Driving in Scotland is straightforward and often enjoyable, once drivers from outside the U.K. become accustomed to driving on the left. A small network of motorways link the main urban areas, while “A” roads, often “dual carriageways” (divided highways), spread out over the rest of Scotland. In more remote areas—especially the islands of western Scotland—single-lane roads are often the only link to small communities. Passing places are provided but caution is important because many of these roads are unfenced and livestock often wanders into the road.
Becoming a Leftie
Scots, like other residents of the U.K., drive on the left, so if you’re coming from the U.S. or most other countries, you’ll need to adjust. Here are some tips to help you do so.
- Unless you’re comfortable using a stick shift, ask for a car with an automatic transmission (for which you’ll pay more). If you’re not used to driving a manual, you don't want to add the challenge of changing gears and working a clutch to the rigors of driving on the left.
- Become familiar with the car before getting onto the road. To keep distractions to a minimum, get to know the gears, switches, and controls so you can keep your eyes on the road.
- Do some practice rounds in the rental car parking lot or on a less-traveled road before pulling onto busy highways. If you’re staying in a rural location outside a city, it might pay to have your car delivered to you, so you can get in some practice away from traffic.
- Enter roadways carefully. By instinct, you’ll probably be tempted to look to the left when pulling out, and that’s exactly opposite of what you should be doing—in most cases, oncoming traffic will be coming from the right.
- Keep the centerline on your right. If you’re driving on the left, the centerline will be to the right of the driver’s side of the road. Of course, many roads in Scotland are single track and don’t have centerlines, in which case you’ll find pullouts you can use to allow an oncoming car to pass.
- Be careful in roundabouts. They’re everywhere in Scotland, and handy for traffic management as they are, Americans might need to take a little time to adjust to them. When approaching, remember that traffic in the roundabout always has the right of way. Once in, go slow and keep to the right so you can exit easily and safely. And of course, remember that traffic in a roundabout in Scotland or elsewhere in the U.K. will be moving in a clockwise direction.
- Drive cautiously and keep your wits about you. Easy does it until you get used to left-side driving. Take heart, because with a little practice, driving on the left will soon seem natural to you.
Car Rentals — If you’re considering hiring a car in Scotland try the website Autoslash.com. It will apply all of the discount codes available to your rental upon booking; and then it will continue to search for better rates until you pick up the car. If a better price is found, the site automatically re-books you. We have yet to find a better service for rental cars. Some companies require drivers to be at least 23 years old, although 21 is more standard. To rent a car in Scotland, you must present your passport and driver’s license. Be aware that a further 20% VAT (Valued Added Tax) will be added to your bill.
It’s illegal to drive without unlimited third-party insurance in the U.K., and the cost is included as standard in rental rates. This means you're covered if you cause damage or injury another person, vehicle, or property but you are not covered for damage to your vehicle. However, the excess (deductible) against this insurance is often as high as £1,000 unless you pay for a reduced excess which can, if you take the car rental company’s policy, often be more than half the cost of the car rental. A number of companies offer slightly less-expensive insurance against car-rental excess. Under these policies you still have to pay the excess to the car rental company, but you then claim it back from the insurance company. You can often choose between annual and single trip coverage. Companies that provide this insurance include Insurance 4 Car Hire (www.insurance4carhire.com; tel. 01883/724-001) and Car Hire Excess (www.carhireexcess.com; tel. 0818/444-447).
Gasoline — There are plenty of gas (“petrol”) stations in and around main urban areas, but in more remote locations they’re few and far between and so always make sure you have a good supply before venturing away from larger towns and cities. At press time, prices charged for gasoline in the U.K. stand at around £1.20 per liter (1 U.S. gallon = 3.785 liters).
Driving Rules & Requirements — In Scotland and the whole of the U.K., you drive on the left and pass on the right and always give way to traffic coming from the right at a roundabout. If you’re driving on a single lane road, you must use the passing places on the left side of the road, give priority to traffic traveling uphill, and never park in a passing place. Pedestrian crossings not controlled by traffic lights are marked by white striped lines (zebra striping) on the road and sometimes flashing lights near the curb. Drivers must stop and yield the right of way to any pedestrian waiting to cross or has already stepped out into the zebra crossing.
Look Both Ways!
Even if you adjust easily to driving on the left, don’t trust your instincts. Always look both ways before pulling into traffic, to make sure you don’t lapse into your right-oriented habits. Likewise, when on foot, always look both ways when crossing a street.
To reach some of the farthest flung regions of the Highlands and Islands, an internal flight is often the quickest option. Flybe (www.flybe.com) and Loganair (www.loganair.co.uk) operate domestic routes from Glasgow and Edinburgh; for example, both fly to Stornoway on the Isle of Lewis and the northern airport of Wick John o’ Groats, while Loganair serves the Shetland Islands and the Hebridean island of Tiree.
We’re not saying that when it comes to travel “never on Sunday” is the rule, but be forewarned that many train, bus, and ferry services are severely curtailed. A journey with transfers that might take a few hours on a weekday can take all day on a Sunday. So, check schedules carefully and plan accordingly. A tip: If you’re using Traveline to plan a trip, always put in the exact date of travel, as schedules can vary daily, and almost always do so on Sundays.
Traveling by train is one of the best ways to see Scotland and travel between different regions. The cost of rail travel within Scotland is generally quite low and services are normally frequent, punctual, and reliable, while the line from Glasgow to the West Highlands and other routes is among the most scenic in the world.
The main train operator in Scotland is ScotRail (www.scotrail.co.uk; tel. 0845/601-5929), with a network of rail routes around the country. Some of the smaller stations are unstaffed and tickets must be purchased on the train from the conductor. In addition to standard single and return fares, ScotRail offers a number of ticket deals. With the Kids Go Free deal (www.scotrail.co.uk/kidsgofree), two children between ages 5 and 15 can travel free with an adult as long as you travel during off-peak hours and make the return journey on the same day. A number of attractions in Scotland are linked with this deal and allow free entry for one child traveling on these tickets. Tickets can be bought in advance on the day of travel. Discounts of 33% are also available for groups of three to five adults traveling together; to find out more, ask about GroupSave for small groups when purchasing your tickets.
A Senior Railcard (www.senior-railcard.co.uk) slashes a third off rail travel for passengers 60 and older. Young adults between ages 16 and 25 can purchase an annual 16-25 Railcard, which saves a third of the price on all rail tickets for a year. A yearlong pass costs £30, 3 years for £70; year-long passes can be bought online at www.16-25railcard.co.uk or at any staffed station, while 3-year passes may only be bought online.
The Royal Scotsman (www.belmond.com; tel. 800/524-2420 or 401/884-0090) is on one of the most luxurious trains in the world. Known as “a country house hotel on wheels,” it offers a choice of routes that depart from Edinburgh’s Waverley station and sweep past ancient mountains and misty lochs and through glens and villages. The train carries a maximum of 36 guests, allowing each passenger plenty of sumptuous space to spread out, and travelers can expect plush beds and opulent en-suite bathrooms. Tours range from the 2-night Highland Journey at £3,100 per person to the 7-night Grand Western Journey Scenic Wonders Journey at £10,102 per passenger. Prices include all meals, drinks, and sightseeing excursions.
Get on Track for a Scenic Show
Scotland can look at its scenic best from a train window, and some journeys put on an especially good show. Among the most scenic are the West Highland Line, from Glasgow to Oban or Fort William, alongside the Clyde estuary, through mountains, and along the shores of glimmering lochs; the Kyle Line, from Inverness through the moors and glens of the Highlands to Kyle of Lochalsh, gateway to the Isle of the Skye, for even more scenery; the Far North Line, from Inverness up the North Sea coast past salmon-filled rivers to Thurso and Wick; and the Borders Railway, from Edinburgh into the green vales and rolling hills of the beautiful Borders region.
BritRail Travel Passes — BritRail Passes allow unlimited travel in England, Scotland, and Wales on any scheduled train on the network during the validity of the pass without restrictions. The Spirit of Scotland Pass, the Central Scotland Pass, and the Scottish Highland Pass provide options for travel within Scotland. Consecutive passes allow you to travel for a consecutive number of days for a flat rate; and FlexiPasses allow you to travel when you want during a set period of time that, depending on the pass, can vary from one week to a month. Prices can vary significantly depending on type of pass, length of travel, and class of service. Discounts are available for seniors age 60 and older, for children, and, with BritRail passes, passengers age 25 and under. Passes are available through www.britrail.com.
Traveline Scotland: A Traveler’s Best Friend
Traveline Scotland is a helpful centralized service that assists travelers in planning their journeys across the whole country and on all forms of public transport—boat, bus, and train. Routes can be planed online at www.travelinescotland.com (or via the helpline at tel. 0871/200-2233). The service is indispensable when planning any journey, especially if the trip entails multiple forms of transport, as they often do. Just put in your point of departure and destination, and Traveline presents options, travel times, and costs.
Other Train Passes for Scotland — ScotRail (www.scotrail.co.uk; tel. 0845/601-5929) offers a selection of passes across Scottish rail networks. The Spirit of Scotland travel pass allows unlimited travel across all routes in Scotland from Carlisle, England (near the western Scotland–England border) and from Berwick-upon-Tweed, England (near the eastern Scotland–England border). This pass also includes trips on ferries operated by Caledonian MacBrayne (www.calmac.co.uk), serving the Hebrides and other western islands, and travel on a limited selection of bus (coach) routes in Argyll, Skye, the Borders, and Northern Highlands, with Scottish CityLink, Stagecoach and West Coast Motors, as well as the Glasgow Subway and Edinburgh trams. The pass does not cover many bus routes, so check with the ticket office before boarding if you plan on using one. Passes for 4 days of unlimited travel over 8 consecutive days cost £139, and 8 days of unlimited travel over 15 consecutive days cost £179. Passes for children ages 5 to 15 are half the cost of adult passes, and under-5s travel for free.
Four other similar ScotRail touring passes are available, each covering a different section of the country and working with different ferry and bus operators. With a couple of exceptions, travel isn’t permitted on any train before 9:15am Monday through Friday. Anyone planning to travel on ScotRail’s Caledonian Sleeper trains with these passes is strongly advised to make reservations. More information is available on ScotRail’s website. Tickets can be bought online or from any staffed station.
By Bus (Coach)
Scottish CityLink (www.citylink.co.uk; tel. 08705/505-050) operates a frequent and inexpensive coach service for all Scotland’s cities and large towns. The Explorer Pass allows unlimited travel on a set number of days within a consecutive time period; for example, 3 travel days within 5 days costs £49, 5 travel days within 10 days costs £74, and 8 travel days within 16 days costs £99. Tickets can be purchased on the CityLink website.
Stagecoach also runs many services across Scotland; for full details of its routes and timetables, visit www.stagecoachbus.com. Megabus (www.megabus.com) also operates routes between many of Scotland’s towns and cities.
Tap & Ride
The good news: CityLink, Stagecoach, First Glasgow, Lothian, and many other Scottish bus networks now accept credit cards for onboard payment. The bad news: Most accept only contactless credit cards, in which you simply tap the card on a reader next to the driver. Trouble is, if you’re American, you may not have a contactless card in your wallet, as they’re only now being introduced to the U.S. market. You may ask your card issuer for a contactless card (American Express is among those that will issue them on request). Or, resort to some old-fashioned methods and buy your bus ticket in advance or pay in cash (but remember, drivers on some systems are not able to give change, and those who do often won’t be able to accept large bills).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.