How to Decipher the Hand-Waves of Scottish Motorists

by Keith Savage · 14 comments


Hand-waves of Scotland

Off in Scotland’s hinterland, among the rural villages and close-knit islands, there is a sign language common to all travelers of the road. Native Scots deliver these signs from behind the wheels of moving vehicles with some combination of hand, arm, and head movement, and to the average visitor unschooled in such speech the meaning is always reduced to a simple salutation. Some would simply say that a person is “waving.”

But then, much is lost in translation even between English-speaking cultures.

In fact, the different hand-waves of Scotland are nuanced with myriad meanings depending on the circumstances. I feel it’s my duty to share what I’ve gleaned from my many trips to Scotland driving its length and breadth, with a particular focus on my time in Islay. I wish I had pictures of each of these salutations, but if I had attempted such a feat while driving it’s doubtful I’d have survived. Allow my words to fill in for pictures until you’ve had a chance to see them for yourself.

The Single-Digit Salute

By far the most common acknowledgement of passing motorists, the single-digit salute is the sign when someone merely lifts his index finger off the steering wheel as he passes. I withstood a barrage of single-digit salutes during my first couple of days on Islay, and I have to admit a certain feeling of elation and excitement upon receiving the gesture. Did they know me? I mean, Traveling Savage is pretty big in Port Askaig. Were they just super nice people? I wondered at this land of joy and mirth.

Then I had some time to think about it. Inter-vehicular greetings generally involve the whole hand. Was I only worth a measly finger? Had my presence been deemed worthy of only one Joule of movement? Spiraling into a bout of self-loathing, I returned to my car in a vain attempt to pass people on the road and monitor their acknowledgements, which turns out to be surprisingly difficult on sparsely-populated Islay.

At home, I drained a couple airplane bottles of Bruichladdich and looked in the mirror, wondering if others thought I looked menacing. While shaving, I suddenly understood the function of the single-digit salute. It’s the courteous, well-meaning small-talk of vehicular greetings, often reserved for strangers. I could live with that.

The Four-Finger Fade

The four-finger fade is the rarer brother of the single-digit salute and involves the driver locking his thumb under the wheel and raising the other four fingers, then letting them fade back to the steering wheel like a lingering hello. The F3, as I like to call it, seems to indicate some level of relationship, and I did receive more F3s as my week on Islay wore on. Some of the Eilachs who had given me single-digit salutes upon my arrival now deigned to raise four times as many fingers at my passing. They were like chevrons on my sleeve. I imagined these discerning motorists frowning thoughtfully as they came to realize I wasn’t some transient whisky sponge.

I spent some time people watching in the town of Bowmore, and I happened to witness many F3s between the islanders. This particular salutation seems to imply some level of trust, acceptance, and a “you’re one of us” mentality. I was making inroads.

The High Five

The high five is one of the greetings that sticks with you all day, like a warming dram of Ardbeg Uigeadail. When performing this greeting, the generous motorist lifts his hand completely off the steering wheel and extends his arm up and in front of him as if mimicking a high five. From what I’ve gathered, this gesture is usually accompanied by a slight dip of the head and a friendly raising of the eyebrows.

I was the lucky recipient of the high five on two occasions during my stint on Islay, and all I can say is wow…just wow. It’s a feeling of complete acceptance into the community, and it made me consider a spur-of-the-moment house hunt with my remaining days. Just knowing that someone else was willing to weave all these actions together while passing me at 40mph on twisty roads was enough. It was more than enough.

The S.O.S.

Like a four-leaf clover, a Scotsman who doesn’t like Irn-BrĂ¼, and me turning down a free dram, the S.O.S. is incredibly rare. This greeting begins with the high five and adds the vigorous shaking of the proffered arm, as if attempting to wave down a passing chopper while you’re stranding on the rooftop of the mall during a zombie apocalypse. When employed in inter-vehicular communication, however, it’s the friendliest gesture and highest honor a passing motorist can receive.

During my final day on Islay, as I drove from my cottage in the Oa all the way to Port Askaig to catch the ferry, I passed a woman who had sold me soap in Bowmore. Perhaps sensing my impending departure, she gave me the S.O.S. as she rumbled past in her old blue truck. I pulled over a few minutes later as it was hard to see through my suddenly blurry vision. I laughed through my moist eyes and pounded the steering wheel in unrestrained exuberance.

The Imperceptible Nod

I hesitate to bring this one up because it is not a positive greeting, but if I’m to prepare you for the wild world of Scotland’s hand-waves then I can’t pretend it’s all hearts and giggling unicorns. The imperceptible nod, as the name suggests, involves no part of the driver’s hand and this should be your first clue that all is not well. The passing driver performing the imperceptible nod hardly dips his head at you as you pass. It’s a menacing gesture that often results in checking your rearview mirror with suddenly wide bug eyes. Visitors should never use the imperceptible nod; even among people who have lived in a given community for decades find the imperceptible nod taboo and distasteful.

Now that you know the secrets, go forth to Scotland and be wavy.

Photo by matthileo via Flickr/Creative Commons


holiday scotlandNo Gravatar March 26, 2012 at 2:22 PM

very interesting article and very true, driving hand signals are common place in the UK and more so in the countryside, Scotland use them alot especially on single track roads to thank people for moving over, but then it extends to the point where you acknowledge everyone whilst driving, island life is a bit different and you wave to everyone just in case you know them………just be careful when the two finger salute is directed in your direction and lock your doors and drive very fast when the clenched fist salute meets you if driving through Glasgow : )

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 26, 2012 at 10:27 PM

Thanks for the additions, Greg, I’ll keep my eyes open for these less than savory salutes ;) And just so everyone knows, this post has the “humor” tag.

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CaraNo Gravatar March 26, 2012 at 9:42 PM

All very good to know!

And if one where to find oneself trying to hitch a ride in Scotland, what would be the proper hand signal for that?

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 26, 2012 at 10:05 PM

I’ve never hitched in Scotland, but I believe it’s the same as in the States: hold your arm out with your thumb up to signal a driver.

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HoggaNo Gravatar March 27, 2012 at 7:44 AM

Is there a hand signal for ‘I’ve never driven on this side of the road.. watch out?’

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 27, 2012 at 8:31 AM

Yeah, it’s similar to what to the dual-arm motion aircraft ground crew use to signal planes. Kind of scary and emergency-looking. At least that’s what I did in the beginning.

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WanderNWayneNo Gravatar March 27, 2012 at 7:48 AM

Salute to a wonderful post.

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holidays in scotlandNo Gravatar March 27, 2012 at 8:17 AM

Definitely just humor Keith, its not just car drivers in Scotland, you get waved at by people walking dogs, riding horses the farmer on his tractor and even the local Policeman. very nice to see and it does make your day brighter. i took note of my hand action since i read this article and i am a four-finger fade person, did not relise i was doing it till i read this post, well spotted keith i think its just habit for us now kind of inbred into us to know when to signal to people and what type of signal to use, I will be monitoring my hand actions in May when i head to the Highlands on my tour to Skye.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 27, 2012 at 9:25 AM

The kindly waving is one of the nicest and simplest things about travel in Scotland. The people make you feel welcome.

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Authentic Seacoast ResortsNo Gravatar March 27, 2012 at 9:43 AM

Very funny, Keith. In our part of Nova Scotia, everyone waves at you as you drive past. It’s part of the charm of rural life, everyone is your friend, some you just haven’t met yet.

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 27, 2012 at 10:35 AM

I think it’s very much the same in Scotland. It’s such a welcome change after too much time in the city.

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GrayNo Gravatar March 31, 2012 at 8:16 PM

This is hilarious, Keith, and yet at the same time, it seems very familiar to me. I have Scottish blood in me on my mother’s side of the family. I could totally see my grandfather doing this. Except maybe the high five and the SOS. He’s a little too reserved for that. :-)

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Keith SavageNo Gravatar March 31, 2012 at 9:56 PM

Yes, these reserved gestures seem to be part of the natural body language of those with Scots blood. That’s why the SOS is so special :)

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self catering ScotlandNo Gravatar April 10, 2012 at 7:15 AM

I had a difficult time with this wild tradition followed by the Scottish people. Their waves were incomprehensible. I was lucky that despite all this, there were some helpful Scottish locals who helped me understand this strange sign language.

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