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Driving in the Scottish Highlands - Experiences of an outsider

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May 22nd, 2011, 02:48 PM
  #1
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Driving in the Scottish Highlands - Experiences of an outsider

I moved to the north coast of the Scottish Highlands from Adelaide three years ago and just thought I would share a few of my experiences of driving in this area as I know it can be extremely daunting! I'm a 32 year old man and already had plenty of driving experience but things are slightly different here.

There are three types of roads in the Highlands, dual carriageways, single carriageways and single track.

Dual carriageways have two lanes of traffic on each side of a central barrier so are like the highways all over the world, but unlike some countries you must always drive in the lefthand lane unless overtaking a slower vehicle; and most importantly do not overtake in the left lane! The speed limit is usually 70mph, but don't be surprised if you're passed by cars travelling significantly faster.

Single carriageways are the most common type of road and have a 60mph speed limit. There's nothing difficult about driving the major routes which are well surfaced with gentle corners, but in the more remote areas the "twistiness" of what appears on the map to be a highway really surprised me. The more difficult roads tend to be in the most picturesque areas so do yourself a favour and take it easy but also be prepared to pull over to allow following traffic past, there are usually lay-bys (parking areas) every mile or so.

Single track seem to be the stuff of legend! For those who haven't heard of them they're usually only 3 metres wide and so can accommodate only one car (hence the single) but there are regular wider parts called "passing places" marked by white signs. Simple rules are:

1. When you meet approaching traffic stop at the next passing place, if you are both between passing places the one closest should reverse.
2. If the passing place is on the left you should pull into it, if it's on the right stop opposite it.
3. Use passing places to allow following cars to overtake, you can actually be prosecuted for not doing so.
4. Never park in a passing place.
5. Always ensure you can stop in half the distance you can see.
6. Beware of "potholes" at the end of passing places, particularly if visiting in winter or spring.
7. Speed limit 60mph
8. Acknowledge the other driver with a wave! Seriously, it's considered very rude if you don't.

Single track are most common to the North and West of Inverness, on maps they may well be marked as "A" roads just like single carriageways so you may be surprised to find yourself on one.

I have to admit that in my first six months here I was very nervous on single track roads, but was fortunate enough to spend a month travelling the North Highlands as part of my work and being driven by a colleague vastly more experienced than me. The first thing I noticed was how far ahead he looked, the locals know the roads so well that they can often spot an approaching car minutes before meeting it (by knowing the lines of sight across the landscape) and are even planning which passing place to meet at. Speed was the second surprise, on sections with good visibility speeds of 80mph aren't unusual (speed traps are rare, and notified a week in advance in the local press!!). Third surprise was the level of concentration and effort required to make reasonable progress, if new to single track you'll be lucky to average 30mph and will need a break every hour.

If any of the above makes you nervous you needn't be, Scottish roads are amongst the safest anywhere in the world, so take your time and enjoy the scenery!
orinoco1968 is offline  
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May 23rd, 2011, 02:01 AM
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"but unlike some countries you must always drive in the lefthand lane unless overtaking a slower vehicle; and most importantly do not overtake in the left lane!"

Good point, I used to live in Portsmouth and frequently got stuck behind foreign plated cars in the overtaking lane doing around 40/50 miles an hour on the M275 after coming off the continental ferries.
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May 23rd, 2011, 02:05 AM
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Scottish roads are amongst the safest anywhere in the world,

Apart from the A9!
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May 23rd, 2011, 04:16 AM
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Well, done! A great description of driving in an area where many go and few are prepared!
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May 23rd, 2011, 06:17 AM
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Thanks Ackislander!

Alihutch: Within Scotland the A9 is perceived to be dangerous, and over the 108 mile Perth - Inverness stretch there has been an average of one accident every two days; but on a vehicle km travelled basis it's only just above the Scottish average and so significantly safer than the international average.
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May 23rd, 2011, 07:00 AM
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Aye, but journey lengths are likely to be above the average so am guessing that if you find the stats for accident per journey, they might be rather higher than the average.
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May 23rd, 2011, 09:11 AM
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This is a great post! Those single track roads on the Isle of Skye almost gave me panic attacks, probably because my husband was driving and not me though!! I think the only thing you forgot to mention was watch out for those sheep!!
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May 24th, 2011, 05:52 AM
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Very good point Amelie! That has reminded me that deer can also be a hazard, and they're big enough to cause a lot of damage to a car.
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Aug 3rd, 2013, 04:28 AM
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I'm resurrecting this thread to reinforce a very important point about single track roads.

The majority of fire/emergency services in the Highlands are structured around retained and volunteer firefighters who live and work close to their fire station and are expected to react to an emergency call immediately.

I live on the north coast of Scotland and have been a volunteer firefighter for the past year, in general I can get from home or work to the station in 5-6 minutes. Last Sunday afternoon I received a page, was in my car and onto the road (single track) within 15 seconds only to find two motorhomes ahead travelling at no more than 20mph. We don't have flashing lights on private vehicles to get to the station but a toot on the horn and headlights on fullbeam will encourage 99% of drivers to pull over and let us past. The motorhome drivers refused to let me past and I arrived at the station 14 minutes after the call out. Fortunately there is a policy of over-provision and on this occasion enough staff responded for the appliance to leave the station on time and fully manned.

Every firefighter has similar anecdotes and there have been times when the emergency response has been delayed by as much as 8-10 minutes simply because staff could not get to the station due to being hampered by inconsiderate drivers.

Please bare this in mind, the car that comes up behind you at speed on a single track road and seems impatient to pass you may simply be a local on their way home for lunch; on the other hand it could be a doctor, firefighter, coastguard volunteer or any other critical worker who needs to be at their destination quickly. By holding up any following vehicle you're breaking the law, but you might also be putting lives in danger, so please be aware of what's behind you and act quickly and considerately.
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Aug 3rd, 2013, 04:52 AM
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Very good point. The problem here of course is that other drivers (especially from other places) cannot disciminate between someone on an emergency call and an aggressive idiot driver. Doctors on emergency call in the UK are permitted to use flashing green lights on their ordinary vehicles to warn other drivers. Maybe this should be extended to the likes of volunteer firemen, lifeboat crew, mountain rescue etc in remote areas.
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Aug 3rd, 2013, 04:54 AM
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Great reminder that these roads are the lifeblood of a community rather than just a pretty view for tourists.
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Aug 3rd, 2013, 05:29 AM
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A very good report, similar exists in Yorkshire and normally people know to get out of the way of a semi-official pushy car, but not all!

The wave is so important, you will also find it in small towns where roads are often parked on both sides and only a single lane exists down the middle.

A wave and smile goes a long way and is extra affective if you are on a bicycle.
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Aug 3rd, 2013, 05:38 AM
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< I think the only thing you forgot to mention was watch out for those sheep!!>

99% of the time you can ignore sheep as they know to keep out of the way of cars. The danger time is in Spring when there are lambs about when they can wander on to the road as they don't know any better.
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Aug 3rd, 2013, 07:12 AM
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When I'm on holiday and touring the countryside, whether single carriageway or single track roads, if someone comes up behind me going faster, I pull over at the earliest opportunity and let them past. I don't care if they are a white van driver or a fireman on call, I'd much rather let them speed off in front so I can get back to pootling along, admiring the scenery. I appreciate how frustrating it must be for locals going about their daily business to be stuck behind an oblivious driver who can't get how irritated they would be in opposite circumstances. One reason why I love Cornwall but couldn't contemplate living there.
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