended the day back to “normal” fall foliage on Creag Mhor at the base of Ben Nevis.

Behind the mountains, looking upon "Mars"

The following day we drove up to Isle of Skye and then up its east coast, hiked the Old Man of Storr, and took pictures of Kilt Rock. Realizing it was going to be dark soon and we had to make it down to the southwest side of the island, we decided to take a shortcut directly across the island from Kilt Rock instead of going around the northern tip. I’m not sure if “shortcut” is accurate as it ended up being an uneven, dirt path that cut across the ridge of the side of a mountain that we very slowly traversed, avoiding the grazing sheep. A few stone cottages dotted the landscape, but save for the sheep, this area was the picture of isolation. There was only enough room for one car, so we pulled over to leave way for the isolated passing car. On the other side of the island, the road began to switchback as it descended into a port town miles below. (It was for this drive across the island that I finally acquiesced and let my sister take over the wheel, which actually was a blessing given its difficulty. I was happy to let her continue for the rest of Isle of Skye.)

Hiking up to the Old Man of Storr

The southwest part of Isle of Skye also contained single, dirt roads as we tried to make our way the next morning to the Cuillin Hills. It was raining but we decided to go for it anyway. As we made our way further into isolation, where the road became somehow less kempt and slightly hugging a cliff, the rain began to pour harder. Still we persevered, hoping it would ease up as we got closer to the Cuillin Hills. It did not. We eventually admitted defeat, noting that we couldn’t even see the hills let alone hike them, and turned around and gingerly made our way back.

Inverness provided me with a new driving challenge—parking lots. I hadn’t noticed this in the Glasgow parking garage, but the municipal and supermarket parking lots in Inverness had incredibly narrow spaces—especially at the supermarket. I got to the point where I was ready to give up because I couldn’t see how I could fit my regular-sized sedan, and I wanted to give a medal to everybody else for succeeding. This was definitely a time to pay attention to the car’s beeping.

Inverness

By the time we returned to Edinburgh, I was seasoned and able to drop off my sister at the busy intersection across from the train station to return the car on my own. We drove just over 700 miles on this trip in our Vauxhall diesel engine, and we were able to do it on only one tank of gas!

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