Help: Public transport in Scotland

This page gives a general overview of public transport options within Scotland. If you're planning to hire a car (or bring your own), please see our Driving in Scotland page. For help on travelling to Scotland, please see our Travelling to Scotland page.

[Edinburgh Waverley railway station]

Overview

Despite the odd grumble by locals, Scotland boasts an excellent public transport system, providing a greener alternative to travelling by private vehicle. A comprehensive network of train and bus routes connect all mainland towns and cities as well as many smaller villages, and by using a combination of these you can generally get wherever you want to go. Ferry and air services connect the islands dotted around the north and west coasts, though Skye is also served by buses via its road bridge. Many routes are scenic and a few - such as parts of the West Highland Line - offer vistas you can't get from the roadside. Town and city centres are generally compact enough to explore on foot.

Of course, getting around Scotland by public transport does involve a degree of planning. In particular, researching timetables is essential, and booking some tickets in advance may help secure reduced fares. Google Maps is good for checking how to get between two points by public transport, though you should also check timetables directly with the transport company.

Stops, connections and delays will generally - though not always - mean increased journey times compared to driving. More remote tourist attractions are less likely to be well served by public transport, especially in rural areas. At least two of Scotland's star players, its distilleries and its ruined castles, tend to be situated away from major population centres, often making visits tricky without a car. If public transport comes up short and you don't fancy getting behind the wheel, tour companies or private drivers are excellent alternatives.

Below is a summary of each of the modes of public transport available in Scotland. Expect to use more than one of these during your trip.

[Bridge of Orchy railway station couldn't be better placed for the hike to Beinn Dorain, visible in the background!]

Train

Scotland's railways, operated by ScotRail, are the most efficient mass transit option for getting around. Cities and larger towns are generally well served, but smaller settlements and remote regions less so. Longer distance train journeys are often roughly comparable in time to driving, and very good value if booked well in advance. Local journeys have fixed prices; Glasgow has a comprehensive suburban rail network, handy for exploring the immediate area. Find times, prices and book tickets through National Rail Enquiries, which covers all of the United Kingdom. The map below shows Scotland's rail network, though with some local routes around Edinburgh and Glasgow omitted.

[Scotland rail map]

Tram

Edinburgh has a tram line linking the city centre with the airport, with several intermediate stops. An extension north to Leith and Newhaven is currently under construction. Fares are similar to those of local buses (and tickets for a day or more in duration are valid across both networks).

[Edinburgh tram map - including the future extension from St Andrew Square to Newhaven]

[Boarding a tram at Ingliston]

Subway

Glasgow has a circular subway, mainly serving the city centre and West End. The route is short - a complete circuit takes under 30 minutes - with the very simple map below showing the stations served.

[Glasgow Subway map]

Bus

Citylink provides most of Scotland's long-distance bus network. Their coaches are comfortable, generally punctual and increasingly with WiFi. Cheaper than rail travel, they also cover large areas not served by train, including the Isle of Skye and large swathes of the Highlands. If you're planning to use them a lot, a Citylink Explorer Pass might save you money. Other providers fill in some of the gaps, including smaller settlements, as well as covering regular services within the cities. Services can be infrequent (a few times each day or worse) for small villages or isolated regions. Traveline Scotland is the exhaustive (and exhausting) go-to website for working out bus times and routes (it covers other public transport too). For long-distance bus travel, it's usually best to book directly with Citylink. Local buses within and around Edinburgh are operated by Lothian Buses; in Glasgow, it's primarily First Bus.

Ferry

If you intend to visit many of Scotland's scores of inhabited islands, you'll need to get familiar with the ferry network. Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac) operates most of the west coast routes, but there are a handful of other operators. NorthLink Ferries and Pentland Ferries sail from the mainland to the Orkney and Shetland Isles of the north coast of Scotland, with inter-island ferries run by Orkney Ferries and Shetland Islands Council respectively once you're there. Most ferry routes carry cars as well as foot passengers, and many vehicle fares have been decreased in recent years thanks to subsidies, particularly in the west. Crossing times vary from under half an hour (several routes in western Scotland) to overnight crossings (to reach the Shetland Isles). Sailings are prone to disruption in poor weather conditions, especially in winter.

The two maps below show the main ferry routes off the west and north coasts of Scotland respectively.

[Main ferry routes in western Scotland]

[NorthLink ferry routes to Orkney and Shetland - other operators are also available!]

Guided tour

Too much to see and too little time? Guided tours by coach or minibus offer a low-stress way to tick off Scotland's most popular attractions. Edinburgh and Glasgow in particular are well served by a myriad of tour companies providing everything from the ever-popular day trips to Loch Ness and the Highlands to multi-day tours of Skye and everything in between. Many operators provide a running commentary.

There are broadly two types of trips available: private tours, and those shared with fellow passengers. Private tours give the ultimate degree of flexibility, in exchange for a higher fee. Meanwhile, shared tours can be surprisingly inexpensive (especially when you factor in savings on car hire, petrol and public transport costs) but itineraries tend to be inflexible, packing in the most popular sights along with plenty of photo stops. We had an excellent, shared day tour with Rabbie's Tours in May 2017 - see here for the review.

[Rabbie's minibus on their "Oban, Glencoe, Highland Lochs & Castles" day tour]

Air

Flying around Scotland generally makes little sense owing to the fairly short distances and high prices (not to mention the environmental cost). There are a few potential exceptions, particularly if visiting the islands. In particular, flying is a good option for reaching the far-flung Shetland Islands (by flying to Sumburgh from Edinburgh, Glasgow, Aberdeen or Inverness) - the alternative is an overnight ferry crossing. Flying to the tiny Outer Hebridean island of Barra has the unique selling point of a sandy beach for a runway. We recommend using Skyscanner to find fares and flight times. The interactive map below has details of each airport's websites and destinations.


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