Take Any Road to the Highlands, But Stay on the Left #1: We\’re in Scotland! (Saturday, May 20, 2000) – Scotland

Saturday, May 20, 2000
We’re in Scotland!
We didn’t see it anywhere. Not inside the airport terminal, anyway. Being what my wife calls a “male” it would have been just a matter of time before I could locate it. But not before my sister-in-law broke down and inquired after a chubby man wearing a smart blue uniform trimmed in red. He directed us just outside the doors of the airport terminal and to the far side of the parking lot where we saw the familiar Budget sign. I knew that, of course, but it just didn’t dawn on me in time.

The long hike from the arrival gate to customs relieved us of the stiffness from the cocoons on the airplane that held us for nearly six hours. A simple form handed to the customs agent freed us to proceed to the terminal to collect our luggage. Carts were plentiful and free of charge and we loaded one with our pieces of antique luggage without wheels and made our foray into the cool gray of Glasgow’s presence. Our path across the almost bare parking lot parted the brisk May air and stole the sweet and fresh smells from the dampness.

The car rental office occupied a small austere building with only two small signs advertising that cars were for hire there. As we would discover, advertising is not embraced in a big way in Scotland. A young woman in a blue uniform waited behind the counter ready to help my sister-in-law and I while my wife and daughter waited outside with the luggage.

Not that I am shorter than average, but the first words out of her mouth passed right over my head. Although I am American and have a solid handle on the English language, I suddenly became aware that the Scottish brogue was well beyond my grasp. Little by little I was able to understand the intent of what she was saying.

My sister-in-law had arranged the rental through a travel agent and there was little difference from car rentals in America other than provisions specific to British law concerning insurance and liability. The lady explained the contract clearly with an alarming courtesy and I’m sure she thought we were pushovers for agreeing to anything she offered. It was a welcome change from the drab indifference displayed by the typical American “sales associates”.

We followed her to the lot where she gave us a quick orientation of the features and operation of the Renault Laguna, a silver capsule with a snug interior that betrayed its classification as mid-size. This term obviously means something entirely different in European parlance. After three tries, our luggage barely fit into the trunk that was obviously designed for overnight bags. We were left with only one small bag left for someone to hold and that is because the four of us consumed all of the seats. I happened to think how fortunate we were that our plans did not included buying any large souvenirs.

It’s not at all odd how we take things for granted, but it can be unfortunate. I was elected to drive and when I opened the door on the right side of the car and wadded myself into the very comfortable seat, the steering wheel stared at me. While I adjusted my drift of thought to actually sitting behind it I surveyed the dashboard and everything looked familiar. It was just opposite to where I was used to seeing it.

I checked to make sure the car was in “park.” There was no “park.” In fact, there was no gear indicator at all on the dashboard. But I did see a small shift pattern molded into the top of the gearshift knob. Then my suspicion was confirmed when I noticed there were three pedals instead of two. Apparently our request for an automatic transmission had gone unheeded. And I had an uncomfortable realization that I would most likely be the only driver of the car.

It was coming up noon but hunger was not a priority. We wanted to drive for a while before stopping for a snack. After much encouragement from the others and a flawless start of the engine, I reminded myself that I would be driving on the left side of the road. After placing the gearshift in first, the clutch let out smoothly and I felt the car begin to move. Just before it jumped and stalled. In the absence of the expected comments, I re-started the engine and was set to go. This time the car lunged forward at least a yard before jerking to a halt. It was then that I grasped the shift lever and forced it into the real first gear. Our difficulties must have been obvious to the locals since they gave us a wide berth on the roadway. I started the engine a third time and we were off.

The Drive to Aviemore
In spite of the expedition from the plane to the terminal, the airport at Glasgow did not seem all that large from behind the steering wheel. It was just that I couldn’t catch the turn toward the correct exit. The young lady at the rental agency had provided excellent directions for highway A8: around the loop, a right, a left, and a second left. As we made our way around the loop a second time, we discovered that the first left was immediately past the right. My daughter had settled into the role of navigator and guided me onto the correct road and I was beginning to feel better about my role as driver. Until I saw it.

Of all the horrid creations ever devised by man, the roundabout, or traffic circle, as we know it, is the cruelest. A simple intersection has its disadvantages, but it requires little driving expertise. The roundabout presents the challenge of not only not knowing exactly when to go, but also not knowing where I need to be in order to get where I am going. My first attempt, even with my daughter’s excellent help, resulted in two rotations before I landed in the correct lane to make the turn onto A8.

I was frustrated because of the ease with which other drivers seemed to negotiate it. And I found it difficult to maneuver the car in a tight circle, searching for an exit, moving to the proper lane to make the exit, all while driving on the wrong side of the road and sitting on the wrong side of the car. This requires a bit of skill for the driver who is new to the United Kingdom. However, after the second roundabout I became a quick study.

I was getting the hang of left handed driving and we zipped along the bridge over the River Clyde and turned North on highway A82 toward Aviemore in the Highlands. The Scots are very fortunate to have excellent roadways, or carriage-ways, as they call them. Major highways are almost immaculate and cracks and potholes are scarce. This tempered the stress of the concentration required for driving. The car was comfortable in spite of its size, but I did favor my head in the event that we hit a large bump.

At sixty-five miles per hour the roadside blurred but the not so distant hills passed by slow enough for us to drink in their emerald elixir. The surround of the Scottish countryside was like summer in East-central Oklahoma except that the mid-sixties of the fresh Scottish air was much more pleasant than the humid high nineties. The terrain laid itself open before us like a green carpet unrolling toward the horizon.

Busy roads and rolling meadows gradually gave way to more robust hills and an abundance of yellow gorse in full bloom. Traffic became more like Sunday in the country and cruising the winding roads was like driving through picture postcards. The damp road twisted its way into the hills and disappeared into the dark green line that was held down by a gray ceiling. The few billboards along the highway, lacking the gaudy commercialism of the typical American roadside, provided information about visitors’ centers and other highways.

Perth Visitors’ Center
Our introduction to the Scottish tourism industry came nearly an hour later at Perth. The store at the visitors’ center stocked local products, primarily woolen goods and clothing and accessories for the golfer, which I am not. Shortbread seemed to be a favorite and other cookies, canned goods and tartans made for colorful displays. Unique souvenirs and toys caught the interest of travelers, mostly Scots.

We expected the prices to be slightly outrageous but found them to be reasonable for the high quality goods. We were asked once if we needed assistance and we politely declined. Then we were left to browse at our leisure with no further interruptions. It seems that the Scots are very understanding and make little effort to force themselves upon you. I do wish the Americans would pick up on this.

A narrow hallway connected the gift shop to a restaurant. Actually, more of a lunch bar. Food service stopped at 2:00pm and started again at 4:00 as I remembered from the travel guides. Meals in Scotland are not generally available throughout the day. I had not yet mastered the Scottish brogue and the young man at the counter asked me a question, I assume to do with what it was I wanted. I ordered a round of Coca Colas. Of course that brought another question and I nodded my head in the affirmative trying to conceal my ignorance. Apparently, it was a correct response because a tray was set with four classic bell-shaped glasses filled with Coca Cola. And no ice. I was not so sure I was going to adapt well to that custom. I enjoy ice in a glass to keep the drink chilled, but I found that the absence of ice in a glass of Coca Cola isn’t so terrible.

We sat at a small table near the wall of the dark paneled room beneath a white ceiling strapped with blackened beams that gave the restaurant a traditional country British flavor not so far removed from the typical American travel stop of the sixty’s. It was comfortable and enjoyable and not crowded.

We molded ourselves back into the Renault and continued north on highway A9. The mountains grew taller and rock outcroppings contrasted with the heather and gorse and the ragged green coats of grass. The two lane roads did not provide much relief from slow traffic, but it gave us a chance to soak up more of the lush countryside. And the entertaining road signs. The one that read, “Double Carriageway Ahead” was easy to figure for a four-lane highway. “Please allow overtaking” was another easy one. Others required a bit of thought. Especially the one that read, “Use lay-bys to let queues clear,” that preceded an extra lane to the left for slower traffic. Boredom didn’t have a chance.