When I told people with experience that I was going to rent a car (for the first time ever) in Scotland and drive a manual transmission around the country on the ‘wrong’ side of the road, I got some very nice advice, some of which is loosely paraphrased below:
“Nah, you’ll be fine. But every time you stop at an intersection, say ‘left. left. left. left.’ over and over to yourself until you’re going again. Maybe say it out loud. And look both ways, multiple times. And try not to hit anything.”
“Yeah, it seems pretty easy. I mean, the cars and roads are all designed that way, so just do what everyone else is doing and pay attention so you don’t fuck it up.”
“Do you know how to drive a manual transmission? Yeah? Well then you’ll be fine. Just be sure to pass on the proper side. And do note that people drive very slowly in the rural areas, so allow a lot of time!”
So today I took the morning train back from Golspie to Inverness. I wandered around Inverness for a half hour or so — I had planned to go directly to Marks & Spencer for lunch, but got distracted by a sign for the ‘Victorian Market’ which sounded exciting but turned out to be an old (sorry, ‘historic’) shopping mall. Then I went to find the castle (and found the ‘American Candy World’ which was naturally next to the ‘Miami Night Club’ on the way). The castle was fine, took a picture, didn’t go in. Then went to M&S for my favorite sandwich (Ploughman’s cheddar with tomato and pickle [‘pickle’ means something different here, it’s brown and good] on malted bread), sour cream & chili lentil crisps (new favorite snack), and of course trifle.
Then I went on a walk to find the hotel where I was to pick up my rental car, which turned out to be MUCH farther out of town than I expected, along a main road and past what felt like miles of used car lots and construction sites. Eventually I found it, and checked out my car from the typical car-rental clerk (doughy mouth-breathing early twenties high school grad who lives in his mom’s basement and works primarily to support his Magic card habit — this may be my first time renting a car myself, but I’ve been involved with the process enough through various jobs to know the type):
“Ok, I’ll just glance at your driver’s license, take a deposit on your credit card, and sign here, here, here and here and I’ll give you the keys.”
*sign* *sign* *sign* …
“…but… that’s the part that says there’s no exisiting damage.”
“Right. We’ve already checked it.”
“…right, but I haven’t. I need to look at it before I can sign the section that says I accept it in perfect condition.”
“Well, I can’t give you the keys until you sign it.”
“But what if I get out there and it’s a wreck?”
“Well, you could come back in.”
“And then what would happen?”
“Well… I guess I’d take a look and then if it was like you said, we could amend this.”
So then, after getting the keys, doing a thorough check, making several trips back inside with questions:
“Excuse me, how do I open the boot?”
“Oh, you’ll see an S thingy on the back, just push on that and then pull up.”
“Ah. Ok, thanks!”
“Excuse me, but there’s no owner’s manual…”
“Excuse me, sorry to bother you again… so I’ve got the back open now, thanks, but there’s no jack, or spare tire, or warning triangle?”
“No. It’s alright, we know.”
“But aren’t I required to have that? Like, by law or something? What if I get a flat?”
“Nah, you’ll be alright.”
“Well, we haven’t got any, anyway.”
So anyway, I think the moral of that story is that I won’t rent from Europcar again… fingers crossed that I won’t need any of those things!
So after getting in on the wrong side and sitting there for a confused minute, then getting out and going around, I started it up, examined all the dials and levers and lights, and I was off! …off around the parking lot, that is, for approx 20 laps and several encounters with the curb and some bushes, to the amusement of a hotel guest having a smoke out front, before I finally felt brave enough to venture out on the main road…
…where I made it approx 300 feet before encountering a traffic circle and promptly making a wrong turn. But then I found another traffic circle and managed to get myself heading back to the first one, where this time I took Rick Steves’ advice and just got cozy there, and went around it a few times until I felt fairly confident and then went winging off in the proper direction.
Then I continued driving, for miles and miles, muttering a mantra out loud over and over and gripping the steering wheel so hard my hands started to cramp up:
“Left, left, left. Just keep to the left. NOT TOO FAR TO THE LEFT! And try not to hit anything. Left, left, left…”
It was SO STRESSFUL. For the first 20 miles or so, anyway… then I started to relax a bit and feel a little better about my decision.
That day I drove 220 miles in about 6.5 hours (lots of single-track roads and I had to stop a few times for sheep and a hedgehog to cross). I saw lots of lovely scenery, pulled over frequently, and had a great time. I went from Inverness to the Isle of Skye via a northerly route, checked in to a B&B near the bridge, and then drove around the north coast of the island. It was SO PRETTY! But it also took longer than expected, so after a quick stop for haggis, neeps and tatties, it was fully dark by the time I got back. Luckily I made it before the 11pm noise and running water curfew (the B&B hosts were very nice, but it was also like staying with your grandparents — all dark wood paneling and lots of rules), so I was able to have a quick shower before falling into bed, ready for an early start the next morning.