A self-drive holiday in Scotland is by far the most flexible way to see the country. But in order to have a smooth road trip experience, it is important to master the art of driving in Scotland. Overcome all your worries with these 20 driving tips, there is nothing to fear on Scottish roads.


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Driving in Scotland can be intimidating, especially if you are not used to driving on the left. But don’t let that stand in the way of an epic and flexible road trip around Scotland.

From knowing all the traffic rules to adjusting your behaviour and using the right tools.

There are many ways you can make driving on Scottish roads an enjoyable experience, even if you are worried about driving in an unfamiliar country.

This post contains my top 20 tips for driving in Scotland including:

  • The essential traffic rules in Scotland,
  • Etiquette on Scottish roads,
  • How to plan an enjoyable self-drive route,
  • Tools that make your road trip easier,
  • And lots of other advice for an easy-peasy road trip in Scotland.

If you have not decided on the best way to get around Scotland for you, check out my guide to planning a trip to Scotland first. It contains an overview of all the different transport options you have and many more trip planning tips.

Know for sure you’ll hire a car? Read my tips for hiring a car in Scotland!

 

Important Traffic Rules in Scotland

Drive left

In the UK and Ireland, you must drive on the left-hand side of the road.

On a road with multiple lanes in your direction, stay in the left lane. The right lane is for overtaking. You can only overtake other cars on their right-hand side.

It takes a little time to get used to driving on the left, getting into the car at the right side and using your left hand to change gears. If you are otherwise a confident driver though, you should be fine within a day or two.

Unfortunately, you would not be the first person to find yourself back on the right-hand side of the road, only to notice it when you see the oncoming traffic in your lane. 

Accidents happen every year. The most difficult situations seem to be:

  • Leaving car parks,
  • Turning right on country roads,
  • And roundabouts.

When you find yourself in these situations, remind yourself to drive left. Say it out loud to vocalise what you are doing, if it helps.

TOP TIP
Put a sticker with a reminder to drive left above your steering wheel (not covering the speed indicator).

Road in Scotland

Speed limits

Speed limits are generally signposted at the side of the road. 

If there are no signposts, national speed limits apply, depending on the kind of road you are on.

The national speed limits in Scotland are:

  • Motorways + dual carriageways: 70 mph (60 mph if you tow a caravan or trailer)
  • Outside built-up areas: 60 mph (50 mph with a caravan)
  • In built-up areas: 30 mph
  • Residential areas + near schools: 20 mph

Alcohol limits

Don’t drink and drive!

Sounds like a no-brainer, but it is good to remember that the legal limit of alcohol is 50mg in 100ml of blood or 22mg in 100ml of breath. These limits are lower than in England. 

Of course, it is best not to drink at all when you drive!

TOP TIP
If you drive out for dinner, have a designated driver or use a local taxi company (Uber only works in Glasgow and Edinburgh). At whisky distilleries, ask for a driver pack to take away drams that are included in the tour.

Pick up the Transport Scotland leaflet

For more information, pick up the “Driving in Scotland” leaflet provided by Transport Scotland – also available here. Car hire agencies have these on display or can hand you one on request. 

The leaflet contains an overview of important traffic rules, explains some common traffic signs and gives lots of advice for Scottish roads in 6 languages.

Two cars standing on line at a ferry jetty by the sea

Road Etiquette in Scotland

How to drive a roundabout

They love roundabouts in the UK. You will come across city-bypasses, country roads and in villages. They are everywhere.

Smaller roundabouts with one or two lanes are fairly straightforward to navigate. But there are also massive roundabouts with traffic lights and three, four or five lanes. These require a bit more finesse.

Here are some tips for driving a roundabout in Scotland:

  • Look at the arrows in the lanes approaching and in the roundabout. Make sure you are in the right lane for where you want to go. Usually, the lane on the left is for the first exit, the middle lane is for exits 2 and/or 3, the right lane is for the exits furthest away.
  • Use your indicators: Left for when you leave the roundabout or to indicate that you’re taking the 1st exit. Right to show that you are staying in the roundabout for a later exit. This helps others to enter the roundabout safely because they can anticipate your next step.
  • To enter a roundabout, slow down and enter anti-clockwise – this is very important. Cars already in the roundabout have a right of way.
  • Look at the signs near the exits to see where they lead to.
  • Don’t panic if you miss your exit, just go around one more time and try again. 

How to drive on single track roads

I have a love-hate relationship with single-track roads. 

One the one hand, they often lead to the most beautiful places and are a guarantee to get off the beaten track. On the other hand, they are not easy on the nerves – single-track roads are narrow, often winding and still regularly frequented by buses and lorries.

It is very likely that you will end up driving down at least one single-track road on your Scotland road trip. Therefore, it is important to know how to be a considerate driver and how to navigate these narrow country roads safely. 

Here are some tips and trick for driving on single-track roads in Scotland:

  • Don’t be in a rush. I tend to drive 30-40kmh max. on single track roads. This also means that you will probably need more time than your GPS or Google Maps estimates.
  • Let drivers behind you, who might be quicker than you, pass you – just pull over in a passing place when it is safe to do so.
  • Drive as far left as you can to increase visibility.
  • Pull into passing places on the left. If there is a passing place on the right, stop on the road and let the oncoming traffic pass you by using the passing place.
  • Look as far ahead as possible and try to spot oncoming traffic early.
  • Use your headlights to signal oncoming drivers in the distance.
  • Wave your hand or flick your fingers to thank oncoming drivers when you pass them.
  • Cars going downhill should stop and wait in a passing place to allow cars going uphill to pass them.
  • Always yield for large vehicles like lorries, buses or campervans, and give them as much space as possible.
  • Don’t park in passing places. Depending on how busy a road is, it can be OK to stop for a photo, but don’t leave your car in a passing place to go for a hike.
  • If you meet a car between passing places, one of you has to reverse to the last passing place they came by. It should be the one closest to a passing place. 

single track road by the Scottish coast

Research common driving directions on single-track roads

Some extremely popular road trips in Scotland are on single-track roads, such as the Bealach na Ba pass road to Applecross, the road up into the Quiraing on the Isle of Skye or large sections of the North Coast 500.

I recommend looking into the most common directions people drive on these roads. Usually, it has very little to do with scenery than with practical elements. 

It is generally easier to drive single-track roads in the same direction as the majority of other drivers than being the one car against the grain. 

The popular driving direction might also indicate which way it is easier to drive a particularly tricky section, maybe because it is very steep or narrow.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: 30 EPIC Things to do in the North Coast 500

 

How to Plan an Enjoyable Self-Drive Route

Slow down

Whatever you, don’t be in a hurry. It is perfectly acceptable to drive slower than the speed limits if you need to in order to feel safe and confident on Scottish country roads.

Of course, you should not knowingly hinder traffic behind you, so make sure you allow faster cars behind you to pass you when it’s safe.

Driving slowly allows you to get used to the new circumstances of driving on the left.

Stay calm

Driving in an unfamiliar country and navigating new traffic rules can be stressful.

And the stress increases if you let other drivers on the road, who might be more confident, dictate how fast you should be driving.

Driving in cities, in particular, can be a nightmare if you are not entirely sure where you are going. City traffic is not easy on the nerves.

The most important thing to keep in mind is to stay calm. If you took a wrong turn, find a place to pull over safely and find your bearings.

Take a deep breath, gather your thoughts and continue on your way.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: 16 EPIC road trips in Scotland

Driving on the left in Scotland

Avoid driving in cities

If you can, avoid driving in cities altogether. I recommend hiring a car from the airport rather than an inner-city station – that is usually also cheaper. 

If you plan to spend a few days in Glasgow or Edinburgh at the beginning or end of your trip, hire the car the day you leave the city and return it on your way into the city.

Parking is terrible in Scottish cities and car parks charge a lot. Many hotels do not offer parking on site.

In general, Scottish cities are small enough to explore on foot or utilise public transport. There is no need for a car in the city.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: The best of Edinburgh in 2 Days

Plan to drive feasible distances

When putting together your Scotland road trip itinerary, it is important to plan feasible distances for each day. 

Do not underestimate distances and schedule your daily itineraries generously! You don’t want to end up stuck in the car all day with no time to get out and explore.

But what are feasible distances in Scotland?

Scotland looks tiny on the map. The 235-mile-drive from Edinburgh to Portree looks and sounds like nothing, especially if you come from a vast country like the US, Canada or Australia. 

But remember, Scottish roads can be narrow and winding. They are also very scenic, making it difficult to drive fast or without photo stops. 

As soon as you have a campervan in front of you, you might be stuck for a while if there are no suitable places to overtake or they can’t let you pass.

What is the right amount of driving in Scotland per day also depends on the kind of road you are on and how much time you have in total. 

For example, you can mix longer distances on some days with shorter drives on others. The 150-mile drive from Inverness to Edinburgh along the A9 can be a swift 3-hour journey, while 150 miles in the Highlands might take you three days. 

Personally, I find 80-100 miles to be a good upper limit for a day’s drive, but less is always better.

TOP TIP
Take the first day of your trip to get used to driving on the left and plan to drive just a short distance. 

A car on a winding single track road on the NC500 in Scotland

Allow plenty of time for stops

Google Maps usually gives you a very accurate estimate of driving times without stops, but I like to plan generously.

Make sure to allow plenty of time for photo stops, little walks and longer breaks. Scotland is way too beautiful to just drive through it.

Renting a car and driving in Scotland has the major advantage that you alone decide where to stop and for how long. Make use of that!

In my itineraries, I try to always point out a few lesser-known spots for little walks and photo ops – make use of them!

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: My Top 20 Places to Visit in Scotland

Be strategic with petrol stations (=gas stations)

I recommend filling up petrol at stations in cities and larger towns. Petrol is generally cheaper where there is more choice. 

However, there are plenty of petrol stations in remote areas of Scotland, so don’t worry about running out of fuel. They can be a little more expensive, but if you use them you are supporting a small rural business.

The most scenic drives in Scotland

Check out my post about the 16 most beautiful road trips in Scotland.

Useful Tools for your Road Trip

Should you hire a GPS or use a paper map?

I personally don’t drive with a GPS but use my phone for navigation. 

I type in the route into Google Maps before I leave the house (while I definitely still have reception) and follow that throughout the day. Your phone might not always get a signal up in the remote parts of the Highlands.

If you can get coverage in the UK at a reasonable price, I think that is sufficient.

Remember, that currently, EU mobile phone plans have no roaming costs in the UK at the moment – you can use your data normally. However, this might change after Brexit [2020 Update].

That said, a GPS might be useful if you travel by yourself or want to be sure that you have a navigation system regardless of mobile reception. 

It’s always a good idea to have a paper map like the Collins Road Atlas Scotland with you as a backup – especially if you are driving with a passenger who can navigate. 

Compare petrol prices

Use the Petrol Prices app for up-to-date price information and easy comparison of fuel prices all over the UK.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: 50 Tips for Scotland on a Budget & Wise Spending

 

Other Tips for Driving in Scotland

Watch out for farm animals and wildlife

There can be a plethora of wildlife and farm animals on Scottish roads. 

While sheep and Highland cows on the road might make for a pleasant surprise and good photo op if you’re on a quiet country road, other animal encounters might be less pleasant. 

Watch out for animals on the road to avoid hitting them, particularly deer, birds like grouse, or forest animals like bunnies and badgers.

Highland cow on a Scottish road

Watch your left-hand side

I find that people who are new to driving on the left-hand side of the road, tend to drive extremely far to the left – sometimes too far. 

Of course, you should not drive over the midline either, but be aware of your left-hand side to avoid driving off the asphalt or onto kerbstones. 

Have change (coins) in your car to pay for parking

Although credit and debit cards are widely accepted across Scotland, it is useful to have some change in the car to pay for parking in towns, villages and at natural sites.

Have a variety of change in the car, including 20p, 50p and £1 coins. 

Check & book ferries in advance

Island hopping in Scotland with a rental car is very easy and many of my itineraries encourage visiting a variety of isles. 

On popular routes, it is advisable to book ferry tickets in advance, especially during the summer, to make sure you secure a spot for your preferred crossing. The most popular crossings include the routes from Mallaig to the Isle of Skye, from Oban to the Isle of Mull and less frequent crossings such as islay, Orkney and the Outer Hebrides.

Other routes might not accept reservations at all or operate ferries for passengers only (no cars). Do your research when you pick the right islands for your itinerary!

When you book a ferry ticket with Calmac or Northlink Ferries, they will ask for the car registration number. However, both offer an option to choose “Unknown” as they are aware that you won’t know which hire car you’ll get in advance.

YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: The Practical Guide to Island Hopping in Scotland

 

Have you ever done a road trip to Scotland? 

What would be your top tip for driving in Scotland?

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All photos by Kathi Kamleitner

17 thoughts on “My Top 20 Tips for Driving in Scotland

  1. Steven Sery says:

    If planning to travel to “remote” destinations on single track roads rent a vehicle with adequate ground clearance and heavy duty tires. On our trip we rented a sedan and over the course of 2 weeks had 4 blowouts including 2 at one time . The locals were great in trying to help but ended up driving 2 hours on 1 spare tire and 1 flat tire.

    • Kathi says:

      I’ve luckily never had a flat in Scotland, even on single track roads or smaller tracks. Always good to keep curbs in mind though and be careful with potholes. I find regular cars very adequate, but it never hurts to have a 4×4 if you plan to go off-road at any point.

  2. Cath Keely says:

    These are all great points, I’m from Canada, but my family are from Greenock (just outside of Glasgow) and I have lived in Scotland for a little while too. My only other point to people not used to roundabouts is ….don’t panic if you didn’t take the right exit, Breath and just go around again until you come back to the one you want…..I don’t recommend this as the “norm” but it helped me when I first started driving over there. Safe driving! 🙂

  3. Chris says:

    I will be hiring a car in March when I come for my first time. It will be my first solo trip, my first time driving on the left. I’m waiting 5 days to drive so I can get used to street signs and desensitize myself to being on the left. Then, I’m going to take a guided trip from Glasgow into the Highlands the day before I hire my car so I will already know the first part of my route out of Glasgow toward Inverness.

    • Kathi says:

      That’s such a good strategy for anyone who has the time to get used to the left-hand side traffic slowly! Have a great trip in March 🙂

  4. Stephen Harrington says:

    Right-trained drivers, SLOW DOWN approaching roundabouts. Look for your desired road number (A894) and the Pipestem associated with it. Scotland is very helpful as the road numbers are actually painted on the road (most of the time).
    Forget about sorting out place names AND roadnumbers simultaneously! You can’t recognize the names (e.g., Aberthweytheth, Llylwhistfuffle, etc.) if you are not familiar with your location, route, or your eyes are tired and your frontseater keep yelling “edge right!” when you KNOW you have to be left.
    IF you come to a multi-pipe roundabout and you must take the 3rd or higher pipe, cut to the middle and then work your way out to your pipe. If you exit on 1 or 2 pipe, you can hug the left of the circle and exit.
    Finally, USE YOUR SIGNALS!!! Good luck!

    • Kathi says:

      Round abouts definitely take some getting used to!! Good point about the road numebrs – I also find it important to keep track of those. That’s also the kind of information your GPS (at least my Google Maps) gives me to direct me!

  5. Stuart McNair says:

    Great advice. We arrived in Glasgow from Canada and took a bus to Fort William instead of driving. The next day we took a hop-on-hop off open top bus and got to learn the street signs, driving habits, etc. in the area. Following day we got in our rental and drove to Skye. Worked well for us. Love your blog!
    Stuart

    • Kathi says:

      That’s an awesome way to ease yourself into it! It’s so important to drive with confidence and knowing the traffic rules!

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    • Kathi says:

      Taken on the beautiful island of Unst – the northernmost inhabited island of the UK (one of the Shetland Islands)! 🙂

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