Help: Driving in Scotland

A 2-year survey published in 2019 found that close to two-thirds of visitors to Scotland drive a car for at least part of their trip. If you're thinking of doing the same, this help page is for you - particularly if you live outside the UK. For help on travelling by public transport, please see our Public transport in Scotland page.

[The scenic Cairnwell Pass in the Cairngorms]

Scotland's roads

The well populated parts of Scotland have a decent, well-maintained road network in common with other European countries. High-speed motorways (with the "M" prefix) and dual carriageways link 6 of the country's 7 cities - Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Dundee, Perth and Stirling (with a major upgrade project currently bringing the main route north to Inverness up to scratch) - as well as fast roads extending south to the English border.

Head to more rural regions, including most of the Highlands, and you'll be spending most of your time on single carriageway A-roads (the next best bet) or even B-roads. Finally, unclassified roads (without letters or numbers) fill in the gaps. In rural regions, many roads are single track, i.e. they are too narrow for two cars travelling in opposite directions to pass each other except at passing places. See the video in the next section for details on how to handle these. Pretty much all public roads are surfaced with the odd minor exception to access remote car parks.

Rules of the road

We're not going to list a load of rules and regulations here, but we'd advise drivers from outside the UK to browse The Highway Code carefully - and remember to drive on the left. Those from elsewhere in the UK should be aware that the drink drive limit is significantly lower in Scotland. VisitScotland have produced this useful video with tips for driving in Scotland for the first time:

Take your time

First, some good news - traffic jams in Scotland are (with a few exceptions) rare away from the biggest cities. Despite this, it can take longer than you might expect to get from place to place. Speed limits often aren't safely achievable - especially on minor roads - with hazards including sharp bends, narrow road widths or even roaming livestock. Another common frustration is getting stuck behind a slower vehicle on winding roads with few safe places to overtake.

Weather conditions can also create complications for drivers, especially in the winter months - though extended periods of disruption are rare. Snowfall typically affects higher road passes (including the busy Pass of Drumochter on the A9 north towards the Highlands and Inverness) several times each year, and lower routes on rare occasions. Winter tyres and snow chains are not usually available with car rentals (nor are they widely used by residents). High winds and heavy rainfall are possible in any season, though especially common during autumn and winter. With all this in mind, it makes sense to keep an eye on the weather forecast throughout your trip.

Journey time estimates by Google Maps generally provide a best case scenario. We recommend adding extra time, especially if you have a deadline to meet, aren't used to driving in the UK, or are using any minor roads. When checking travel times, remember to edit the departure time to accurately reflect the day of the week and time of day you'll be travelling.

[The Lecht Pass near Tomintoul is one of the roads most often affected by winter snowfall]

Is driving for me?

Hiring a car (or bringing your own) may be a good option, especially if you're planning on visiting many of the more "off the beaten track" destinations featured on SOBT. Scotland is a country with a sparse population and lots of open space. You don't have to worry about timetables or tickets, and pretty much all parts of mainland Scotland are directly accessible to you.

Moving onto costs, there are no road tolls in Scotland. Petrol prices are roughly equivalent to other western European countries - but may come as an unpleasant surprise for visitors from the US, where prices are roughly half as much. Free or inexpensive parking is available in most locations, though it can be costly in the middle of the largest settlements. In Edinburgh and Glasgow it may be easier to leave the car on the outskirts and travel into the centre by public transport.

Renters will also need to factor in the rental fee, which is typically in the order of a few hundred pounds for a medium-sized vehicle and a week's rental. If you can fit your luggage in, smaller cars tend to be less costly and more practical for Scotland's narrow rural roads.

It should go without saying that ferries or flights are required to visit all of the country's islands, with the exception of Skye (which has a road bridge). Almost all ferry routes accept vehicles; most are also relatively inexpensive, with the longer crossings to Orkney and especially Shetland the main exceptions. There are also a handful of very remote settlements on the mainland which have no road access - the most famous of which is Inverie in Knoydart - but these aren't likely to feature in most visitors' itineraries.

Before deciding on using a car, exploring Scotland using public transport is worth consideration. An extensive network of train, bus and ferry routes linking almost all towns and major tourist attractions makes this a viable, greener alternative to driving. For more information, check out our Public Transport in Scotland page.

[Kylesku Bridge in the Northwest Highlands]


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