Driving Scotland, Manually

In Europe, people drive manual cars. In most of the world, it seems most of the people drive manual cars. Yet in America, if you know how to drive “stick,” you’re something of a novelty. Is America more advanced in the field of automobiles than the rest of the world? Does everyone else know something we don’t about the miracle of manual? Are Americans just lazy drivers? I’m guessing it’s the latter, and I volunteer my name as the laziest of drivers.

I first experienced the transmission gap in Iceland. My host had an automatic, so I hadn’t really thought about the possibility that that was rare. That is, until I began looking for rental cars for my trip around the country. Not only did you have to look at bigger companies (and therefore bigger towns) for an automatic rental car, but the privilege of easy driving would cost you almost twice as much. Though a friend had given me a crash course in how to drive a stick shift only a couple weeks before (my first lesson in manual ever), I felt nowhere near confident enough to even consider driving a manual for five days around the treacherous roads of Iceland. Thank goodness I didn’t. It may have cost me more, but I was far safer and had a far better time driving the automatic I am used to.

Here in Scotland, I quickly found that automatic cars are once again hard to locate and way more expensive. On top of that, every company that offered them also charges an underage fee – an extra 30-45 pounds a day if you are 25 or younger. It was either sink hundreds of dollars on a car and take the train to pick it up in Inverness, or rent from the local car hire in Brora, so close I could walk there and only 32 pounds a day, no extra fees. One small catch: they only have manuals.

I can’t afford an automatic, I told myself. It will be worth it to learn a new skill. You’re decently smart; you’ll pick it up in no time! I told myself a lot of crap.

I think I tend to come across as fearless sometimes to those who know me. Even when I am nervous about something, I try to play it off like its all good. Which is probably why I found it difficult to communicate to others just how terrified I was to do this. Driving isn’t something I like to mess around with. Maybe its because my mother was forever reminding us that we were controlling a huge machine with the ability to kill us and others, but despite the fact that I can be a bit of a speed-demon at times, I’m a pretty careful driver. Plus, I’ve always driven old or at least well-used cars, so every odd sound, every weird smell, every consistent bump makes me think I’m breaking the poor car and it’s going to fall apart underneath me. Perfect mindset for learning to drive stick, right? Weird noises and bumps never happen.

A lot happened in these six days spent exploring Scotland, and there will be many posts to come about all the beautiful things I saw, but this is about the roads, the car, and my six-day rise to manual mastery.

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Day 1

I’m exhausted and tense and so frustrated. I dread getting in the car, I dread driving, but then once I start, I don’t want to stop because starting again is my weakest point. The combination of new elements takes every bit of my concentration, so I feel like the scenery is just passing me by without notice. I’ve been frustrated enough today that I’ve considered turning around and going straight back to Brora.

I keep hitting the curb or the grass and gravel on the left side of the road, apparently overcompensating for the different lane. But then, the lanes are also very narrow, and cars pass you at very high speeds. I had a difficult time getting through a town with several stop lights on hills, and I side-swiped a parked van (thank goodness for flexible side mirrors). I backed into a wall while trying to turn around after taking a wrong turn (luckily there is a trailer hitch on the back of the car that kept me away from actual damage). I know I’m going to get better at this, but right now, I’m not sure if it’s worth the risk.

I don’t understand why people willingly drive these. Machines are supposed to be getting smarter, people lazier. It’s the way of the world! Forget about it being easier to drive automatic though – it’s got to be safer, right? I do not feel safe for one instant in this car.

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Day 2

If you get a choice for where to learn stick, don’t choose the north coast of Scotland. Particularly on a day so foggy that you can only see twenty feet in front of you. As if that isn’t enough to make it dangerous, let’s throw in the fact that 98% of the road up north is single track. Meaning one lane, total. Not one each way, just one, with little lumpy passing points here and there. It’s a game of chicken for hours, but with a little extra mystery in there. You round a corner. Will there be another car plummeting straight towards you on the other side? If so, will he pull to the side, or should you?

But wait! There’s more! Don’t forget about the free-roaming sheep!

Yep. Gotta look out for those sheep. I learned that the hard way. Basically, I ploughed straight into a small flock who decided to come trotting out of the fog to greet me. Upon realizing they would lose this round of chicken, they began to make a path as I slammed on my brakes, but a series of woolly thuds meant they and I were both too slow on the draw. There were no sheep corpses left in the road, nor any visible damage to the car, but I probably lost a good five years off my life. My one comfort: that really had nothing to do with the type of car I was driving. I would have hit them in an automatic too.

You play this passing game with the other drivers. The locals can all tell that you are a tourist from your hesitant, terrified driving, so they want to get in front of you. The tourists are all hoping that you are a local who will guide them and shield them from oncoming cars and sheep, so they want to get behind you. It’s a strange dance.

About halfway through the day and a little ways down the west coast, the road turned back to one lane in each direction and pretty much stayed that way. After the morning’s perilous adventures, this seemed a lot easier than before. I’m still not comfortable, but I’m not completely tense anymore either. Progress.

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Day 3

I no longer dread driving. I’m comfortable stopping pretty much whenever I want, unless it’s really last-minute notice, in which case I’m afraid slamming on my brakes will result in stalling in the middle of the road. I even made it through the very hilly, single track road leading to the Fairy Pools, in the rain! I’ve figured out how to shift down on a hill without stalling, and I’ve learned to pay attention to the incline below me when I park, leaving myself enough room to roll forward or backward if necessary (still got pretty close to some bushes and a parked car though). I’ve made it out of several sticky situations (sticky for a manual at least), and I’m feeling quite good about my progress!

I’ve driven in the wrong lane twice so far, both times very briefly and only because there were no other drivers on the road to remind my instinct what country it’s in. Interestingly enough, I have never walked up to the left side of the car to get in the driver’s seat. I also much prefer this layout for driving stick – right hand on the steering wheel, left hand on the gear shift. Since I’m right-dominant, I feel far more in control while shifting gears than I did in the car I drove in Iceland.

Oh, but don’t drive at night. Seriously, driving experience aside, it is dead pitch black out here in the highlands from about 10 pm to 5 am. With the roads being so winding and mountainous, its just nerve-wracking. Plus, oncoming cars always have their brights on, and they don’t always bother to turn them off when they see you. Because being completely blind for a few seconds always helps. When it gets dark, just stop. Go to sleep.

On a general note, I suggest that for a highland road trip, you travel in pairs. Driving Iceland alone was really fun, and I never felt like I was missing out on any views. Heck, sometimes I would literally stop the car in the middle of the road and hop out for a few pictures – and that was in the height of tourist season! However, in Scotland, the roads are actually way crazier and require a lot more concentration from the driver, so its hard to take in the countryside. If there are two in the car, you can trade off who is driving and who is gaping out the windows yelling to pull over now for the view of a lifetime.

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Day 4

I was going to count how many times I stalled today, and I was quite proud to still be at zero after the first couple hours on the road, but then I got to Fort William, with its stop lights and roundabouts and traffic. I stopped counting after five. Still, I did pretty well, if I do say so myself, especially considering I never could have handled that town on my first or second day.

I was still feeling good about my progress until I headed down to the Glenfinnian Viaduct to snap some pictures while waiting for my train later that afternoon. I had no idea it was such a huge tourist attraction – I’m talking three parking lots all full, and people parking in a muddy field. There was traffic everywhere, and people walking in the road, and every single person I passed had to tell me that there was something hanging off the front of my car, as if I couldn’t tell from the noise and the fact that it had been like that since the sheep incident. One cop got all grumpy with me because I didn’t fix it before leaving, but it was impossible to do anything with it while parked in the grass. I went down the road a bit and taped it up better than I had before.

After that incident and driving back through Fort William, I was quite happy to not drive for almost a full day. I even splurged and got a hotel room in town so that I wouldn’t have to move the car until I left the next afternoon.

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Day 5

Let’s call the roads leaving Fort William in the direction of Edinburgh “Home of the Creepy Crawlers.” Of all the annoying traffic in the various places I have driven, this annoyed me the most. I specifically saw signs saying the speed limit was 60, yet people were going as slow as 40 mph, like they were out for a jolly Sunday drive in the country. No apparent reason why. At one point, the speed changed to 40 because we were passing through a town, and I sarcastically said, “Well, let’s all brake to 20 then!” And they all did. Not kidding. We crept through the town at 20 mph. These roads were some of the easiest, safest roads I had driven on yet – two lanes, decently sized, only mild curves and hills…. WHY??

To make matters worse, there are the cyclists. I mean, at least that’s a logically reason for a traffic jam, but still – I couldn’t do it. Forget the leg muscles and all that. I couldn’t keep furiously pedaling my way up a hill at five mph while fifty drivers behind me curse my presence on the road making them late for whatever. With so much traffic coming in the other direction, getting around the cyclists can be a slow process, causing back-ups for a mile or more.

Okay, I’m done ranting. So overall point: there are a lot of things to watch out for on the Scottish roads. Cows, sheep, deer, hikers, bicyclers, people who don’t know how to drive, sharp curves, single track bridges, farm equipment, people suddenly realizing they are going the wrong way and making illegal U-turns, hills, dips, blind summits, fog, falling rocks, birds….. When driving Scotland, stay alert.

I had a second sheep experience, and the sheep remained untouched! There was no fog to prevent me from seeing this single lamb who was contentedly standing in my lane, blinking at me. It finally turned and proceeded to trot away in front of me for several yards, trying to decide on the best spot to leave the road. Its fluffy butt was so cute, I didn’t even mind.

I also found my first highway today! No joke – you have to get almost to Glasgow and Edinburgh before any highways appear. It was the best driving I’ve done: 70 mph with people still whizzing by you, no need to think about the gears for a while, and since highway directions are always separated from each other, I lost the sense of which side of the road I was on. It was a joy.

And then I got to Falkirk. I spent a good hour trying to find the Kelpies and taking a million wrong turns because roundabouts are confusing and there were tons of cars and I was getting really tense and my map app was complacently shooting off a million wrong directions…. Quite an ordeal. In the end though, I persevered and refused to leave until I had found them.

One thing that I find odd about the roads of Scotland: there are so many signs telling you that there are speed cameras in operation, yet there are very few signs telling you what the speed limit is. It seems unfair to clock my speed if you haven’t told me what my speed should be. They write SLOW on the road around any sharp curve, but they rarely tell you what they consider to be slow. I think most of the time I was already going what they would call “slow” anyway.

My last experience of the night (after almost running out of gas in the middle of nowhere) was driving the A9 in the dark. Remember when I said don’t drive in the dark? Well, this one is an exception. The A9 reaches all the way up the east coast – I actually started on this same road five days ago. Down here in the south, it’s well-marked and often has two lanes in each direction. What privilege! It helped that the sky was clear and still a little bright too. The second I turned off onto a side road though, it was back to being scary. I stopped for the night.

One more day to go. I realized today that this might be the last time I drive for over six months. Made me a little more nostalgic about it…

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Day 6

I handled a parking garage today! I feel like that was my graduation test or something. A few more cities, lots of roundabouts, and a long stretch of the A9 later, I survived the whole thing! I wouldn’t call myself a master of the manual transmission, but I’m at least fairly comfortable driving one now. Gaining this life skill was not something I expected to happen while traveling, and I’m really glad it did. Frankly, I hope I am never forced to drive one again, but should an emergency arise, I’m confident that I could handle a stick shift without killing anyone.

For a summary of the Scottish driving experience: it’s crazy. If you are going to do a road trip around the highlands, my best suggestion is take a friend, take it slow, and take a deep breath. Perhaps you too will be left with a sense of pride in your survival.

 

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