Halftime Leisure

The strange pleasure of gritter-watching: Scotland’s latest export

March 19, 2021

Illustration by Sophie Stachurski

The Great Grittish Flake-Off is plowing through Dundee. Sir Salter Scott is somewhere on the M74 heading south. Lord Coldemort and You’re a Blizzard Harry are parked in Dumfries. 

These affectionately-named snow plows and gritters can be tracked across the trunk roads of Scotland (William Wall-ice is also an honorable mention). There are nicknames referencing every branch of Scottish and pop-culture phenomena—a truck for everyone.

Snow plows are undoubtedly an odd team to root for, but during a particularly heavy winter for Scotland, with temperatures reaching -23ºC, and similar extreme weather in parts of the United States, there’s been an uptick in national and global interest in the gritter names and Transport Scotland (TS).

The added constraints and difficulties of the pandemic (I’ll only mention it once) make staring at gritter icons and fun names on a screen all the more engaging. In fact, a Guardian article compared it to the “vicarious thrill of trainspotting from the warmth of your front room.” For reference, trainspotting is, self-evidently, the practice of watching trains to identify their characteristics (there are some train enthusiasts who are really into this). Both practices feel like a justified representation of our time (ok, twice)—trying to find fascination in something so banal. 

I found the tracker partway through a mindless Twitter scroll and was hooked. Identifying all the names of the gritters took a couple days of zoning out during class as I tried to pick my favorites and had to look up some references I didn’t understand. But the real fun began after laying the groundwork: I began to keep tabs on a few gritters in particular, using the tracker to see which way they traveled and how long the shifts were. The next level was finding the locations on Google Earth. I imagined William Wall-ice tracking along the patchwork fields of Peterhead, Scotland, clearing flurries out of his path.

As a doorway to imagining, the gritters are a useful escape. Someone is at this moment piloting one of these plows in the icy cold, wipers working furiously and an overplayed playlist of hit songs running to keep them company during work. A continent away, leaving my apartment less often than I care to admit, I can imagine myself behind the windshield, piecing together memories of winter with satellite images of Peterhead and Aberdeen, Fort William and Edinburgh into a cohesive, vicarious experience of guiding my very own truck through the snow.

TS, the government agency running the tracker for the past five years, began crowdsourcing names from a contest for Scottish schoolchildren as part of its winter safety messaging. “What started out as a bit of fun—and still is—has also allowed us to engage the public, and especially schools, in learning more about winter preparations, safe driving during severe weather, and crucially, the work our operating companies do in very testing conditions,” a TS spokesperson wrote in an email to the Voice.

Under the TS agency’s oversight, contractors operate more than 200 gritters, roughly half of which are available for absent-minded watching or intense study through the online tracker. Given the popularity of the campaigns, the companies plan to continue hosting naming competitions for other gritters in their fleet, engaging with Scottish schools when students return post-lockdown.

The campaign’s immediate success has also led other countries to adopt similar naming initiatives for their own winter service vehicles. “The level of interest in Scotland’s gritters ‘spreads’ far and wide and only this week we had interest from Russia and America who are looking to replicate the process,” the TS spokesperson wrote. (Yes, that’s a pun in an email about snow plows. But then, that’s no stranger than spending an unfortunate amount of time watching gritters with similarly punny names plod around the Scottish Highlands rather than, say, doing homework).

The Minnesota Department of Transportation followed Scotland’s lead and opened a naming contest that solicited 23,000 entries, of which state officials chose 50 for the final running. Over 120,000 voters landed on eight plow names, among them: Plowy McPlowFace, Snowbi Wan Kenobi, and F. Salt Fitzgerald. Each of the plows is assigned to a separate district.

Minnesota’s contest briefly courted controversy when officials removed the second most-selected naming entry: Abolish Ice. The department said a snow plow naming contest was not the appropriate place for political messaging. Nevertheless, Abolish Ice remains one of the most creative (and apt) suggestions given; perhaps another city will revive it in a competition of its own.

After all, gritter naming was never meant to be just fun and games. The TS spokesperson reemphasized the purpose behind the naming efforts and the benefits of increased visibility: “Of course there is also a more serious side as well as the humour and global recognition. Almost every night during winter, gritter drivers and frontline staff are out working in sub-zero temperatures and doing their bit to keep Scotland moving for essential travel.”

Washington, D.C. may not offer much in the way of snow or winter weather, but I’m waiting to  bring the trend to Georgetown and give us downtrodden students a chance to submit our own takes, as punny and political as they come. Until that time, I’ll keep the tracker tab open in my browser and watch the Scots plow their routes around the country, taking inspiration for my own Voice-themed name submission: Snowman Peregritto. 

Paul James
Paul is a former section editor and ESVA at the Voice and a student in the SFS, class of 2023, studying Culture and Politics. His favorite color is grey, spelled correctly.

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