Driving in the Highlands of Scotland

Highlands of Scotland driving on the leftFirst off, in Scotland they drive on the LEFT. So now you know where the expressions related to driving must come from: drives me nuts; driven to distraction; driving rain; driven round the bend. For an American—in the States we drive on the RIGHT—driving on the left can present challenges.

Preface these comments with the caveat that driving in Scotland isn’t quite as bad for me as for some; I still have vestiges of muscle memory from when I lived in England eons ago. And since then, I’ve visited the UK numerous times. But come on, people—does it have to be so hard?!

Here’s why it’s hard.

Everything’s backward, mostly. Driving in the UK, you look in the opposite direction you’re accustomed to in the US. So if you want to turn left—look left, as you do in the US, and start pulling out—and you just hit your astronomical deductible on the rental car insurance—because the oncoming car just hit you. It’s a challenge to train your brain to look right, left, right. I start working on it a couple weeks before a trip. (Looking right, left, right is equally critical when you’re a pedestrian.)

Dunkeld, ScotlandAnd the view in the rearview mirror doesn’t seem correct. Looking over the wrong shoulder to back up is wrong. Perception of the location of the left side of the car is a mystery. And turning the steering wheel to back up and park—forget it!

Fortunately, the steering wheel is on the right side of the car, oriented as we expect, next to the centerline. (More later on the frequent absence altogether of said centerline.) And it’s a good thing the gas pedal and brake are in the universal position, or I’d be randomly pushing and stomping, hoping for the best. The gear shift pattern is also standard. However, I’ve developed the habit of driving with a hand sometimes resting on the gear knob so I’m not grabbing at the door handle to shift.

So that’s the mechanics of driving on the left. Now let me talk about the roads in the Highlands. Roads numbered with an M preceding are the motorways, equivalent to US interstates. Only speed limits are faster, and seem even faster with cars whizzing by on the wrong side of the road. Local drivers drive fast, and they don’t slow down. So get over! If you do want to pass, make sure you’ve got plenty of space to get your under-powered rental car up to speed. But there are only three stretches of M roads in the Highlands anyway, and the one linking Glasgow and Edinburgh isn’t technically in the Highlands.

Highlands of ScotlandNext down are the A roads. In general, the A’s are two-lane roads with occasional bits of dual carriageway, or divided four-lane, where the locals can fly by you in annoyance. The more digits in a road number, the smaller the road. But they’re all narrower than US roads.

Now down to the B roads, the predominant roads in the Highlands—at least it seems so to me as I grit my teeth and drive on. The B’s are single-track. No centerline. But two-way traffic. And remember, the more digits in the road number, the smaller the road. So when I see B8073 on my route, I know what I’m in for. Starting to see why this is hard?

“Passing places” are the key to how anyone survives on the Highland roads. These are periodic wide spots at the side of the road into which one car pulls so the other can get by. Always stay to the left. Never dart to a passing place on the right when you see an oncoming car, because he’ll meet you there!

the "narrow, twisting lane"

There’s an etiquette to the passing place dance of which I don’t know all the nuances, but sometimes, someone has to back up to the passing place. Remember that turning the wheel and backing thing? Not fun. I found it’s better to back straight, even at risk of irritating the other driver because you’re not hurrying, then pull ahead into the passing place. Although you might have to get out and shoo a coo or two.

While we’re on the single-track road, let me tell you about blind summits and hairpin turns in the Highlands. Blind summit means the hood of your car is pointed so acutely heavenward that you can’t see the road in front of you. Couple that with a hairpin turn and a small flock of sheep, and you’ve got a lot of fun going on…and some good party talk for when you’ve survived and gotten home.

driving on the left in ScotlandAnd then there’s the rain. Expect rain in the Highlands any day, any time, maybe several times a day. Just hope the rental car wipers keep up.

Did I mention the mountains? Big ones. Mountain ranges dotted all over the Highlands. One trip, it was blowing a gale in the Cairngorms, and we passed a small pull-behind camper flipped on the road. Fortunately, the wind blew it toward the mountain, not down! But the mountains are spectacular and maybe at the heart of the draw to the Highlands. Like mountains everywhere, they demand respect.

Oh, and the passenger (often me) might drive the driver nuts. There’s nothing to annoy a driver like a nervous passenger. I swear I stomped a hole in the floor on the passenger side while we were on the M90 north out of Edinburgh in the rain.

Edinburgh, Scotland City CentreNow to driving in the cities, especially Glasgow and Edinburgh, the gateway cities to the Highlands. My best advice is: don’t. Return or park the rental car and take public transportation or taxi. Or, if you’re brave, spring for the navigation on the rental car and go for it. Trying to get to our bnb in Inverness, I wished for a nav system as we negotiated the construction detours. I knew where we needed to be but couldn’t get there easily. And again, trying to get to our hotel near the Edinburgh airport, we went through the same roundabout five times because the signage was hidden in a vine-covered stone wall.

Yes, driving in the Highlands can be hair-raising and the miles are slow, but don’t let that deter you if you really want to see the Highlands. The alternative is a coach tour or taking the train, both of which have limitations.

My husband and I have worked out a pretty good system: he does most of the driving and I navigate. We enjoy each trip immensely, swear off driving on the left, and get ready to do it again!

So if you should happen to read my Highland romance, Love Inherited, you’ll smirk knowingly when China MacLeish, reluctant American heiress in the Highlands, gets her first driving lesson—on the left.


2 thoughts on “Driving in the Highlands of Scotland

  1. You are one brave lady. Not certain I could re-wire my brain enough in an emergency sort of situation and I’d revert to my default everything-on-the-right. But I did enjoy the view of the Highlands through your windshield!


    1. LOL! That’s why twenty years ago we decided not to take our Harleys over there, ride around, and sell them…our instinct on two wheels would have been to go to the right. Last trip to Scotland, I talked to a German rider who did just that, with disastrous consequences…several broken bones. But he was over there, riding again.


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