Daring Death on the Isle of Mull

August 12, 2013  •  1 Comment

I generally don't have a problem switching to the left side of the road when I drive in the British Isles. Or, to be more accurate, I've done it several times and I am still here to write about it. But the Isle of Mull may put an end to that. Or to me.

The picture above shows a stretch of the road between Tobermory, the island's largest town, and the village of Salen, where I'm staying at the Glenforsa Hotel. This is not, by Mull standards, the hinterland. It may be the most heavily-trafficked route on the island. Outside Salen, two lanes squeeze to one. And for about ten miles, it's what the Scots call a single-track road.

This means that on a road roughly the width of a driveway, cars come right at you. They're not supposed to hit you, of course. Every few hundred yards or so, the road has what the locals call a "passing place." This is a bulge in the pavement, making it look like a snake that's swallowed half an apple. The idea is that if the passing place is on your left, you slide into it if there's an oncoming car, letting him by. If it's on the left side of the oncoming car, he's supposed to slide into it and let you by.

There's a certain courteous, sociable aspect to this. The driver who sees the first place to slip in to often blinks his lights to tell the oncoming car it's safe to proceed. The custom is to give the oncoming driver a wave as you squeeze by the passing place. It's basically just a quick, open palm at the top of the steering wheel. It's like the open-palmed salutation that the Indian characters in old Westerns gave, along with the greeting "How."

This system isn't unmanageable when the road is straight and flat and it's possible to spot an oncoming driver when he's still hundreds of yards away, locate the next passing place and decide who's supposed to pull into it and give way. But the road to Tobermory  is by no means straight. It winds around and up and down a stretch of dramatic hills. The vistas would be quite striking if one didn't have to keep his white knuckles glued to the wheel and his eyes glued to the road, wondering what will happen if a bus is coming when the rental car reaches the crest of a hill along a blind curve.

When this happens, there's a wee standoff. Then someone has to put his car in reverse and back up until a passing place appears in the rear view mirror. There's a bit of a strained quality to the social wave in these cases. And the ruts and tire tracks I saw along the side of the road suggest that some standoffs end less than well. Even when the system works, a bit of traffic can cause so many waves that a driver's arm gets tired.

I wonder why the people of Mull let this continue. The island seems prosperous enough to afford a two-track road, so I don't think the people can't afford it. I've rejected a few hypotheses. It can't be that a guy who owns a body shop and a tow truck controls the local government. That doesn't seem British. It can't be that the people of Mull are engaged in an effort to purge the reckless chromosome from the local gene pool. Too much collateral damage.

I asked my host at the Glenforsa, Allison Busch, and she said she likes the present system just fine, thank you. It would indeed be expensive to add a lane, especially when the winter population hardly needs one. It would mean that tourists, who now make their way around very slowly, would whiz along at 60 miles an hour. "You don't see anything at that speed," Allison said. The tourists might even zip around Mull in a single day and leave on an evening ferry rather than stay overnight. And another lane of pavement would consume some of the prettiest land on the island.

So I don't think the traffic patterns on Mull will change any time soon. The people seem to like things the way they are.






Joe Martin(non-registered)

Great story. But try driving the Ring of Kerry in Ireland where there are tour buses barreling down at you on a slightly wider road. In fact, in the summer the tour buses are required to go counter-clockwise around the Ring because there's no way they can pass each other going the opposite direction.

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