The first time driving in any new country is daunting. Even the thought, in the lead up to the first drive, can be scary. Driving in Scotland doesn’t need to be intimidating though. In this article, I hope to put your mind at ease with all the information you’ll need. Hiring a car and driving in Scotland means you can get off the beaten track, explore areas which, if you travel by public transport, you wouldn’t be able to reach. It gives you greater flexibility and allows you to stop off for a pretty view, a toilet break or a cuppa whenever you want.
Over the years I’ve been asked so many questions about driving in Scotland and I’ll answer them below, so when you arrive in this gorgeous country you are equipped with all the knowledge you need to really enjoy exploring by car.
Quick (but important) note - There is no point hiring a car while you are in Edinburgh or Glasgow. The streets are busy and parking is expensive, that's if you can find a space. Think about hiring a car when you are leaving the city instead.
In Scotland, we drive on the left-hand side of the road. Our steering wheel is on the right-hand side of the car meaning the driver is nearer the centre of the road. If you usually drive on the right consider sticking a sticky label on the dashboard so you don’t forget. I’ve have done this while driving in Greece and Spain and it was a life-saver.
Most hire cars in Scotland are manual but there are automatics available, just be prepared to spend a little more and search a little further for the right car. Some people have been known to book a driving lesson for when they arrive, so they can get used to driving using gears (manual) so this may be an option.
There are car hire companies based in airports, towns and cities. If you would feel more comfortable driving for the first time somewhere quiet you could take public transport to your accommodation and hire the car from the town you are based instead of having to navigate the roads around the airports.
The speedometer in the car measures speed in miles instead of KMs per hour. This can be confusing but just be aware of the speed limit in the area and keep below that. I’ll talk about speed limits further down.
Don’t worry about licenses. As long as you have a full, valid driving licence from your country you can drive any car or motorcycle in the UK for up to 12 months.
The drink driving laws are very strict in Scotland and it’s safer to not drink anything at all if you are driving. Consider taking the bus or a taxi into town if you are going for a meal. If you are visiting a whisky or gin distillery and can’t enjoy the samples at the end of the tour the team will be happy to give you a wee something to take home and enjoy later.
You will find many petrol stations (gas stations) in the cities and towns in Scotland. There are service stations on a few of the big trunk roads which include a petrol station and also some food shops, cafe and toilets. The big supermarkets (Asda, Tesco, Sainsburys and Morrisons) in towns and cities will have an accompanying petrol station and these are usually very reasonably priced.
Think green for petrol, black for diesel. The hose and labels on the pump will be either green or black so make sure you know which fuel your hire car takes. Usually, you put the fuel in your car then go inside the shop to pay. Lately, there has been a few places open up which take cards at the pump which is handy.
If you are travelling far, especially if you are heading into the Highlands, when petrol stations become less frequent, fill up the car in the big towns or cities. The prices are a lot cheaper, especially if you go to one attached to a supermarket. The prices tend to rise the more remote the petrol station is. When you are travelling around the Highlands don’t let your fuel get too low, fill up when you get the opportunity, even it’s just a quick top-up to keep the tank full.
Single track roads
There are tonnes of single track roads in Scotland, especially in the Highlands. They are perfectly manageable if you know how to use them. If you come across a car driving in the other direction pull into a passing place on your side of the road. If there isn’t a passing place between you and the other car someone has to reverse, it then depends on who can do it with the least effort. If the other car is a campervan, towing a caravan, just turned a corner or further away from their passing place than you are to yours then it’s up to you to reverse. I've came to understand that reversing left is tricky for Americans who mostly reverse to the right so maybe you could practise a little first so you find it easier. Just take your time and you’ll be fine.
If you are driving and notice a car behind you which wants past let them overtake by popping into a passing place (again, on your side of the road. Never cross to stop on the other side). Don’t let traffic build up behind you, they may be locals going to work or in a hurry and don’t want to be held up. It’s a lot less stressful for you too, it’s not nice having other cars right behind you when you aren’t comfortable driving. If there is a passing place on the right-hand side between you and the car coming in the opposite direction stop on the road opposite the passing place so the other driver can pull in.
The passing places are NOT for stopping to take a photo or admire the view, these are vital to the smooth running of the road. You will notice there are viewpoints with parking places nearby, use these instead.
Yes, we have roundabouts, lots of them. Driving in Scotland means you won't really be able to avoid them. They are pretty effective and easy to use once you figure out the right lane. As you approach the roundabout there will be signposts showing you which exit to take to reach your destination. On the road itself, most of the time, there will be arrows directing you to the right lane. The rough rule of thumb is…
2 lanes approaching roundabout - The left lane to turn left and straight ahead, the right lane to turn right.
3 lanes approaching roundabout (often two lanes splitting into three at the last minute) - The left lane to turn left, the middle lane to go straight ahead and the right lane to turn right.
Stick to your lane, give way to traffic coming from the right-hand side, whether the cars are on the roundabout or approaching and take your time. Remember look right! If you miss the exit or are in the wrong lane don’t worry, just go round again!
In built-up areas such as towns, the speed limit is 30 miles per hour. In many villages and around schools this drops to 20mph.
On single carriageways the limit is 60mph and on dual carriageways and motorways, the limit is 70mph.
White circular signs with a red border will let you know the speed limit of the road you are on. It is often also painted on the roads in white lettering. A white circular sign with a thick black diagonal stripe means national speed limit applies, so the speed limit of that type of road applies. An instance where you might see this sign is after you have exited a village. So if you are driving through the village at 20mph then exit onto a single carriageway the speed limit returns to 60mph. Bear in mind though that it may not be sensible or safe to actually drive 60mph, judge for yourself and take your time.
You can hire a car from many companies in Scotland such as Avis, Alamo, Sixt, Arnold Clark, Hertz, Thrifty and Enterprise. If you would like to hire a car from the airport check the website of the airport you are flying into, this will tell you which car hire companies operate from the airport. If you’d prefer to hire a car after you leave the airport check car hire companies in the area you will be visiting.
Ask for the full cost of the car hire when you book so you don’t get any unexpected charges. Also, check if there is a charge to use your card. The age limit will vary between companies so ask to make sure you are old enough.
Bring the relevant documents with you to collect your car. Find out what you’ll need before you arrive, it will usually include your passport, driving license, proof of home address, proof of return travel and your booking confirmation.
Before you accept the car take a good look around, check for any scratches and dents, check the tyres and take photos of anything which you may be blamed for later!
Have a read through the Highway Code if you want to get your head around the rules of the road in more detail.
Whatever you do, if you come to a stressful situation, slow down and take your time. You should consider stopping somewhere safe for a breather. It won't be long before you are comfortable and enjoying driving some of the most scenic roads in the world.
Do you have any tips for driving in Scotland? Have you driven here before?