S C O T L A N D : D A Y 4
AUGUST 22 (Tuesday) -- Edinburgh to Oban
The next morning we divided our forces: Bill and Gin headed west to Glasgow to pick up Gin's sister Tricia at the airport, while Ann and I followed Beth to the Edinburgh airport where she had taken on the job of renting our car. We had not seen even a tiny fraction of what Edinburgh had to offer, but it was time to drive westward to Connel by Oban on the southwest coast where Gin and Bill were to marry.
After picking up our car, Beth (our only member experienced at driving on the left side of the road) took the wheel and we set out for Oban. We spent an interesting couple of minutes trying to figure out how this would be possible considering that we somehow found ourselves traveling eastward, but after sorting that out, we soon were getting the feel of Scotland's primary roads. Ann in the back seat and I in the front (left) passenger seat were soon swiveling our heads around, taking in the countryside as we passed by the towns just off the A-road. We soon pulled to a stop at one of the first places I'd arranged for us to see: the gravesite by Balquhidder of the infamous cattle reiver Rob Roy MacGregor. His memorial had been overdone to a certain degree by perhaps over-admiring descendants, but the overall feeling in the modest churchyard was one of peace and familial tranquillity.The Trossachs More of the Trossachs
This peace was further improved to my mind by our getting something to eat at a small roadside diner. Here I had the first example of what quickly became my favorite standard meal in Scotland. It was the local version of shepherd pie: thick chunks of tender local beef swimming in gravy with a light, flaky crust baked on top.
The satisfaction of a good meal must have affected my powers of reason at this point because I then asked Beth if it would be all right for me to take my turn as our driver. I was expecting it to feel less comfortable than it did, but within a minute or two I was beginning to think that the difficulties of adapting to driving on the "wrong" side of the road had been overstated. The feel of the car was nice and solid, the roads were in fine repair, and life was good. I wasn't going too fast, though, since I knew that overconfidence could be dangerous. So when a driver behind us began riding my bumper, I remembered what I'd read about "lay-bys," places where one could pull over and let cars in the other lane go past. Seeing a grassy area ahead and to my left, I casually slowed down and edged into it.
Beth said, "Bart, there's a ditch, there's a ditch, THERE'S A DITCH!"
By this time, we were already in it.Our car in a ditch
Five minutes into my turn as driver, and I'd managed to get us well and truly stuck. What I'd driven us into wasn't a lay-by (these are well-marked and aren't even used on A-roads), it was just a grassy patch beside the road hiding a ditch. Beth managed to display a superhuman level of calmness in the face of things, and suggested putting rocks behind the front left wheel which was dangling uselessly in the ditch (the center nose of the car was stuck up on a small dirt hump). It was a good idea, but it wasn't working; we were just making the tires smoke. I checked on Ann. She seemed concerned, but otherwise completely cool.
After a few minutes some kind of sport/utility vehicle slowed down and stopped. Out stepped a tanned Londoner who was ferrying himself, wife and kids to visit his Scottish relatives. We tried tying a rope between our cars and letting him pull us, but the rope broke. So he deposited his wife (to keep us company?) while he went off to borrow a stronger rope from a nearby farmer. I took a picture of my handiwork with a camera I'd bought and wondered if the human heart could actually explode from high blood pressure brought on by acute embarrassment.
Eventually the Londoner returned, hitched us together, and pulled us out of the ditch. Damage: A piece of molded plastic which fit underneath one of the headlights had popped out. Beth said, "Hey, don't worry, Bart, that's how they build these cars--they're all modular, they're supposed to do that!" I took this as all the incentive I needed to ask her and Ann if they would feel uncomfortable if I got back behind the wheel. When they fearlessly said no, off we went again.
In a gesture of mercy to the ladies (and to give my blood pressure a chance to descend from the stratospheric levels at which it must have been), I turned the wheel back over to Beth when I pulled off the high road at Loch Lomond. This turned out to be just the restful pause we probably all needed by now. We got out and stretched our legs for a bit, walking along the well-tended paths while a kilted piper serenaded us in the bonny, bonny parking lot of Loch Lomond.Loch Lomond
Around this time, we developed an interesting system for when Beth was driving. One of the most troubling problems we had on that first day lay in knowing where the edge of the road was. In America, as we become familiar with our vehicles we learn to judge how close the unseen right side of our car is to the right shoulder of the road. But we weren't in America, and we weren't in our own car, and it was very difficult to "feel" if we were veering off the left edge of the road. (Most of the roads had little or no shoulder, so this was important.)
After a while, Beth began to notice that every time she got a little too close for my comfort to the left edge of the road, my right hand would begin to twitch. And then she'd bring the car slightly to the right and my hand would stop twitching--sort of like biological curb feelers. Silly... but it worked.
There were several other heuristics we developed along the way. For example, we learned that driving behind coaches (that's buses to you and me) was a great way to learn to drive in Great Britain. In the first place, they didn't go too fast, since many of the roads we traveled were far too narrow and winding to permit high rates of speed. This gave us an excuse to drive more slowly and safely than we otherwise might have done, since we weren't about to try to overtake (that is, pass) anyone on those roads until we felt more comfortable. In the second place, these vehicles were big... so anything coming the other way tended to give them (and therefore us) plenty of room. We found this to be a distinct improvement over the way that oncoming traffic kept veering into our lane when all they saw was our little car.
We also found ourselves repeating a chant: "Left is good. We like left." This is because turning left in Britain is like turning right in America; you only have to worry about the traffic coming at you from one direction.
There were a couple more minor adventures along the way. For example, there was the idiot sheep (the first of many) that had wandered past the fence onto the road and which Beth nearly hit. And there was the Volvo whose owner had parked it nearly onto the road and which Beth did hit. (The passenger's side mirror clipped the Volvo's driver's side mirror. As I popped our own mirror back in, I couldn't resist telling Beth, "Hey, don't worry, Beth, they're modular; they're supposed to do that!") At this point, we began joking that when we returned our rental car, we'd be able to hand it to the attendants in a paper bag.
Finally, though, we arrived at the Falls of Lora Hotel in Connel by Oban in one piece (metaphorically speaking, anyway). After settling into our rooms, we headed into the lounge where we discovered that Jacquie Williams and a friend from Aberdeen had come for the wedding. We also met Jon Morris from near London who had arrived earlier, followed by Bill and Gin with Tricia in tow. The other residents of the hotel must have been surprised to witness a Lifestyles forum mini-convention taking place.The Falls of Lora Hotel
That evening, we all got together for drinks. This lasted for some time. In fact, it went on for so long that we were eventually the last people in the room, other than three Scots at the bar who seemed determined to outlast us even if they had to drink up every bottle in the place. Beth, however, who had had one or two beers of her own, called them over to join us, which two of them did (three if you count the odd little dog that belonged to one of them and kept growling at the other). We soon were having a grand time, explaining to the older gent how almost all of us knew one another from having met on-line and how two of our party were to be married in a couple of days. This led to an extremely interesting story from said older gent concerning the manner in which he had lost his ownership of the hotel when his common-law wife who ran the place kicked him out... there was more, but my recollection of things grows inexplicably fuzzy at this point.
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