How to Prepare for a Road Trip in Scotland
Driving in Scotland and the UK can be challenging, but it is probably the most effective way to experience Scotland. Public transport doesn’t give you the same freedom to travel through the valleys of Highlands or the flexibility to stop at the many ancient sites, heritage-listed properties and visitor attractions.
Driving in Scotland
In September 2018, we drove 1,311 miles over 7 days on our Scottish road trip. We covered the majority of Scotland’s North Coast 5oo (NC500) official route. You can read our article series here. It includes maps, itinerary, costs, accommodation and other useful information. We took lots of photos.
We love to drive. We live in Glasgow so we’re used to driving around our city and across to Edinburgh. We’ve done several road trips, including the North Coast, West Coast, through the Highlands and down through England.
So, based on our experience and our native driving conditions back home in Australia, I’d like to provide you with some tips for driving in Scotland and the UK.
Driving & Roundabouts
You will find traffic lights at some roundabouts when driving in Scotland as well as other parts of the UK. You might be used to this. We weren’t!
- Do not assume you can enter a roundabout after simply giving way. Look for traffic lights and prepare to stop.
- Prepare to stop in a roundabout. Yes. It feels wrong when you’ve never done this.
- Some roundabouts have several lanes and lots of traffic and you need to stop before, during and shortly after the roundabout.
Prepare to drive from one roundabout into another and another.
- They can be like an octopus and have multiple roundabouts leading off another. We nearly went grey trying to navigate the Magic Roundabout in Swindon near Wiltshire, England. You also have to zig-zag your way around some of the roundabouts in Scotland.
Driving on Motorways, A & B Roads
When driving in Scotland you can plan your route, and decide which turn-off to take, by simply understanding the differences between Motorways, ‘A’ and ‘B’ roads.
- ‘A’ roads are highways, motorways, freeways. Many lanes, good surface conditions. Usually good lighting. Usually multiple lanes.
- If you are on a ‘B’ road (or a road with no name) that is not to your liking, take the first turn-off you can, back onto an ‘A’ road heading in the correct direction. Do this before it’s too late.
- If you are on a road that makes you grip the steering wheel until your knuckles are white, you are probably on a ‘C’ road. Coastal and mountain roads tend to be narrow or single lane, with blind summits, hair-pins and oncoming vehicles. Sometimes the vehicles driving towards you are too big for the road. If you don’t like a road, get off when you can or suffer for another 1-10 miles.
- Read about one of our ‘C’ road experiences on our Scottish road trip. We drove from Shieldaig to Isle of Skye via Applecross along the Bealach na Ba. It goes from sea level up to 626 metres (2,054 ft) and then, quite quickly, back to sea level. Expect to drive most of it in low gear, using your brakes often, never travelling much above 15-20mph (15-25kmh). There’s a hair-raising 450 feet drop to the valley floor. The views are amazing. So if you are a confident driver, absolutely do it.
Parking in Scotland
Locals park their cars in both directions on both sides of the road. For this reason, you may see a car coming at you, from the direction you are driving, in your lane. They hopefully aren’t aiming to hit you, but instead aiming to park on your side of the road.
- I’ve been told you ‘should not’ park facing traffic, on the wrong side of the road – but that is not the same as ‘must not’. So it’s a fuzzy bit of law.
- It’s pretty common to park anywhere there is a space big enough for your car. I’ve also seen tiny smart cars park at a right-angle to the kerb!
- You shouldn’t park on footpaths but sometimes there’s no other option. Always make sure your car is far enough off the road not to get collected by a bus or truck on a main road/bus route. If the other cars are parked a certain way, probably best to do the same.
- This is very different to Australia where you are generally only allowed to park on the left-hand-side of the road, the same side you drive, so you can drive out of the park in the direction of travel. Fines are common and can be hefty so you generally just don’t do it. In my humble opinion, I find the Australian model safer.
Taking photos and video (while driving)
Driving in Scotland can be a challenge for many reasons. Potholes develop in minutes when it rains. It gets dark very early in the winter months. There is wildlife, like massive car-stopping deer, to avoid hitting. Pedestrians and buses are everywhere. And so are the sights. You don’t want to blink sometimes in case you miss part of the Highlands, or that Golden Eagle, or the snow-drifts, or the beaches. The list goes on.
Don’t bother taking photos through your car windscreen.
- The glare and reflection will probably result in them being deleted 99% of the time, especially if it is raining.
- Wind your window down or stop to take photos (if it is safe to stop). If you’re a passenger, take advantage of the passing places to wind your window down and take a photo.
- Look out for blue P signs for parking. 8/10 times there will be a viewpoint and the other 2/10 times it may be handy to let that car that was driving too close behind you go past.
Be mindful of the wind (nearly everywhere). It will be very loud on your videos.
- Use your hand to shield the speaker. It will also cause your phone, camera or video recorder to shake. Use both your hands to steady it.
Use a small tripod to grip and steady your phone or camera, especially if you are putting out the window.
- We love our Joby GripTight GorillaPod Stand Pro tripod for holding our mobile phones. About £36. The Pro means it easily and safely holds larger smartphones like the iPhone 11 Pro Max, even with the case on. It’s perfect for taking photos and videos when out and about.
- Put it on your car’s dashboard to take footage of yourself driving and talking in the car (your passenger can operate it). Flip it to face the front and take footage of the drive. Use the time-lapse feature to document a truly scenic part of the trip.
- Use it as a selfie stick. Use the timer on your phone – set it to 3 or 10 secs to give yourself time to move your phone far away from your face and to get as much background in as possible.
- And my favourite. Use it in the house to have WhatsApp video calls when blogging, cooking or doing other things about the house.
Take notes (Driving journal)
After 1 hour of driving in Scotland, you’ll soon realise that you are probably not going to remember all of the names or the spelling of most of the places you pass through. Or what day it is. After a few hours, you will probably also forget the order of the towns, mountains, lochs.
- Take a little notebook that doesn’t require a battery or internet signal to write down names, times, distances and anything else.
- I also drew pictures to help me remember to research the name of a place if I had no idea.
- If it wasn’t for my little book (bought for £1 from Flying Tiger), I wouldn’t have been able to write such a comprehensive blog post series about our North Coast 500 Scotland road trip.
When we were on our first big road trip, driving Scotland’s North Coast 500 route, we quickly realised that there is a scarcity of tourist accommodation in Scotland. There should be a lot more accommodation but there isn’t. Demand exceeds supply.
Unless you have a tent, do not leave your booking until when you arrive.
We were told to arrive at a town about lunchtime, find a place to stay, check-in, then explore. Great advice if you have the time. Even better, book in advance if you know where you’ll be. If you arrive in a place after lunchtime, you may face a wall of No Vacancy signs. It’s heartbreaking.
When booking through Airbnb
- Don’t assume the first/top search results for a town are in that town. I made a costly mistake and booked a property near Inverness (in the Highlands) instead of at Ullapool (on the West Coast). Don’t trust the search results.
- Search for automatic approval, super-hosts and a key box, so you can arrive anytime and not be kept guessing about if your booking has been accepted (and if you’re maybe going to be homeless for the night).
- Save yourself some time and money by searching for properties where breakfast is included. There will often be places that offer breakfast for the same price as properties that don’t.
- Do leave a comprehensive review as soon as possible (maybe before you check out). Your host will also leave a review of you. Your reviews will be checked by future accommodation owners before approving your stay. Negative reviews will be used against you.
Supplies & equipment (Road trip essentials)
Take Smidge Inspect Repellent for midges – especially where it is shaded, dark (night time) and with little to no wind. If you are camping in a tent, you need to lather up before going to bed. And remember these critters get into your car! Blast them with the air-conditioning. They don’t like that.
Fire starter / lighter
Take a lighter (cigarette lighter) if camping, especially if you’re using cooking fuel or wood for a fire. We forgot and then had to remember to find one at a service station or shop. Easier said than done.
If you have walking poles (also known as alpine or nordic walking poles), take them with you when you go for a longer walk. We love our Black Diamond collapsible walking poles. They are light and strong with really comfy handles and straps. They have clips for fast and safe adjustment. I find the twist-adjustment on some to be dangerous.
Scotland has a lot of uneven and steep terrain. Walking poles take the weight off your knees, protect your ankles, balance the effort across your body and help you keep our balance (great when there’s nothing to hold onto except for thistles). When we forgot to take them and left them in the car, we nearly fell on our arse a few times walking on rocks that were loose and on ground-cover on top of rocks.
- Get the one with the extension so you have more privacy and better aim in the wind. Take a plastic clip-seal bag with tissues in your pocket to help with clean up.
Ladies only (pee tip)
Ladies – take a She-Wee so you can have a pee-break on your walks. You might find a nice place to pee but the wind is your enemy and you may not have the privacy required to be naked from the waist down.
Take cash and coins. Scottish banknotes preferably. Most places take EFTPOS these days but some prefer cash. For example, car parks may require coins and public toilets may charge an entrance fee. 50p and £1 coins are particularly handy.
Planning your driving route
Plan possible driving routes and stops so you know how to find them.
- Your car’s GPS/navigation won’t work all the time and there isn’t 3G/4G mobile coverage everywhere. If you do have your route on your phone, take screenshots and use the zoom feature. Take lots of screenshots and rely on your photos.
- If you are relying on your phone for directions and for taking photos, take a phone charger/charging cable/adaptor for your car.
- Don’t worry if you don’t have a map. Just look for brown and green place signs and blue P signs for parking.
- If you have a paper map you might want to mark some landmarks to look for.
- Pick yourself up a free tourist map before you head off and mark your desired stops with a pen.
- Not all places are signposted. We missed the Walligoe Steps because it wasn’t sign-posted. By the time we realised we had passed it, we had travelled about 10 miles past it and we weren’t turning back.
Driving distances & travel time
Google maps are only estimates. Make sure you select driving as your mode of transport (not rail) and then use it as a guide.
- Double or triple the time estimated. You will need time to stop to take photos, have pee breaks, eat, explore and wait for bicycles and other traffic.
- Take your time. Stop at viewpoints (blue P signs for Parking). Chances are you may not visit these parts again.
- Google maps and your car’s navigation is not accurate. It will indicate how long it will take you travelling the max speed of the road, without stops. You need to double the time to allow for traffic and so you can stop at attractions along the way.
- Allow 15 mins to 2 hours to stop at each attraction.
- Remember if you are driving, you can’t enjoy that dram at the Whisky Distillery. We rotated driving days, so we could each enjoy a dram or two at a distillery.
Handy Links: Driving in Scotland & the UK
- Handy tips – VisitScotland.com
- Scotland traffic updates and warnings – TrafficScotland.org
- Driving in Great Britain on a non-GB licence – Gov.uk
- Driving in severe weather – MetOffice.gov.uk
- The Highway Code – Gov.uk
Drive on the left!
- If you’re used to driving on the left side of the road (e.g. Australia), you won’t have too many problems. However, if you’re used to driving on the right side of the road (e.g. USA), remember to “keep your passenger in the gutter“. You will be in the driver’s seat on the right-hand side of the car.
- Cars and roads are smaller. You will need to slow down going around corners so you can hug the side of the road/railing/stone wall – without driving off the road into a gully/ditch. Be careful parking. If hiring a car, get one with parking sensors.
- There are lots of people who don’t own/use a car. Watch out for pedestrians, bicycles and buses! Stick to the speed limits! 20 is plenty (20mph in local areas).
Leave a comment with your thoughts and experiences.
- Please share your experiences driving in Scotland and the UK.
- Have I forgotten anything important?