Skip to Content

A Guide To Driving In Scotland For The First Time

tips for driving in scotland for the first time

Driving in Scotland for the first time can be daunting if you’re used to driving in Europe, Canada or the USA – or anywhere else really! The Haggis breaks down some of his best tips for driving in Scotland, including where to hire a car, the road signs you’ll come across, and where to avoid driving in Scotland.

Driving is like sex.

You’ve been doing it since you were about seventeen, you’re experienced and confident in your abilities, but the thought of doing it in new and unusual places fills you with trepidation.

Scotland is full of interesting things to do and no matter how well you have your must-sees nailed down there will be a lot of things you will want to see on a whim.

This isn’t generally possible when you are using public transport or on a tour bus. Cute honesty box at the side of the road? Pull over and take a nosey. Highland coo in a field next to a layby? Stop the damn car!

There are also many beautiful drives in Scotland you can include in your itinerary, including the North Coast 500 route which has been called ”Scotland’s answer to Route 66”. Yvette somehow managed to get around it in the worst car I’ve ever seen in a few years.

This is Yvette’s old car…I made her sell it

Tips For Hiring A Car in Scotland

The main reason that many decide to rent a car is best summed up in the words of a belligerent Australian alcoholic – FREEDOM!

Here are some tips for hiring a car in Scotland:

  • One useful website is Auto Europe, a car rental comparison site (a bit like Skyscanner). They list all the major car hire companies in Great Britain and will let you know the most affordable option to book based on your requirements. Yvette used them to book her car rental for Ireland and got a great deal.
  • Celtic Legend and Arnold Clark Car Hire are two other good car hire companies, and they are local to Scotland.
  • Be aware that the minimum age to hire a car in the UK is 21 but the vast majority won’t hire to anyone aged 25 or under!
  • I recommend getting the most comprehensive car insurance possible. Try to get a zero or nil excess (which means if you have an accident you won’t have to pay a thing) and always read the fine print to see what you are and aren’t covered for.
  • When you pick up your car hire you will need a credit card under one of the driver’s names.

Tips For Driving in Scotland For The First Time

I’ve just realised I’ve been driving for over 18 years. This is depressing.

Fortunately, this does mean I have racked up a few miles and can offer a few tips. I can 100% confirm that I have never killed any humans on the road. Or off the road for that matter… but I did once wipe out a grouse at high speed.

Watch out for them. They are like feathered lemmings.

Here are some of my best tips for driving in Scotland for the first time.

1. Understand The Rules In Advance

I’ve driven in a few places in my time. I drove a pickup truck from Edinburgh to Bruges in Belgium, traversed a minibus full of twenty-somethings across the entirety of Estonia (which in fairness is about 4.5 hours west to east) and racked up a few miles in Nevada and Florida in a top-down mustang because I’m one of those horrible tourists.

All these places were very different in terms of roads and volumes of traffic.

  • To start off – in Scotland, we drive on the left. That’s important. Write that down.
  • We also operate in miles and yards for driving.
  • In Canada and some US states you can turn right on a red light, but we don’t have the equivalent here. If a light is red (or amber) that means stop!
  • The roads in Scotland vary significantly depending on where you are. If you are going to be driving on motorways the speed limit is 70mph. Most ‘A’ roads which are usually single carriageways tend to be 60mph and if you are driving in built-up areas with streetlights these tend to be 30mph.
  • The following signs are most common but make sure to have a good look at the highway code:

Signs with red outlines or solid red signs indicate a limit or an action. For example, this sign is stating that the maximum speed limit is 30mph.

Circular signs in blue tend to indicate positive instructions. This one is stating proceed right.

Blue rectangular road signs have white borders, and play two distinct roles, depending on where you find them. On motorways, blue signs give directions. On all other roads, blue rectangular signs provide other information. This is often about the nature of the road or else tells drivers something useful, for example, who has priority, or where you may park.

Brown signs are tourist information signs and will come in very handy!

The mystery sign aka the “National Speed Limit” sign. I’m convinced that roughly 50% of drivers in the UK have no idea what this means. When you see this sign, it is indicating you can drive at the maximum speed limit for that road. The national speed limit for cars is 70mph on motorways and dual carriageways with a central barrier, 60mph on single carriageways and 30mph in built-up areas.

2. It’s A Driving Limit, Not A Target

Generally if you’re sitting on a motorway or dual carriageway you can whack the cruise control on and enjoy trying to decipher some Scottish radio stations.

Fun fact – if you travel to the Scottish Islands a lot of them have their own radio stations and they are unintentionally hilarious.

The further north you go the more B-Roads (minor roads) and single track roads you will come across. No matter what the speed limit is, drive at a speed you know you can safely stop at if you spot a hazard.

Get familiar with ‘limit points’ for driving at a safe speed. The limit point is the farthest point along a road to which you have a clear and uninterrupted view of the road surface. Basically, make sure you look ahead for any obstacles and slow down if you cannot see much of the road in front of you.

3. Passing Places And Single Track Roads

passing place in scotland single track road
This is what the sign for a Passing Place looks like

You will likely come across some single-track roads at some point. These will require a bit of tactical know-how. Take them as slow as you need to.

There will normally be signs pointing out ‘Passing Places‘ you can use when you encounter another car on the road. A passing place is a gap on the side of the road big enough for a car to pull into to let another car pass.

Here’s a quick guide to using passing places:

  • If the passing place is on your left side, you need to pull into it to let the other vehicle pass
  • If necessary, pull into one to let faster vehicles pass you
  • If you meet oncoming larger vehicles it is best to let them past first
  • If you meet multiple oncoming vehicles, let them all past
  • Look as far ahead as the road allows so you can plan your next move
  • On hills let the vehicle give way to the vehicle travelling uphill
  • Don’t park in a passing place (not even for photos!)
  • Be nice – if someone lets you past, give them an Islay wave (more on this shortly)

Occasionally you will meet another vehicle with no passing place nearby. I normally try and edge on to the grass verge as much as possible and the other driver should do the same on their side. It might be a midges baw hair (an official Scottish measurement of distance) between the two cars but going real slow means you’ll be fine.

Remember to adjust your speed and distance from other cars based on weather conditions as well. In winter the roads can get icy and in summer they can get greasy if it rains after a long dry spell.

Braking distances are also increased fourfold in wet weather!

4. Driving Etiquette

A typical two-lane road in a village

Generally, most drivers in Scotland are patient and understanding.

Having driven in the USA a few times, I feel safer driving down our windy narrow roads in the pitch black darkness of winter rather than driving down a US highway in broad daylight.

If you make a mistake on a US highway, then boy are you going to know about it.

If you make a mistake in Scotland all you need to do is give a polite wave and mouth ‘sorry’ and generally all is forgiven.

If you drive like a bawbag, you are likely to hear about it and learn some exciting new swear words. Give other vehicles plenty of room, drive at a safe speed and if there is a line of traffic behind you, pull over where it’s safe and let the traffic pass.

There is something in Scotland called the ‘Islay wave‘, which is apparently famous worldwide. You may notice other drivers wave to you or lift a finger in acknowledgement. This is just our way of being friendly- and saying thank you if you let us pass.

It’s polite to give an Islay Wave if someone stops at a passing place to let you go first, or if a driver lets you pass. Make sure you join in on the fun while you’re in Scotland!

5. The Cost Of Fuel In Scotland

Scotland gets taxed to death for fuel. The cheapest petrol stations tend to be owned by supermarkets such as ASDA, Morrisons and Sainsburys.

The price tends to be higher at motorway services, so it can be worthwhile fueling up in a city or town to keep costs down.

As I write this in August 2022, the cost of petrol is sitting at around £1.87 per litre. That converts to roughly…

  • $2.29 USD per litre
  • $2.85 CAD per litre
  • $3.17 AUD per litre
  • $3.56 NZD per litre
Watch out for Highland traffic jams

6. Charging Electric Vehicles In Scotland

Electric vehicles are becoming more and more popular in Scotland. You can hire electric or hybrid vehicles in Scotland, but the more rural you go the more difficult it is to find charging points and hydrogen pumps.

To find electric vehicle charging stations, ChargePlace is a great website.

7. Scotland Has A Lot Of Roundabouts

I’ve been told we have a lot of roundabouts in Scotland.

Roundabouts can be confusing, but they do keep traffic moving. In Scotland, we have single-lane roundabouts all the way up to four-lane roundabouts. Generally, the rule for larger roundabouts is:

  • If you want to go left or straight on, you will enter via the left lane
  • If you want to turn right, you need to be in the right lane when you enter the roundabout

This isn’t always the case so be vigilant for signs when you are approaching. A good quality GPS can also give you an indication of what lane you need to be in.

Anyone approaching the roundabout from your right-hand side or is already driving around the roundabout has right of way, so don’t pull out in front of them.

If you get confused don’t panic, just follow the car in front of you off the roundabout and find a safe place to turn around and try again.

This is much safer than trying to cut across multiple lanes to make your exit. You’re on vacation, what’s the rush?

A good tip to master roundabouts is to go on YouTube and watch some driving videos in Scotland.

Read more: Tips For Travelling Scotland In A Motorhome

8. Scottish Cities Hate Cars

My advice would be don’t drive in Scottish cities. They’ve been around for thousands of years and weren’t designed for it.

Scottish cities, not cars…unless you count Fred Flintstones.

Roads are often busy, progress is slow, speed limits are as low as 20mph, and parking is difficult to find as well as extortionately priced.

If you will be staying in a city when you have your car, try and find accommodation that has parking included – it might not be free, but it will be a heck of a lot cheaper. Keep your car parked there until you leave the city, and use public transport while exploring the city.

All our cities have excellent bus transport and Edinburgh and Glasgow have trains as well. Glasgow also has a subway- I’ve only ever used it when I’ve been on a sub-crawl. Yes, we Scots can turn travelling on public transport into a drinking game.

Don’t bother trying to drive in Edinburgh- it’s a nightmare

9. Apps Useful For Driving In Scotland

There are lots of good apps available that you may be using already. For navigation, I use Google Maps and Waze.

Waze is great because it is updated by other motorists in real-time. For example, if there is an accident on a road you were planning on using it will automatically redirect you to the next quickest route. It also shows mobile speed traps, but you will be driving the speed limit anyway, so don’t worry about that.

Petrol Prices is another good one which will show you the cheapest nearby petrol station or you can set a larger radius to plan your fuel stops in advance.

The famous Kylesku Bridge on the NC500

10. Jet Lag and Driving Times in Scotland

Jet lag is a killer. Make sure you are well rested before you pick up your hire car. The major airports include Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness. Spend a few days in one of these cities before you pick up your hire car.

Yvette has written some great guides about each of these cities:

If you can, share the driving with your fellow travellers, and take plenty of rest stops. I don’t recommend driving for longer than 3 hours in one day.

Whilst the distances in Scotland may not be massive – the narrower, winding roads and increased levels of concentration will tire you out quicker.

For some reason, many international travellers think it’s a good idea to drive from Edinburgh to the Isle of Skye in one day.

Don’t do it. You’ll spend the entire day in the car and you’ll miss a lot of the attractions along the way. Plus you’ll be knackered.

11. The Alcohol Limit In Scotland

If you like a dram be aware that Scotland takes drink driving very seriously. Fines and penalties are considerably hefty. Many people have been caught out the morning after drinking the night before.

The current limit is:

  • 22 microgrammes (mcg) of alcohol in 100 ml of breath
  • 50 milligrammes (mg) of alcohol in 100ml of blood
  • 67 milligrammes (mg) in 100 ml of urine

This is effectively half compared to many US states. My advice is simple: if you are going to be driving don’t drink.

Driving in the Scottish Highlands

More Tips For Driving In Scotland

There are many benefits to driving in Scotland. If you think it would be useful and enhance your trip I would say, go for it. Just do some research, plan, and take it slow and steady. You’ll be a pro within a day or two.

Also, remember there are alternatives too. Public transport is generally very good and there are always tour companies with lots of different destinations on offer. Why not hire a car for a while and then do some day trips with a registered tour company if you are staying in a city?

Yvette recently used Rabbies to travel to Mull and Iona and had a great time, even as a five-month pregnant lady who bribed the driver for additional toilet stops.

If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment on this post and I’ll get back to you. At some point. Probably.

Happy motoring!

Glenda

Friday 2nd of September 2022

Some useful advice here. Hope to get back to Scotland again but depends on daughter coming from Australia. We survived recently but some advice on hire cats might have been useful. Thank you

Yvette Webster

Monday 5th of September 2022

Hi Glenda, you may have missed the section on car hire- Craig definitely talks about it in this article

Rhonda Mathis

Tuesday 30th of August 2022

Great advice! I live in a very rural community in the mountains of Northern Arizona and we do our version of the “Islay Wave” - typically one finger raised off the steering wheel! Just need to make sure you raise the right finger!

Ifneela Meraj

Tuesday 30th of August 2022

Thank you for this. Very helpful. I have a question. I’m planning to rent a car from Edinburgh where I arrive by train from London. Pick up from Waverley seems most convenient since I’m staying close by only for a night & drive out to Foyers the next day. Do you think picking up the vehicle from the airport is better since it’s going to be my first day of driving and driving out of the airport towards Foyers will be easier than Edinburg downtown?

Carol

Tuesday 30th of August 2022

Super article, great job! I have a photo of two double decker buses passing each other on a single lane road on the Isle of Mull! What fun (I was not the driver, by the way). 😮 We were so glad to have rented (several months ahead) a minivan for a family of six -we had such great adventures and frequently stopped along our routes to see things we hadn’t planned on. We ended our trip in Edinburgh we’re we used taxis, trains and buses, all convenient.

Tera

Monday 29th of August 2022

This was great! Appreciate your real perspective, and your humor, for driving tips in Scotland. I am from the U.S. and looking forward to my trip the end of THIS WEEK! Thank you Haggis, Yvette and Angus (glad you're feeling better buddy)