Surviving Scotland's roads

Image by Liam Riby
The main route to Oban was recently repaired...

Scottish roads are quite the most astounding structures. Not only do they link countless remote communities with useful things like shops, they also provide the means through with a large proportion of Scottish income is derived, in this case timber. The preferred means of transporting all this timber is by what is known in Scotland as a ‘timber lorry’ but if you have ever met one on your travels you will probably know them better as ‘Thundering terror of the glens’.

Now before I get ripped apart by aggrieved hauliers, just let me say this: timber lorry drivers are generally some of the best drivers around - they have to be. Because being able to successfully negotiate some of the twistiest and narrowest of roads in Europe in something that weighs up to 40 tons is no mean feat. Yet your first encounter with one of these behemoths is likely to leave your fingernails embedded into your steering wheel/ car seat/ partner’s arm, depending on whether you are driving or merely have a ringside seat.

Because, quite simply put, driving on some of the more rural roads in Scotland is already an adventure in itself. In April 2018 an article in the Scottish Daily Record put the number of potholes in Scottish roads at 53,581. That’s quite an astounding figure, although Councils had reportedly repaired a significant number of these. But finding and repairing potholes in only part of the issue because they don’t stay repaired for long. Along one stretch of my (very) rural part of the Western Highlands, I watched as a series of holes in the order of several hundred meters, were filled. The repairs lasted for a little less than two weeks. And this is on a road with very low usage.

Why potholes form in the first place is simply due to weaknesses caused by water in the soil under the road. Because the asphalt is no longer supported it will start to collapse. Every wheel entering it after that will throw a bit more asphalt out until you are left with a mini crater, its’ ejecta surrounding the hole like a tiny meteorite strike. Repairing these can be done in various ways from the ‘throw and roll’ technique where hot tarmac is basically thrown into the hole and squashed with something heavy, to semi- permanent solutions involving surgically removing the hole and using various processes to make sure the stuff actually stays in this time. There is even a ‘spray-injection’ technique that blasts loose material and water out before spraying hot tar back in. Unfortunately all of these methods have varying degrees of success as attested above, but significantly it will not stop new potholes opening up at random. In Scotland, we are particularly adept at avoiding potholes on familiar roads, looking out for the tell-tale circle of loose asphalt surrounding them and doing the ‘pothole swerve’. This has led to some interesting experiences on bends, of which there are a great many, where some people are more than happy to risk a head-on collision rather than damage a tyre.

Aside from these little craters of misery, it is the topography of Scottish roads that make them fun places upon which to conduct a journey. Of the 34,000 miles of road in Scotland, some two-thirds are ‘unclassified’, meaning rural, and therefore looked after by individual councils as opposed to directly by a government-funded organisation like Bear Scotland. These range from normal single carriageway roads (two-way traffic) to single tracks with passing places and to these we will come in a later post.

If you were driving in, say, East Anglia, and for some reason lost control and came off it, you are not going to fall very far. In Western Scotland and the Highlands the story is rather different because everywhere is littered with steep drops, often into lochs of varying depth. Added to this, very few roads in these areas have crash barriers, meaning that any deviation from your chosen route will leave you facing a considerable drop into a) trees or b) very cold water. Due to the amount of rainfall we experience, even the roadside ditches are deep. Last year I saw a 4 wheel drive car in a water-filled ditch – but only the top of its roof was visible. Luckily the driver had somehow scrambled out, but it must have been a close thing. A fairly recent statistic put the number of deaths on Scottish rural roads at a 23% hike from the previous year (2015 to 2016) and many of these were attributed to single vehicle accidents – possibly speed-related.

Now Scottish drivers in these parts are generally very courteous. Since moving here I have not once had cause to be ‘road raged’ in comparison to rural England where it was an almost daily occurrence. Even after an accident the one thing I have heard people say is ‘I’m sorry’. Unthinkable just about anywhere else! But some people in these parts do have one weak spot I’m afraid, and that is they do not like to be held up in their busy lives.

Now, there is a general method of overtaking slower vehicles here.

Firstly you signal your belief that the car/bus/lorry in front is going far too slow for your liking and you would like them, please, to help you achieve this manoeuvre. You do this by driving as close behind them as you can without endangering anyone. When the driver of the lumbering beast in front sees this he/she will help you by slowing strategically in spots where you are likely to be able to overtake without getting killed. Sometimes they will even pull over into a handy lay-by. It is customary to show your thanks by a wee toot or by flashing your indicators a couple of times: job done.

Another way is to try and remember your route so you know when a straight bit of road is coming up. Unfortunately this is unlikely to work. For example, the road from Oban to Paisley is about 130 miles long and I can attest there are only 4 places along the whole length where it may be deemed safe to overtake and one of them is on a wide bend going steeply uphill.

The third way is to pull out and hope, and this is the one that a minority of people use quite frequently. So it is not unusual to round a bend and find (usually a car) hell-bent of rendering you a statistic.

However they will probably say ‘sorry’ later.