diamond geezer

 Thursday, June 22, 2006

Postcard from the Hebrides: single track roads

Turn to the back of your road atlas and you'll probably find a page, or half a page, devoted to the Outer Hebrides and various other outlying islands. There aren't a lot of roads up here, they're quite expensive to build across forbidding upland landscapes. And why go to the bother of building a proper road for a handful of motorists when you can cut costs and lay something rather narrower? Welcome to the single track road with passing places, a challenging highway that probably wasn't part of your driving test. They're not everywhere up here - all the A roads in Lewis are now double track - but try taking the main A859 south across Harris from Tarbert and you'll be watching out for oncoming traffic most of the way.

Driving on single track roads requires both consummate skill and unshakeable faith. For a start these roads are rarely straight, so you never quite know what might be around the next bend. Most unnerving are the blind summits - on any other road merely a hump, but here a rollercoaster climb into the unknown. Slow down... there almost certainly isn't anything coming the other way but you'd better be able to stop fast if there is. Passing places are generally located at fairly sensible intervals, although if you meet an oncoming vehicle somewhere inbetween you might have to reverse back rather further than you'd like. And it only takes one broken down van in the wrong place to bring traffic in both directions to an impenetrable standstill for several hours. Always remember to pull in to the left, never the right (I watched one particularly satisfying crash where two drivers both tried entering the passing place). And bad luck if you end up in a convoy of traffic which meets another convoy of traffic coming the other way - it can be a real challenge attempting to get everyone past with only limited spaces for overtaking. But this rarely happens. Normally you get the entire road to yourself for several minutes at a time, encouraging you to push ahead at 30mph, 40, 50, wheee 60... oh bugger! It is perhaps surprising that life expectancy amongst Highland motorists isn't considerably lower.

One of the finest (for which read scariest) single track roads in Scotland runs for twelve long miles along the western coast of Harris [details] [B887 map]. The road to Huisinis begins near the filling station at Aird Asaig, one of the first UK garages to charge more than a pound for a litre of petrol [photo]. The road begins innocently enough, past the ruin of an old whaling station, round the first headland and... good grief, there's a single lonely tennis court beside the road in the middle of absolutely nowhere! Several troublesome bends and blind summits follow, above hillsides you wouldn't want to accidentally tumble down. Then, after miles of moorland and the odd isolated cottage, you suddenly drive beneath a stone gate and enter... blimey, the front garden of Amhuinnsuidhe Castle. The setting may be damned impressive but the occupants have to put up with tourists driving round the lawn directly past their front door. Maybe that's why the last owners (the Bulmers cider family) sold up for £4½ million - and the place is now let out for upmarket house parties.

At the end of the single track is the tiny hamlet of Huisinis. Rest your clutch foot by parking up beside the toilet block, then wander down to the charming sandy beach [photo]. From the rocks I watched as two oystercatchers shuttled back and forth pulling worms out of the sand to feed to their fluffy youngsters. And out there in the middle of bay... surely not... bloody hell yes... two telltale fins announced the presence of a pair of sharks! Across the headland, weather permitting, you can join a handful of sheep looking out towards the deserted island of Scarp. When this island was still inhabited (as late as 1970) the Post Office tried several different means of delivering letters, even including a failed experimental attempt at Rocket Mail. But if you've travelled this far there's no flying back. You've no alternative but to drive all the way back along the same twelve miles of single track road, back to some semblance of civilisation. Take care, won't you?

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