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An American road trip through Scotland and Ireland

“Dear God!” I thought, “are we all going to die?”

I’m not religious, but it seemed like a good time to pray.  We were on a two-lane road in northern Scotland just after dark with a double-decker tour bus barreling toward us, lights blazing.

The thing about Scottish roads is there’s no margin for error.  Each so-called “lane” is wide enough for one medium-size vehicle, and not much else.  Shoulders rarely exist.  A yellow stripe is painted along the edge of the asphalt, and a few inches away is an earthen berm, stone wall, or hedge.

Driving at night meant the dial was turned a few notches closer to sheer terror.  Headlights from oncoming cars blinded us, often just as we reached a sharp curve.  Cars seemed to accelerate as they whooshed past, close enough to give the other driver a peck on the cheek. 

On a recent trip to Scotland and Ireland, my family opted to tour by car rather than by bus or train.  Our party included my wife, Ava, my 11-year-old daughter, Salome, and my brother and co-driver, Steve.  My wife was so traumatized by European car travel she insisted on riding only in the back seat.

Before our trip, we joked about the quaint customs in Scotland and Ireland, particularly the way they drive on the left.  We figured learning to drive on the “wrong” side of the road would be the biggest challenge.  We hadn’t counted on the travails of night driving, a life-and-death struggle played out in pitch darkness on rutted, twisting, narrow strips of asphalt.

The good news was that as time went on, my brother and I became more comfortable behind the wheel.  For fleeting moments, we actually enjoyed the experience.  We even figured out a few ways to make the adjustment easier for the next trip.  But first, we had to undergo a white-knuckle initiation.

Moments after pulling out of the airport parking lot in Edinburgh, I entered a roundabout, feeling my way gingerly toward my exit, when another car blasted past to my right and cut us off, apparently anxious to reach the exit a few seconds ahead of me.

My blood pressure rose, and then dropped back down.  “Okay,” I thought, “now that I’ve got my first near-collision out of the way, I can settle down for the ride.”  It wasn’t quite that easy.

There I was, driving in the dark, navigating unfamiliar roads while sitting in the right front seat and driving on the left side of the road.  Oh, and it was raining.

Directions to our hotel filled two pages in my pocket notebook, never a good sign:  “Turn right out of the parking lot, then go straight through at the first two roundabouts, and take the third exit from the third roundabout, and look for signs to the Forth Road Bridge, cross it, and then take exit 2A to the A921, which turns into the A915, go past Largo to Upper Largo, and pass straight through the village of Colinsburgh…”  In Scottish and Irish directions, there is always a bridge to be crossed, and no matter what you are looking for, “You can’t miss it.”  (Although we frequently did.)

I thought my brother was being a nervous Nellie when he issued terse warnings about coming too close to the edge of the road.  That is, until it was my turn to ride shotgun.  On our third day in Scotland, Steve took the wheel.  Ava and Salome buckled up in back, and I slid into the front passenger seat.  Every time we rounded a bend or drifted slightly toward the left edge of the road, I nearly jumped out of my skin.

Not far from our hotel, he overcorrected to the left, and slammed into a berm.  He drove for a few hundred feet while the front wheel made an ominous bumping sound.  We pulled over to inspect the damage, and found the left front tire was flat.  In the chilly morning air, we jacked up the car and put on the tiny doughnut spare, then stopped at a restaurant in the village of Pitscottie and asked to use the phone. 

The car rental company told us to drive on to Perth, where it had a contract with a garage that would fix the tire.  We spent the afternoon wandering around the working-class town, and several hours later, a new tire had been installed.

Our trip was in December, and daylight in both Scotland and Ireland is scarce.  Sunrise is about 9 a.m., and the sky is dark by around 4 p.m.  Our flat tire meant we would have to skip our day trip to the Scottish highlands, where we had planned to visit the country’s smallest whiskey distillery and maybe take a hike.

Instead we opted to visit The Famous Grouse Experience, as the tour at the Glenturret Distillery near Crieff is called.  The visit meant an additional 90 minutes of night driving, for a 15-minute tour and the chance to buy a $50 bottle of Scotch whiskey.  On the way back toward Perth, my brother hit a curb at 80 kilometers per hour.

Okay, I’ll admit it, I hit some curbs too, but usually when I was driving very slowly, which was most of the time.

Another quaint local custom, which we found especially prevalent in Scotland, is parking in the road.  In those cases, instead of the road being barely wide enough for two cars to pass, it was wide enough to accommodate just one car, or 1-1/2, if the motorist was thoughtful enough to park up on the sidewalk.  Also, there is apparently no firm rule about which way parked cars must face, causing us to panic as we entered a village and saw parked vehicles facing us from both sides of the road.

We spent a week in Scotland and then flew to Belfast for a week in Ireland.  After a few days, we began to get the hang of roundabouts (incoming vehicles yield to those already in the roundabout, always travel in a clockwise direction, etc.)  I even became adept at shifting gears with my left hand in the manual transmission Toyota we rented in Ireland.

We learned to watch for obstacles in the road, such as unattended flocks of sheep.  Road signs could be amusing (Caution: Severe bends ahead) or downright scary (Warning: Oncoming vehicles may cross center line.)  Construction projects are called “road works,” and they are everywhere.

Somewhat disturbing were the road signs in Ireland, undoubtedly meant to inspire highway safety, noting how many people had died on the roads of a particular region over the past four years.

One afternoon, as we drove north on Ireland’s N9 from Waterford (where we toured the famous crystal factory) to Dublin, we passed through a tidy, modern town whose name I can’t recall.  In quick succession, we passed three signs warning drivers to watch out for “elderly persons” crossing the road, people in wheelchairs, and blind pedestrians.  I half expected to see a woman pushing a baby carriage materialize in front of our car, like some extreme driving video game.

A few simple preparations helped us survive our motoring adventure.  Before driving in each country, we purchased the best road map we could find (in Belfast, the tourist office had a large selection) and studied it closely each day before setting out.  The better we knew our route, the less stress we felt as we navigated our way around.

Also, we took a few minutes to familiarize ourselves with the rental car’s controls before starting out.  There’s no worse feeling than fumbling for the turn signal or wiper switch while simultaneously trying to avoid a head-on collision.

I would advise anyone planning to drive in Ireland or Scotland to cushion his or her schedule with extra time to allow for taking it slow and easy, and the occasional wrong turn.  Even though local drivers may speed, there’s no reason for you to do so.  As our Dublin bed-and-breakfast owner said, “Go slow, they can’t run over you.”

In fact, if an impatient motorist is crowding you from behind, find a place to pull over and let him or her pass.  It’ll give you a chance to catch your breath, and double-check your map.

If you’re feeling really insecure, you can stop by a garage or gas station and buy a white placard with a big red letter “L” to place in the window, which tells other drivers you’re learning, and theoretically, earns you some extra tolerance. 

Road perils aside, driving in Scotland and Ireland can also be hazardous to your bank account.  We paid about $500 per week for our rental car in each country, including one full tank of gas.  For those who complain about rising gasoline prices in the U.S., just be glad you don’t have to fill up in Europe.  Fuel costs about $8 per gallon in Scotland, and about $6.50 in Ireland.  My jaw nearly hit the counter of the rental car desk in Edinburgh when we were charged 58 pounds, or $116 U.S., for one tank of diesel.

Nevertheless, for those with great vision and steely nerves, car touring in these countries can be a good option, offering flexibility and convenience over public transport.  One particularly memorable drive for us was the 30-mile loop around the Dingle peninsula in southwest Ireland, where the narrow road twisted and turned above rocky cliffs and the vast North Atlantic, and beneath green, terraced pastures.  Since our trip was in winter, there were few other tourists and we had the road to ourselves as we enjoyed the spectacular scenery of the Blasket Islands off the westernmost tip of Europe.

But don’t expect your credit card to cover you in case of an accident:  I found out before our trip that American Express offers free rental car insurance coverage to its card-holders, except in Australia, Ireland, Italy, Israel, Jamaica and New Zealand.  I’m not sure of the connection, but in Ireland’s case, it might have something to do with those two-lane roads and oncoming tour buses.

Of course, prayer is the one form of protection from roadway mishaps that comes without a deductible.  Before sliding behind the wheel of a car in either Scotland or Ireland again, I think I’ll pay a visit to my neighborhood synagogue.

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