As we drove through the scenic, romantic Highlands…“Look at those shaggy, horned beasts standing in the road up ahead!” my wife exclaimed. “Those are huge hairy coos,” I replied. “Hairy coos?” “Properly called Heilan’ coos by the Scots, meanin’ Highland cows – each weighs about 1,400 pounds. Taxonomically, they’re known as Bos Taurus,” I said with pedantic aplomb. “Bos Taurus! Now that’s an apt name; they’re sure the boss of this road.” “No, it’s ‘Bohz’.” “Well, right now they’re standing between us and Scotland, so they’re boss. What are we goin’ to do then about…the coos?” “Lean out of the car and shoo’em along respectfully, like don’t just call’em coos or nothin’.” “OK, here goes…shoo, shoo Bos, shoo Bos, shoo Bos Tauruses! Hey, look at that they moved over a bit. Quick, drive right round’em. That’s it. Whoo wee, sure as shootin’ we shooed those coos! And away we go!”

If you’ll be road tripping through the beautiful but wild and woolly Highlands, as we did… it’s an excellent vacation choice – hairy coos aside. You can have a fairytale getaway in this special, remote mountainous region in northwest Scotland that you’ll talk about forever. For instance, you can hop from majestic castle to majestic castle, leap from lovely loch to lovely loch, or chase the last rays of the setting sun through fields of purple heather.

But though all the roads there lead to breathtaking scenery, the challenges of driving them can literally take your breath away.

So, here’s a guide to help you drive them safely and with some style and confidence.

What It’s Like to Drive in the Highlands

A lovely road near Cairngorms National Park runs through hills of vibrant heather.

“So, how was the driving today? Any close shaves?” the spry, crafty inn keeper at our Nairn hideaway asked us with a devilish grin each evening after a long day of touring. (The sights obviously took a backseat to the chase for her.) “Scotch?” she offered briskly, bringing out the bottle before we could say “no thanks,” as if she knew what was best: a little of the local firewater to steady the nerves – everybody’s (Hers too!). Never mind if we didn’t have any tales of crashes à la Godard’s “Weekend” to entertain her with; she had plenty for us. (By the way, we’re not scotch drinkers, not by any means, not at all, but we found ourselves saying “Thank God for scotch!”)

The nightly ritual was just another gratuitous reminder, one with darkly comic overtones, that while lined with stunning scenic beauty, the roads of the Highlands can, unfortunately, be perilous. They’re very fast, twisty with hairpin turns, narrow, hilly, and subject to harsh, unpredictable weather. Screeeeeech!: They can also be congested, bumper-to-bumper, and challenging in this way as well. (As with the Scottish poet Robert Burns, your heart will be in the Highlands, but it will also, at times, be quite palpably in your throat.) Yet these roads are some of the funnest, most gorgeous ones you’ll ever drive, making for a road trip that’s one of the best of your life.

Choosing Your Ride (Just Make it a Mercedes, Fully Loaded!)

Magical Misty Eileen Donan / Image via FlickrCC BY-SA 2.0 Jim Roberts Gallery

Unless you must cut through the mists of the Highlands in a fiery Aston Martin like 007, consider renting a Mercedes Benz for your road trip. Sure, it’s a big step down from the Aston of your dreams, but if the Aston is the ultimate sexy spy car, the Mercedes is the classic boss car – and remember, you’re supposed to be driving these roads like a boss anyway. A symbol of wealth, luxury, and power, the Mercedes gives you a nice feeling of confidence as soon as you get behind the wheel, and projects a no-nonsense attitude that’s even respected a bit by our good ol’ friend Bos Taurus.

And besides, it’s an elegant ride that just seems to fit in with, as much as cars can ever fit in with, the majestic, ancient places you’ll be visiting. (If you pull up to Eilean Donan Castle in a tiny economy car, you can sorta feel like a knight in shining armor on a donkey.)

But above all, the Mercedes is a fast, comfortable, and reliable car, which is exactly what you need for driving hundreds and hundreds of miles on these roads, many of which lack hard shoulders and whose lay-bys can be, well, hard to come by. Sure, it’s expensive, but it’s well worth it.

Car rental tips: Before driving it off the lot, check your car carefully (inspect its tires, lights, horn, wipers, etc. – all should be like new!); have your rental contract and insurance policy in hand; and take pictures of your car. Use a sat nav for real-time, turn-by-turn directions that are spoken to you as you drive so you can always keep your eye on the road.

‘To the Left, to the Left…mmm…’

Singing this simple, catchy line from Beyoncé’s “Irreplaceable” on your road trip is just one easy way to remind yourself that driving in Scotland is always on the left-hand side of the road, unless otherwise instructed. (Ha, a song about breaking up could, ironically, keep you from cracking up!) And apparently, we tourists do need some reminding. According to a BBC report on Scotland’s recent campaign against wrong-way driving, foreign tourists will be given wristbands to help them with their “…inexperience of driving on the left…” which contributed to 65 road accidents in 2017, the last year for which data was probably available at the time this initiative was planned. (Our rental car company didn’t issue any to us, but we did hum a little Beyoncé along the way and, of course, had a most harmonious trip.) As Scotland continues to roll out its wrong-way driving alert system and to work with rental car companies, this frustratingly persistent problem should lessen.

Know the Types of Roads You’ll Be Driving on

You’re likely to drive on as many as four different types of roads: single and dual carriageways, single track roads, and slip roads. Knowing which type you’re on will help you drive it. When you get on a road though, there’s no sign to tell you its type, just its class and identifying number – like A82, for example. While class is a clue, you’ll come to easily recognize the type of road by its salient features, which we discuss below.

Dual carriageways

How to drive in the Scottish Highlands Dual Carriageway

The center median of the dual carriageway makes this a safer type of road.

Typically, they’re four-lane roads carrying traffic in opposing directions with a median strip separating the pairs of lanes. The median is its hallmark. They’re fast roads with a stated speed limit of 70 mph for cars, but whose actual speeds can be much higher, despite more and more speed cameras popping up. (Drivers learn where the stretches without cameras are and use them to “make up time.”) In the spirit of unrelenting momentum, there are no hard shoulders for pulling off the road.

They’re Class A roads, part of Scotland’s trunk road network – the system of major roads connecting the country’s big cities, towns, airports, and ports. As such, they’re maintained to a high standard by Transport Scotland, the national transport agency. Indeed, a 2016 audit found them to be in better condition than the country’s motorways (Class M), which are like freeways with a key difference being that the latter are strictly limited to cars, certain motorcycles, and fast-moving trucks.

Driving tips: You cruise in the left lane and overtake (pass) using the right one. Resist the temptation to pull off onto the verge (strip of grass just to the side of the road) to rest or look at sights as you could easily end up in the road ditch.

Single carriageways

How to drive in the Scottish Highlands Single Carriageway

Single carriageways lack the center median.

They carry traffic on two lanes in opposing directions without a dividing median. They can be very fast roads as well. Though their top speed limit is just 60 mph for cars, it’s often almost gleefully – and quite recklessly – exceeded. Shrugging off hard shoulders too, they’re narrow and can at times have a racetrack-like feel that catches you up and pulls you screaming along way, way up into the lovely, mystical Highlands.

They can, however, surprise you by quickly dropping their limit to 30 mph in built up areas. And in some stretches, they wind hypnotically and can tease you mercilessly with peek-a-boo scenery, playing havoc with your ability to concentrate on the road, which may already be compromised by the ragged red-eye sleep you got on one of those cheap flights to Scotland. They can be Class A or B roads, the latter being minor ones maintained by local councils, often to lower and varying standards, instead of by Transport Scotland.

Driving tips: They require you to use the oncoming lane to pass, dangerously unlike dual carriageways. Never do so against a solid line. The safest pass is one in which there are no cars in the oncoming lane for as far as you can see, but you might also want to make sure that there isn’t a car right behind you so that you can abandon your pass if you have to. 

Single track roads

Single tracks often lack road markings and other safety features that we’re accustomed to.

They manage to accomplish the seemingly impossible feat of carrying traffic on one narrow driving lane in opposing directions. They can easily give you the blissful illusion that you own the road and all its glorious scenery until someone – or something – comes along from the other direction (or from behind) with the same wonderful illusion. They’re Class C or country roads and usually have a speed limit of 60 mph for cars. They’re usually unmarked, less trafficked, and can often seem like they’re ruled by animals – coos, sheep, otters, horses, etc.

Driving tips: You’re supposed to drive these roads by adjusting your speed to make use of passing places, which are semicircular bump outs that allow one driver to pull off to let another by. Only enter one though if it’s on your left in keeping with the rule of driving on the left. Also, never use them as lay-bys (rest stops).

Slip roads

Ha Ha! No, these aren’t roads that you use to give the slip to a pack of wild sheep, a hairy coo, an innkeeper with an empty whiskey bottle in one hand and a big bar bill in the other, or whatever else may be chasing you in the Highlands. They’re mostly short roads that allow you to access or exit major roads – to “slip,” as it were, onto or off them as imperceptibly as you can.

Driving tip: Adjust your speed on a slip road to match that of the road that you’ll be joining. Otherwise, you’ve, uh, slipped up.

How to Get ‘Round in Roundabouts

Roundabout on Kingsway Road in Dundee / Image via FlickrCC BY-SA 2.0 Neil Williamson

For the uninitiated, roundabouts are circular intersections that handily distribute traffic to multiple routes without, for the most part, making you stop and wait for traffic lights or stop signs. You’ll encounter them throughout Scotland’s road network. But if you balk at them, as plenty of road trippers seem to do, it’s understandable. Driving around in circles is, after all, something that most drivers try to avoid. Not to mention driving around in circles along with other drivers who are driving around in circles. Also, roundabouts require you to quickly decide where you’re going at a time when (the nerve!) you’re trying to have a languid sightseeing trip. And finally, if you don’t follow their rules, they can become like the chop cycle of your blender.

Once you get through a few though, you’ll find most of them a cinch, and you’ll like the slick, efficient way they move traffic along, letting you keep precious minutes of your vacation time that right-angle intersections with traffic lights would otherwise take away.

Driving tips: Well in advance of entering a roundabout, use your sat nav to learn where you need to exit it. (Note the name of your exit, but think in terms of its position – for 9 o’clock, you signal left before entering and then turn left from the outside lane; for 12 you go straight through using the outside lane, signaling left in the roundabout; and for 3 o’clock, you use the inside lane and signal right.) Don’t wait until you’re on top of the roundabout for directions. And don’t worry if you miss your exit; just continue to go around in it  – as long as you’re not in a mini one – until you get it.

Lost? (Uh, Maybe Only Ask a Scot the Way for a Laugh)

If you get lost due to, say, a gap in your sat nav map, you may be tempted to ask a local for directions. Doing so is sometimes more entertaining than useful. For though the Scots speak English and are some of the friendliest, most obliging people you’ll ever meet, their lovely but heavy accent and the quickness with which they speak can make them a bit hard for English-speaking foreigners to understand. Their delivery of the simplest of directions can seem to us like stand-up comedy – a parody of giving directions even.

What’s your favorite road trip? Let us know in the comments.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

About The Author

Avatar

Joseph Decibus writes for CheapOair and is also an avid traveler who occasionally writes about his trips. He looks forward to informing readers periodically about interesting places and events throughout the world.