The AA team: How emergency boxes have a wheel cult following

They are a throwback to a golden era of motoring, when cars were a little less reliable, the open road a bit more unpredictable and grinding to a halt in the middle of nowhere was significantly more stressful. Whereas today's cossetted motorists have a wealth of dashboard warning lights to avoid the risk of a sudden breakdown and a mobile phone to raise the alarm, not so long ago it was the welcome sight of a black and yellow AA box that meant help was on the way. For drivers tackling some of Scotland's remote roads - where, remarkably, seven AA boxes still proudly stand - the wooden sentry boxes with their exclusive number to help establish location and a telephone, brought comfort from the knowledge that a chap with smart uniform, leather boots, and set of jump leads probably wasn't far away.

Once unlocked using their special members' key, the AA boxes provided a lifeline to help the lost, the broken down and the weary; there were maps, sometimes a first aid kit and a fire extinguisher, helpful phone numbers and even the occasional petrol can. There were once around 1000 AA boxes across the length and breadth of Britain, relics of bygone days when dashboards were expertly made of wood, seats were leather and petrol cost around the same as today's packet of crisps. However, just 19 remain, with Scotland having more than any other home nation.

And, perhaps even more surprisingly, of the nine across the UK which have been listed as being of historic significance, seven are in Scotland, proudly standing on the edge of roads scattered from Dornoch to Selkirk. One, box 472, on the A93 at Cambus O'May near the 'royal warrant' Aberdeenshire village of Ballater, could easily have been lost but for the efforts of a group of five local men of a certain age, conscious of the once lifeline boxes' role in British culture. Today it is a tourist attraction, smartly painted - the distinctive yellow paint had to be specially ordered and mixed to achieve the precise tone - and with its door always open so passersby can sign the visitors' book.

"If we hadn't repaired the box, it would have been down by now," says Alistair Cassie, who has run the village's general hardware store for over 40 years. "The box is a reminder of how life once was. They were more honest times.

There used to be a petrol can inside which you could use to fill your car with petrol to get you to the petrol station, and then bring back filled up again. "The AA man used to salute as you went by, their shoes were always polished and their uniforms were very smart." As well as providing a lifeline for passing motorists, the boxes had a range of uses for locals, he adds.

"Women would used them to get changed in. One chap who liked a flutter was a member of the AA but he didn't have a phone at home. He used to go to the AA box and get the AA man to put on his bet for him.

"I think some things that went on in them that are best left unsaid." The motor vehicle was still in its infancy in 1912 when the Automobile Association, formed just seven years earlier, decided to follow the lead of the RAC and provide sentry posts dotted around the country for its patrolmen. While the RAC's blue boxes tended to fade into the landscape, the AA's black and brilliant yellow boxes would become familiar features of road for generations of motorists.

Originally intended as shelters for smartly dressed sentries or patrolmen on bicycles or motorbikes, who were more likely to help motorists with directions or warn of police speed traps than tow stricken vehicles to the nearest garage, boxes soon sprang up across the country. So-called 'super' boxes featured signposts on the roof which were illuminated at night and equipped with fire extinguishers, spare parts and tools to help get cars moving. Some became focal points of rural villages, with features such as mock wells, dovecots and flower gardens arranged around the boxes.

But by the early 1960s, the traditional wooden boxes began to disappear in favour of modern, pedestal telephones. Easier to maintain, they offered motorists stuck at the side of a road no protection from the elements. Writer Bernard Bale, who has researched the boxes, said: "The AA boxes on a main road in the middle of nowhere were a welcoming sight, like the lights of a homely pub on a cold, winter's evening.

"Having an AA badge on the grill of your car was like being awarded the OBE. The salute from a passing AA man impressed the kids, the mother-in-law and other passengers and the service on offer from both the AA and RAC was - and still is - the equivalent in relief of a truck giving you a lift when you are walking across the Sahara desert and still only halfway. "The boxes outlived their usefulness, time and further progress having made them redundant.

The mobile phone rules everything these days and the legendary AA box like so many war survivors are few in number." Scotland's seven remaining AA boxes are in remote and often picturesque spots. The most northerly one, number 504, sits on the A836 a few miles south east of Ardgay, a stone's throw from the Dornoch Firth.

While travellers on the A939 at its junction with the A940 at Dava close to Loch Allan and Grantown-on-Spey, pass box 746, complete with handy clock on the door. Box 631, dating from the 1950s and with a distinctive white pitched roof, stands on the A82 close to Abriachan and by the banks of Loch Ness. The carefully restored box at Cambus O'May, number 472, sits close to the royal warrant village of Ballater, while box 753 is off the beaten track on the B974, on a twisting road south of Banchory.

Box 714 sits on the north side of the A96 Aberdeen to Inverness road, peeking out from lush woodland at Threapland, while Scotland's most southerly AA box, number 723, occupies a lonely spot on the A708 at Cappercleuch, Selkirk.

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