Driving in Scotland

Written by Chris Thornton | 6th of September 2023
Driving in Scotland

As you will already know, Scotland is a beautiful country. But what is driving in Scotland like? What are the roads like? Are there nice routes with scenic drives? You better believe it! Scotland has some of the most stunning scenery anywhere in the world, and the road trips available are second to none. Driving in Scotland is one of the best ways to see all the sights at your own leisure.

Let's have a look at some of the rules around driving in Scotland, a few helpful tips, and some of the best routes you can take on your Scottish road trip... you will want to stop every 5 minutes to take photos!

What side of the road do I drive on in Scotland?

You must drive on the left side of the road, this is a common problem with tourists from Europe and the United States... my brother was once nearly forced off the road by a tourist driving on the wrong side!

Come up with your own mantra for remembering to drive on the left, put a ribbon on the steering wheel or make a fun game with the kids to always remind you each time you set off.

Road types in Scotland

Roads are divided into three types:

  • A-roads - The major network of main roads in Scotland that connect all major settlements. Sometimes called "principle" roads or "trunk roads".
  • B-roads - A lower class of road, less well maintained and links A-roads together.
  • Motorways - The high-speed links between major cities, normally 3 lanes of traffic going each way.
  • Unclassified roads - Comprised of minor roads, normally in rural areas or within cities.
  • Singletrack roads - Roads with only enough room for one car, but traffic can go in either direction via passing places. See below for more information.

All A & B-roads are given numbers to identify them, for example, the A9 from Edinburgh to Scrabster, or B9012 from Elgin to Hopeman. Motorways have a prefix of "M" and a number - the M8 from Glasgow to Edinburgh.

A-roads also come in different types:

  • Single-carriageway roads - there is a single lane for traffic passing in both directions.
  • Dual-carriageway roads - there are two lanes for traffic in both directions. The left lane is for routine driving and the right for overtaking only.

Motorways can come in different configurations too, with 3 lanes on each side, or 2 on one side and 3 on one side. The far left lane is for regular driving and the other lanes are for overtaking slower moving traffic. Cyclists and pedestrians are not allowed near motorways.

Single-carriageway roads

Dual-carriageway roads

Motorways

Here are some of the most common road signs in Scotland:

Common road signs in Scotland

How to drive on a roundabout in Scotland

Scotland has its fair share of roundabouts, most are straightforward and make sense, but many have their own localised rules, it can be a minefield, to be honest, knowing which is right for each one. Let the road signs and road markings dictate your actions if you feel it is not a standard roundabout.

Standard roundabouts:

  • Roundabouts always go clockwise.
  • Always give way to traffic already on the roundabout, and coming from the right.
  • The way out of a roundabout is called an exit, first exit, second exit and so on.
  • Keep left if you intend to leave on the first exit or are going straight ahead.
  • If your exit is on the right, use the right side/interior of the roundabout.
  • Arrows on the road leading to the roundabout will normally keep you right, ie keep left for Inverness or the right lane for Kessock Bridge.
  • Use your indicators to tell other drivers where you intend to exit the roundabout so they can enter it.
  • If you miss your exit there is nothing wrong with going around the entire roundabout and exiting the way you originally intended.

How roundabouts work in Scotland | Hire car advice

Speed limits

There is a national speed limit on each type of road in Scotland. 60 mph is the norm on most main roads but goes up to 70 mph on dual carriageways and motorways (multi-laned roads). All other main roads tend to be a maximum speed limit of 60 mph unless explicitly stated by road signs.

Most towns will have a speed limit of 20-30 mph while driving the inner streets (restricted roads), this may not be openly shown with road signs, but you are expected to know to drive only 20-30 mph in built-up areas. Some less developed areas could be 40 mph, but if in doubt stick to 20 mph.

Some areas such as schools can be as slow as 10-20 mph for obvious reasons.

National speed limits:

  • Single track roads - 60 mph, but drive slower and more cautiously, common sense dictates slow speed here.
  • Single-carriageways: 60 mph.
  • Motorways and dual carriageways: 70 mph.
  • Towns/Cities/built-up areas: 20-30 mph.
  • Schools: 10-20 mph.

Some areas have minimum speed limits signed with white text on blue, but they are quite rare.

Speeding penalties

It all depends on how badly the speed limit has been broken. For minor offences a Fixed Penalty Notice (FPN) can be issued - usually a fine of £100.

Many stretches of motorway and A-roads can have average speed cameras, these will take your speed at two sections of the road and work out your average speed. This is mainly an incentive to keep drivings at the correct speed for the road.

Serious speeding may lead to prosecution, if convicted you could face a fine between £1000-2500 and have to attend a Scottish court. Your license would also accumulate points, even if you are not from the UK... a record will be kept of your transgressions in the UK.

A motorway in Scotland from the air.  Scotland driving.

Overtaking / Passing

Overtaking other drivers is allowed, but only where safe to do so... usually long straights with no blind corners. You must still adhere to the speed limits of the road, even when overtaking. If you think about it if all the cars on the road travel at 60 mph, there should be no need to overtake anyone, so breaking a speed limit for overtaking is not allowed.

Overtaking is normally only used to overtake slow-moving vehicles such as farm machinery, lorries, caravans etc. Cyclists must also be given the same space as a car when overtaking.

If you yourself do not feel confident driving at the speed limit in Scotland, please think of drivers behind you and pull into a layby regularly to allow traffic to pass. Slow drivers can cause frustration and can make other drivers overtake in unsafe places.

Please check the highway code for more information and driving laws in Scotland.

Other driving rules of note

It's illegal to:

  • Use a mobile/cell phone while driving. Hands-free only for calls.
  • Drive without insurance.
  • Leave the scene of an accident.
  • To drive dangerously/carelessly.
  • Not stop at traffic lights.
  • Have children in the car under 135 cm tall and under 12 years old without an appropriate child seat for their weight.
  • Not wear seat belts.
  • Wear headphones.

Driving in Scotland's cities

These are the busiest places to drive in Scotland, and the most confusing with one-way streets, roundabouts that can have different rules and multi-lane motorways with very fast-moving traffic.

Many of the cities also have bus lanes which are strict no go areas for cars... cash strapped councils will capture you on video and issue fines... avoid them like the plague.

City roads are busiest (rush hour) between 7:30 am – 9:30 am, and in the evening between 4:00 pm and 6:30 pm. I would try to avoid driving in the inner cities, too much stress.

A Scottish road in Edinburgh in the city centre

Single track roads / Single lane roads

Many of the more rural/off the beaten track areas of Scotland can have single track roads (one lane). This means that traffic can go both ways down a road that only has space for one car at a time. This can be challenging, but most single track roads have passing places built into them at various points, this way a vehicle can stop at one and let the oncoming traffic pass before continuing on their own journey.

Normally the car nearest the passing place will stop first, it is good manners to always be the first to stop. Stopping, then a quick flash of your lights signal to the other drivers that you are stopping to let them pass. Flashing lights is more of a common courtesy than an official rule. It's also customary to give a little wave of acknowledgement from both drivers as you pass. You may be seen as rude or unthankful if you do not wave. The "wave" isn't observed by everyone, but just do it anyway, it's polite!

If both drivers pass the passing places, then you just have to look at each other like some Mexican standoff and see who will reverse first! Normally the person nearest the passing place should reverse.

Try not to tailgate the car in front of you, this makes passing places very difficult to use if there is more than one car trying to let traffic from the opposite direction pass... and definitely do not park in a passing place!

Don't be put off by heading down a single track road, some of the most beautiful places in Scotland are hidden down these narrow roads, reconnoitre your route on Google maps first so you know what to expect.

Rural roads are often near farming areas too, so be aware of farm animals - stray sheep, highland cows and potentially deer on the road. Walkers can also use single track roads, so keep slow and aware. If you are worried about a particularly blind corner, you can sound your horn to make other drivers aware.

How passing places work diagram, they are not parking spaces

An example of a passing place on Scotland roads, new driving habits

Should I hire a rental car in Scotland?

Half of the visitors to Scotland decide to hire a rental car and yes it is the best most flexible way to see Scotland. Public transport is generally good, but being able to plan your own route and activities is invaluable.

Pros of driving in Scotland:

  • You don't have to wait for public transport.
  • You can carry your luggage with you more easily in a car.
  • You can visit some of Scotland's hidden gems where public transport won't go.
  • No toll roads or toll bridges in Scotland.
  • Free or cheap parking unless in the inner major cities.
  • The Isle of Skye is accessible by road via its road bridge.
  • Scotland is a comparatively small country, so most areas can be reached without long drives.

A95 from the air

Cons of driving in Scotland:

  • You will likely need to be 21 or over to rent a car and there may be extra charges if you are under 25.
  • You will need to have at least 1 year on your home country license.
  • The cost of fuel is much more expensive than in the USA.
  • Car hire for the week might be expensive depending on requirements (£120-350+/week).
  • Scotland's roads are much narrower than USA roads.
  • Roads can have blind summits and sharp bends.
  • Weather can be bad in the winter months with snow and high winds.

A wintery road near Loch Morlich

A snowy roundabout in Buckie | parking space | Oncoming vehicle

The main options for Car rentals:

  • Alamo Rent A Car rentals
  • Arnold Clark Car & Van Rental
  • Enterprise Rent-A-Car

But there are many more if you shop around and deals to be had at airports.

Helpful tips for car rentals:

  • Book well in advance if you want a car with automatic transmission.
  • Why not hire from the airport when you arrive, most airports are out of town and will give you time to get used to your rental car on less busy roads.
  • Choose a mid-sized car, roads are narrower in Scotland, and will be easier to drive and pass other vehicles.
  • You shouldn't need 4 wheel drive.
  • Take photos inside and outside of the car when you collect it, that way you can prove any damage was already there if it gets flagged up upon its return. Take more pictures after you drop the car off again.
  • If you plan to explore Edinburgh or Glasgow first, why not hold off from renting a car and just walk or use public transport.
  • Rental cars may not be allowed to use ferries to the Scottish islands. Check with your rental company.

In the event of a car accident in Scotland

  • Call 999 for emergency services, this can be police, fire, ambulance and coast guard.
  • For less serious incidents, you can call 101 to get in touch with the local police.
  • Do not leave the scene of an accident, wait for the police.

Petrol stations

Scotland has a good network of fuel stations (gas stations are called petrol stations here) which provide unleaded petrol and diesel. Most large supermarkets now have a gas station attached to them and often have the best prices on fuel and sometimes offer 24-hour service - you can pay at the pump with a credit or debit card. Fuel will be less expensive in the towns and cities than in the more rural areas, you will make a big saving by filling up before you head out to more remote areas.

At the time of writing petrol is 145.6p / litre and diesel is 149.3p / litre. Eye-watering really for a country that produces its own oil from the North Sea. Check here for a list of petrol stations on the NC500.

EV charging stations in Scotland

The infrastructure for charging points is still in its infancy really, but they are starting to pop up around the country. Definitely do your research on where to charge your electric vehicle before you go on long journeys.

What is the drink-drive limit in Scotland?

Legally in Scotland, you must not drive with a blood alcohol level higher than 22 microgrammes / 100 millilitres of breath or 50 milligrammes / 100 millilitres of blood. This alcohol limit is lower than in both the United States and in neighbouring England. Have a designated driver who is not drinking, or hire a taxi. There is no uber outside Edinburgh and Glasgow. Something to bear in mind if you are on a Whisky tasting tour.

Although you can drink alcohol before you drive, it is frowned upon - most people in Scotland will not drink at all if they have to drive that day and will not drive if they have already had a drink. Being over the legal limit is a serious offence in Scotland and can lead to a £5000 fine and or jail time. Police can test you with portable breathalyzer kits, if you refuse you can be arrested.

The road near Lochindorb

At what age can you start driving lessons in Scotland?

Provisional license

For locals, provisional driving licenses can be applied for at 15 years old and 9 months, provided the applicant has lived in the UK for 185 days in the last 12 months. Once the provisional license has been obtained the learner is then allowed on the roads, be it with a driving instructor, or a parent/relative as long as they display "L Plates" on the vehicle.

Once someone has passed their main driving test they are allowed to drive alone from age 17. The same rules apply to tourists - 17-year-olds may drive - but it's possible car rental businesses will not rent you a car if you are younger than 21.

Can I drive without a UK driver's license?

In the majority of cases - yes, you can use your license obtained in your home country. You can check with this handy tool to see if you are covered with your license. You can obtain an international driver's license, but it is unneeded in Scotland and the UK.

Loch a' Chroisg, country roads
Loch a' Chroisg

What are the roads like in Scotland?

A mixed bag, really; I'm not going to tell you our roads are the best in the world but they are moderate to good. Potholes are the bane of local councils, and it can take some time for them to be repaired. Most of the main routes around Scotland will be good, but lesser travelled roads may not be maintained to the same high standard.

Can I drive to Scotland?

Sure! If you are coming from Europe you can either catch a ferry or go through the Eurotunnel to reach the UK mainland. There is no hard border between England and Scotland, no stop checks, customs, immigration etc you will see a nice big blue sign welcoming you to Scotland though!

By Road - Eurotunnel

Driving is a great option, the Eurotunnel allows you to drive to the UK without boarding a ferry. The Eurotunnel is not a road you can drive down, you will instead drive onto a shuttle train that will take you through the tunnel over its 31 miles into England.

Costs will be between £35 and £130 one way, savings can be made by booking in advance.

Eurotunnel shuttle

By Ferry

There is currently no direct ferry from Europe to Scotland. Once upon a time, Rosyth in Scotland to Zeebrugge in the Netherlands was possible, but in 2010 this route was made freight only.

Europe to England ferry trips that are available:

  • Dover to Calais (Approx £65 one way)
  • Dover to Dunkirk (Approx £68 one way)

I have travelled the Hull to Zeebrugge in 2007, aboard the "Pride of Bruges" ferry. It was a great wee adventure and the ferry trip really adds to the journey... it did get a little choppy at times though... going to the onboard cinema wasn't the best idea! Unfortunately, this route was discontinued in 2021 and now Scots would have to go to Dover for a ferry! That would be a 650-mile journey for me, not great.

A future Scotland - Europe link

It's speculated that if Scotland became independent from the UK, a new port would receive passengers to and from Europe directly. Jan Jambon, (minister-president of Flanders) said that Belgium should "prepare for the possibility of Scotland gaining independence" and make their own ports ready for it.

Ferry to UK

View from the overnight crossing

Required car documents

If you decide to take your own car to the UK, you will need to bring a few things with you:

  • If you are staying over 6 months within a 12 month period you will need to alter your registration plate.
  • Every driver in Scotland must have a minimum of third party insurance.
  • Proof of ownership and vehicle registration documents.

The best drives in Scotland, Road trip!

Here are just a few of the most popular routes for driving in Scotland for a road trip:

Queensferry road bridge, Scottish roads

North Coast 500

By far the most popular and advertised route in Scotland taking in 500 miles of the northern parts of the Scottish Highlands. In recent years the NC500 has had a major tourism drive which has been incredibly successful. This is a double-edged sword as it has given a major economic boost to the area, but the infrastructure struggles to support the number of people travelling the road in the spring and summer months, particularly with motorhomes.

The North Coast 500 is spectacular though with so many places to see, and the landscape is beyond amazing. This route is often marketed as the Scotlands Route 66. Driving the NC500 would be a fantastic experience.

See my article on Dunrobin Castle for one of the best castles on the NC500.

North East 250

Due to the popularity of the NC500, the NE250 route in northeast Scotland is hoping to emulate its success. The northeast has so much to offer and is one of the quieter places in Scotland. The northeast has the highest concentrations of Whisky distilleries in Scotland, and many castles, ancient monuments, fine beaches and coastal communities.

The NE250 will not be as busy as the NC500, so if you fancy a less busy route but still packed with great attractions, look no further than the NC250.

Glasgow/Edinburgh to Glencoe

No driving holiday in Scotland would be complete without a trip to Glen Coe one of the finest driving routes in the west. To get to the Glencoe Visitor Centre, it is about a 92-mile drive from Glasgow and 119 miles from Edinburgh. The drive is about 2 hours 30 mins to 3 hours one way and takes in great sights along the way such as Loch Lomand and the Trossachs National Park.

One of the scenic roads in Skye - visit Scotland!

Conclusion - driving in Scotland

I hope this guide on driving in Scotland has been of some value to you and will help you on your visit to Scotland. The thought of driving in a foreign country is bound to cause anxiety in many people, but we Scots are a forgiving bunch, be brave, hire that car (keep to the left hand side) and explore Scotland on your own terms.

Related articles:

All information was correct at the time of writing, please check things like entry costs and opening times before you arrive.

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Comments:


ChrisLBS
21st of October 2022 @ 08:25:58

Hi Christine, that's great you're coming to Scotland! York to Fort William would be a very long drive - a minimum of 6 hours - but it's possible. You will have fewer daylight hours in September, but it's not as bad as late October/November. 10 am - 5 pm you should be totally fine.

Christine Hart
21st of October 2022 @ 00:43:32

Thank you for a very informative page. My sister and I are coming to Scotland in September 2023 and are going to hire a car . Not sure where from yet, possibly York and drive up via Hadrians Wall to Fort William. Is this doable in a day? I have been told that it is getting dark quite early in September. Also it appears that the earliest we can pick a car up is after 1000 which reduces the days driving time. Thank you Christine