When my husband and I planned our Scotland trip in 2012, we knew we wanted to get out of the cities and explore the country's many castles and cathedrals. However, we did not want to be trapped in a tour bus, seeing the beauty of the Scottish countryside out of a window. So we decided to rent a vehicle, and read up on driving in Scotland. It was a fantastic way to see some of Scotland's sights, but a huge learning experience for us regarding European driving. Some things research just can't prepare you for!
|The misty highlands of Scotland are beautiful to drive through.|
Of all the things we encountered on the road, here are the five most important "lessons" I'd like to share with you, so you know what to expect on a road trip around Scotland.
Driving on the "Other" Side of the Road is Disconcerting
I live in North America, so naturally I am used to driving on the right hand side of the road. In Scotland, however, it is the opposite. It sounds like a simple thing - just drive on the left side of the road. But it is a strange experience, and a challenge for your brain to become accustomed to. Not only is the vehicle on the opposite side, but all of the levers and handles INSIDE the car as well. Joey, my husband, had to use different hands to shift, different feet to brake, and constantly mixed up the windshield wiper switch with the turning signal.
|Joey poses with our trusty rental vehicle - oh, the fun we had together!|
Even for the passenger it is a strange matter. I kept freaking out on Joey because it always looked like we were veering off the side of the road. It was only because I was sitting in the seat where usually the driver perches. To me, it felt like we should have been driving significantly more towards the centre line, but that was only because of my perception that my seat was supposed to be centre to the road. It was slightly disconcerting, and more than a few times Joey snapped at me to let him drive, because my paranoia was making him nervous.
|Scotland has the best scenery of any road trip!|
Eventually we both got used to driving on the left hand side of the road, but it took a few days. The thing that helped the most was driving down smaller country roads versus the highway or busy city streets. It felt more natural driving in the country, and after that driving in the city on the 'opposite' side of the street became more normal.
Rural Roads are Narrow and Passing Places Few
On the road to Loch Ness, we took a route that veered off one of the main highways because we wanted to skirt the lake and see the beautiful views. This meant driving on the country roads, which can be insanely narrow. These are called 'single track roads' and are basically created for one car to drive down - one way only.
|One of the narrow single track roads we encountered.|
The road we were on wove through several forested areas, cutting through hills and valleys, often with sharp drops on one or both sides of the road. Joey and I fretted about what would happen if we encountered another car coming in the opposite direction. Would we have to back up until we found a flat spot to pull over? Would the other car? How would we know? How do people drive like this?
There are sporadic flattened areas along the side of the road called "Passing Places". This is where slower vehicles can pull over to allow cars and trucks behind them to pass and continue on their way, or where two vehicles heading opposite directions can get past one another without scraping doors. Sometimes drivers honestly need to back up until they reach a passing place to allow oncoming traffic to move through. (Sounds nuts I know, but it is what it is.)
|A good ol' 'Passing Place' sign. I'm not sure I'm a fan of this system.|
And for the love of Scotland, don't PARK in a passing place. That is one of the most ignorant, not to mention dangerous, things you can do on a single track road.
There are Lots and Lots of Roundabouts
In Alberta, we don't have many traffic circles. Of course, we do have them and I know how to use one, but I don't often have the opportunity.
In Scotland, they are everywhere. Traffic signal lights are actually the more rare phenomenon.
|A lovely example of a roundabout. Image via.|
Five minutes into our first drive using our rental car, we hit a traffic circle that wasn't on our GPS - it was a brand new one at the airport. We, naturally, got lost instantly and ended up parking in a hotel parking lot to regain our bearings. After that initial kerfuffle, using the roundabouts was easy peasy. Just remember to take a wee refresher course on how to properly drive in a traffic circle before you head to Scotland to avoid crashing your vehicle or making the locals angry!
Use That GPS!
Before we even boarded our plane to Scotland, I'd already mapped out driving routes and saved images of driving directions and distances on my phone. I wanted to make sure we didn't get lost and find ourselves out of gas in the middle of nowhere with no rescue in sight. What I didn't account for, however, are the unusual roads and lanes in rural Scotland.
When we were driving through the Lothians on our castle tour, one castle was just off the highway, according to the Google Maps driving directions. It seemed rather simple and straightforward. We could have just puttered along using the map I had downloaded, but Joey, always the practical one, decided to enter the location into the GPS just to be safe.
|It isn't all stress and narrow lanes - driving in Scotland can be extraordinarily beautiful and peaceful.|
Boy, was I glad he did! The castle was decidedly NOT just 'off the highway', but down meandering country single track lanes, and even a rutted dirt road or two. I felt like we should have been navigating our way using a horse and carriage for most of that excursion, it took us down such a rustic path. Thank goodness we used the GPS, or we would have turned back early into the drive due to fear of getting lost.
Despite the winding route, I really enjoyed that drive. Setting aside the stress that our GPS had lost its mind and was just spitting out random directions for fun, it was lovely seeing the Scottish countryside, dotted with grazing sheep amid the vibrant green hills. Getting lost, or at least thinking you are getting lost, can be fun if you are surrounded by beauty!
So even if your destination seems straightforward, it is always sensible to use the GPS anyway. Because you never know. And you don't want to miss that castle.
Have Fun Discovering Unusual Road Signs
While cruising through the lush and beautiful wilds of Loch Ness, my husband and I continually encountered some very odd road signs posted for drivers. After passing a few different ones, I finally begged Joey to stop the car, and I dashed (through a light mist of rain) back to the sign to take a photograph...
|The Scottish truly value their Red Squirrels!|
They are very protective of their squirrels over in northern Scotland! The ironic (and yes, very sad) thing about this is that while we were chuckling over the silly road sign as we continued towards our destination, we saw a flattened red squirrel on the pavement ahead of us. So I guess the signs are necessary after all.
Other strange road signs found in Scotland, but unfortunately un-photographed: "Caution: Cat Crossing" and "Slow Children at Play". I realize the latter sign was meant to say "Slow - Children at Play" but that lack of hyphen must have done some damage to the self-esteem of those poor kids who live nearby!
Once you have these rules of the road under your belt, driving in Scotland is just the same as driving at home (at home for me being North America). Wear your seat belt, keep your gas tank full, follow the laws of the land, enjoy the scenery, and have an amazing road trip!