Driving in the Outer Hebrides

Today I discovered that you can’t brake on a cattle grid.

The discovery was made as I approached the aforementioned cattle grid at a decent speed in the nippy Ford some poor fellow had rented me. On the otherside of the grid was an oncoming car, which had considerately stopped to allow me past, as it was a one-car-at-a-time job.

As I happily jabbed the brakes, the Ford obediently slowed, hit the wet cattle grid, and just carried on. Skidding at 59 mph towards a narrow single track road with a large Volvo blocking it. Screaming, I carefully directed the skid into the ditch, bounced in (covering the oncoming Volvo with mud, which the man was very nice about), hit the undercarriage with a heck of a thump, bounced back out again and carried on at a high speed down the road, with the sheep staring on.

The chap in the Volvo just quietly lifted his hand in the customary greeting of the islands and carried on as if this was normal. Which I suppose, in a way, it must be.

Driving in the Hebrides is a nerve racking, exciting experiment in the speed of your reflexes. I don’t have access to the stats, but I bet that a higher proportion of traffic accidents happen here, per head, then anywhere else in the British Isles.

Remember, I cut my teeth on Spanish roads. With Spanish drivers. But, oh boy, even the worse souped up tuning loving Spaniard teenager would quickly be white faced and tight knuckled, driving on these isles.

You see, especially on the middle isles of the two Uists, Eriskay and Benbacula, almost all of the roads are single track lanes with passing paces. They go up and down over the hummocks, but often in a straight line over a long distance. Perfect for boy racers.

Occasionally they open up into short periods of modern two lane roads. Which is an excuse to really put the pedal to the metal.

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I was whizzing along one of these bits, behind a large Scottish Utility vehicle and some sort of transport van, staring out at the peat bogs, when an elderly grandmother in a Suburu Impreza overtook us. I glanced at the speedometer and realised to my horror the convoy I was in was doing 75. Grannie must have been doing well over 100. MPH, of course. I can confess this as I live abroad, and I doubt the fuzz will extradite me over a mere speeding fine.

I have found myself following cars on these single track roads and doing 65 without sweating. Remember, this is just me casually latching onto the one or two cars in front of me, and automatically matching their speeds.

Plays hell with the petrol consumption.

It’s the only place in the world where the sheep look both ways before crossing the road. Although the otters seem to think the roads belong to them and the drivers have to keep one eye open for the little blighters.

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If you spot an oncoming car, you hit the brakes and in a squeal of rubber pull into a passing place, if it’s on your side. If it’s on the other side, you accelerate, so as not to hold the other chap up.

Seriously, the driving here is faster, neater and more precise than in Thailand. And anyone who has ever ventured onto a Thai road knows that’s one hell of a statement.

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Part of the problem must be that the fuzz here don’t seem to be on a revenue raising mission, or hell bent on persecuting the innocent driver, and indeed drive faster than anyone else.

The copper on Barra, a massive mountain of a man with an array of vicious implements tucked into his Northern Constabulary issue utility belt, seemed to spend his day speeding around the island at high speed, occasionally skidding into people’s driveways. I was walking along the road when I witnessed him doing this. The method of his arrival put me in mind of an American cop drama, and I settled down for what I assumed would be an interesting hour of witnessing, at least, some sort of official intervention in a wife beating.

Instead, he happily let him self into the house with the key hidden under a rock, shouting as he went “and how are we today Mrs so-and-so? Mines a cuppa with two sugars, if you please”…

Turns out he was on his daily social calls to the elderly and vulnerable of the island. A lovely fella, I was assured later in the local pub. You don’t catch the Guardia on social calls.

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So yes, the local police are far too busy doing unimportant things like maintaining a community spirit by ensuring the safety of the elderly and vulnerable to do silly things like checking the speed of passing motorists, all of whom presumably are on important missions.

I pulled out behind a cop car on Lewis. Within minutes he had vanished into the distance at high speed. No “blues and twos” on. He couldn’t have been on an important mission, as I later spotted him filling up at the local petrol station, whilst holding a coffee.

The petrol stations are good fun, too.

I pulled into a petrol station, with the needle resting on the empty, only to discover it was closed for lunch. But there was only 10 mins to go, so I hung around.

When the elderly lady turned up, as she was fiddling about with the keys, she spotted me hovering near the pumps.

“Oh, you were never waiting for me!” she said, horrified. “And yourself on holiday, too. You should have just filled up and paid me on your way back.”

So yes, the next time I come here I’m bringing the Mazda. The 260 horsepower will do nicely on the hills.

Mind you, there are a lot of souped up cars on the islands. A lot of Mitsubishis and Suburus, I notice. Quite a few sporty Mazdas and Hondas too. The older people seem to fancy BMW’s and Mercs, especially the sportier versions.

And a lot of them seem to be abandoned on the side of the road with big dents in them. The car rental place -which doubled as the local garage- had a few piled up in the driveway.

I looked at one wreck with a shudder. “Nasty crash” I ventured, pointing at it.

The chap nodded and said some I didn’t catch. If it was a description of the injuries of the driver, I’m glad I didn’t.

“Lose many rental cars to the tourists?” I asked, conversationally.

“Oh, bless you sir, not many” he chuckled. “If anyone sees one of my cars being badly driven on the island, they’re sure to give me a call to let me know”.

Small community.

Still, the drivers are amazingly considerate across the isle and always -but always- give way when they should. It’s probably the only way to survive: give way when you should and the traffic flows smoothly.

The roads are small, but well maintained in general (there have been a few nasty bits where the road is only held together with spit, sticky tape and prayer). Passing places are plentiful.

It does make sense if you think about it, the effort to build these roads, on peat and bog, must have been incredible when they were first laid down, and the low population means it’s just not worth improving them. I’ve never yet run into a queue, and with the considerate driving of the locals, the roads turn from what could be a nightmare into a truly wonderful experience.

Quite why they’ve never filmed Top Gear here, I’ll never know. Great roads, wonderful scenery, and I bet the cops would fall over backwards to close off the roads for them.

Car rental was supplied by Laing Motors of Lochboisdale, South Uist. http://www.laingmotors.co.uk. Lovely people, a great car and an even better personal service. Use them if on the Uists!

Today I discovered that you can’t brake on a cattle grid.

The discovery was made as I approached the aforementioned cattle grid at a decent speed in the nippy Ford some fool had rented me. On the otherside of the grid was an oncoming car, which had considerately stopped to allow me past, as it was a one-car-at-a-time job.

As I happily jabbed the brakes, the Ford obediently slowed, hit the wet cattle grid, and just carried on. Skidding at 59 mph towards a narrow single track road with a large Volvo blocking it. Screaming, I carefully directed the skid into the ditch, bounced in (covering the oncoming Volvo with mud, which the man was very nice about), hit the undercarriage with a heck of a thump, bounced back out again and carried on at a high speed down the road, with the sheep staring on.

The chap in the Volvo just quietly lifted his hand in the customary greeting of the islands and carried on as if this was normal. Which I suppose, in a way, it must be.

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