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.
Important Traffic Rules in Scotland
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.
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
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!
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.
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.
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.
How to Plan an Enjoyable Self-Drive Route
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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 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.
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