The best way to see the Orkney Islands in Scotland is by car. The buses don’t go to many of the most important attractions and don’t correspond well to the ferry schedule. On the other hand, distances are fairly short, so I decided to rent a car for a couple of days.
The only problem was, I had never driven on the left side of the road.
That fact and my Arizona driver’s license didn’t faze the guy at the rental agency in Kirkwall. The only question he asked was if I had ever had any moving violations.
“No,” I replied.
At this point my 6-year-old son chimed in, “BUT PAPA, WHAT ABOUT THAT TIME IN ARIZONA YOU WERE DRIVING TOO FAST AND THE POLICE STOPPED YOU? THEY MADE YOU PAY MONEY.”
The guy at the rental agency smiled.
“Yeah, there was this speed trap in a small town in northern Arizona. The speed limit goes from 70 to 40 with no warning. They got me,” I admitted.
“There’s a bad one north of Aberdeen,” he told me. “The speed limit goes from 60 to 30 and then down to 20.”
“Good thing I’m not driving to Aberdeen,” I said.
“The car comes with damage insurance after the first £500. For £5 a day you can have extended insurance after the first £200. Basically with the first option we’re betting you won’t get in a crash and with the second option you’re betting you will.”
“Well, I don’t think I’m going to get in a crash but I’ll take the extended coverage anyway,” I replied.
Famous last words.I rented an automatic. The last thing I wanted to deal with while driving on the left for the first time was shifting with the wrong hand. I got in the car and accustomed myself to sitting on the right side of the car. After making sure everyone was strapped in, we headed out.
If you want to learn how to drive on the left, Orkney isn’t a bad place. There isn’t much traffic and not many roundabouts. It’s not ideal, though. Most of the roads are two narrow lanes with no shoulder. This means that on city streets and country lanes, many people park halfway on the road. At times I found myself weaving past parked cars and having to go almost entirely into the other lane before heading back into my own lane to dodge the next parked car.
This obstacle course was no problem for the first day and Orkney’s long summer twilight ensured that I didn’t have to drive in the dark.
I was feeling pretty confident as we headed out on the morning of the second day. This driving on the left thing was turning out to be pretty easy! Today would be no problem. We drove out from Kirkwall and into the rolling green countryside. We passed through a village and I moved to the right to pass a car parked on the edge of the lane when …
I looked over at my side view mirror. The casing was gone.
“Oh Gadling! I just broke the Gadling mirror! I probably broke that Gadling’s Gadling mirror too! GADLING!!!”
I turned the car around.
“Let’s go back and see how much Gadling money I owe that Gadling Gadling.”
The worst part of this whole thing was that it was my fault. While he had been parked partway onto the road, there was no oncoming traffic and I could have easily got around him. I misjudged the distance because it was on my left and I was sitting on the right side of the car. I had no one to blame but myself. I hate it when that happens.
We drove back to find a burly old man standing by the side of the road holding his side view mirror and parts of mine. “Burly old man” sounds strange but that’s what he was. He was 70 if he was a day but had a chest like an ox, with massive arms that ended in spade-like hands. His weathered face had a stoic northern look to it. There was no murder in his eyes. I got out of the car.
“It looks like I owe you some money,” I said.
“Yes,” was all he said.
I examined the damage. It was a good thing I took that extended coverage because this was going to come out to well over £200. Neither of us had the number of a garage on us so he invited me back to his house to look at the phone book.
I like to visit the homes of the local people when I travel but I prefer to arrive in happier circumstances. His house was off the main road in a little cluster of homes on a windswept hill. A sign in the tidy living room said, “A fisherman lives here with the best catch of his life.” A fisherman. That explained the burliness. Hopefully, he’d continue playing the part of the stoic Scot and not gut me like a flounder.
Luckily everything went well. The fisherman remained stoic, only showing his anger by repeating the phrase “all I want is my mirror fixed” a few more times than necessary. The rental agency didn’t take back the car, so we were able to visit the Heart of Neolithic Orkney. And I learned an important lesson about driving on the left: after driving on the right for 25 years, it’s not so easy just to flip your perceptions and expect to be able to judge distances perfectly.
I just wish i hadn’t said “Gadling” in front of my son so much. It’s such a filthy word.
[Photo courtesy user webhamster via Flickr]
Don’t miss the rest of my series “Exploring Orkney: Scotland’s Rugged Northern Isles.”
Coming up next: “Visiting Orkney: the Practicalities!“