If you’re planning to hit the Scottish high road at some point in the not-too-distant future, then this article will guide you through all you need to know about navigating Scotland’s rules and roads. Driving in Scotland as an American, African, Australian or Asian visitor is much simpler when you know how – and this guide is packed with helpful tips for driving in Scotland.
Taking a road trip around Scotland – such as the scenic North Coast 500 (NC500) can really be a bucket list trip unlike any other. If you want to experience all the stunning out-of-the-way places this country has to offer, then having your own set of wheels will give you far more freedom and independence.
From speed limits in Scotland or signage on Scottish highways to tips for driving on the left, this is all you need to know when you’ll be driving in Scotland for the first time. Or even the fifth, when you might need a quick refresher course!
17 top tips for driving in Scotland
1. Drive on the left!
In Scotland, as with the rest of the UK, you drive on the left-hand side of the road. Cars here are right-hand drive, which means the driver’s seat and steering wheel are on the right as you’re sitting in the car and facing the road. The seat to your left is the passenger seat, so it’s the opposite of what you may be used to.
Once you’re cruising along, staying on the left is pretty easy. The times to exercise extra caution, though, are when you approach a junction or roundabout. Think carefully about where you need to get to, as you must end up on the left-hand side of the road again. Roundabouts are covered in more detail further down the page.
2. Use of miles & yards
On Scottish roads, the signs will show distances in miles and yards, rather than kilometres and metres. One mile equals approximately 1.6 kilometres, or to put it another way, one kilometre equates to just over 0.6 of a mile.
The general speed limits are as follows:
- 20mph (32km/h) or 30 mph (48 km/h) in built-up areas
- 60 mph (97 km/h) on single carriageway roads
- 70 mph (113 km/h) on dual carriageway and motorway roads
Also note that speed limits are set in miles per hour, rather than kilometres.
3. Speed limits
The first thing to note about speed limits in Scotland is that these are maximums. When it’s dark, wet or windy or you’re driving on narrow or winding roads, then you should drive more slowly. The same goes for driving in an unfamiliar place, or a type of car you’re not used to.
For cars, all carriageways with street lights are subject to a 30 miles per hour (mph) limit. Where there are no street lights, a limit of 60 mph applies to single carriageways and 70 mph for dual carriageways or motorways with additional lanes.
Look out for signs setting a different speed limit – 40 mph, for example, is fairly common. Also note that larger vehicles such as motorhomes and minibuses are subject to lower limits. You can check the applicable Scottish speed limits with the gov.uk website here. There is also a fairly new 20mph limit that has been imposed in many built-up areas within towns and villages. It’s also worth bearing in mind that many stretches of the A9 (the section between Perth and Inverness) have many average speed cameras. You can see an example in the image above – the yellow structure on the right of the road is an average speed camera.
4. Narrow and winding roads
Once you’re away from the cities, you’ll soon discover that the countryside is criss-crossed by an intricate network of twisting, narrow roads. If you’re asking is driving in Scotland difficult, then the answer is that it can be, in this case.
Though you may well see locals travelling along very quickly, remember that they’ve probably been doing this for all their adult lives. So do take care, and don’t be tempted to try and keep up! In fact, if you’re wanting to take your time to enjoy the scenery, it’s worth pulling over to let locals by as they’re used to the roads and are probably in more of a rush than you are.
5. Single Track Roads and Using passing places
Where single track roads exist in Scotland, there will be passing places along the way. These are small sections where the road has been widened. This gives just enough space for one vehicle to pull in, thereby letting an approaching car pass. Never, ever park in a passing place. You’ll be causing an obstruction and posing a serious danger if you do. Always pull over on the left of the road and a small wave to thank the other vehicle for pulling over is common Scottish driving etiquette.
6. Motorways and dual carriageways
Not all Scotland roads are narrow and winding. Some are designed for faster travel between destinations and are mostly found in the Central Belt. These faster roads include dual carriageways, with two lanes on each side, or motorways with three (or sometimes more).
Do note that there can be roundabouts on a dual carriageway. So do keep an eye out for signs, or people in front of you slowing down. Visitors can be caught out as this type of road layout isn’t typical in many other countries.
7. Using roundabouts
Roundabouts are a common feature of British roads. The basic rule is that you give way to traffic approaching on your right, and you head left when joining the roundabout.
When turning left or going straight ahead, stay in the left-hand lane. If you’re turning right, you’ll need to approach from the right-hand lane. These rules apply unless signs say otherwise – which isn’t infrequently the case, so do check.
If you’re used to driving on the right, then do take extra care, as you’ll be driving around it the opposite way to what you’re used to. You’ll also need to be in the correct lane for driving around the roundabout, so prepare for this as you approach. Roundabouts generally have arrows on them indicating which lane you should enter depending on which direction you wish to travel.
8. Watch out for wildlife in the countryside
Spotting local wildlife such as sheep, goats or deer can be one of the delights of taking a road trip around Scotland. But this is hardly going to be a highlight if you end up mowing one down!
Do take care, therefore, when you’re driving along countryside roads. Especially where there are no fences or walls to keep the animals off the road.
9. Keep an eye on the weather forecast
Though the climate in Scotland is rarely extreme, it’s worth checking the weather forecast before setting out. You can also take a look at live traffic updates on the Traffic Scotland website, to find out if any roads have been affected by the weather.
This particularly applies when you’re visiting in winter, as snow and ice are common. Heavy rain or high winds may also cause road closures, delays and congestion. This was the view down our road last January!
10. Journeys will take longer in rural areas than Google Maps tells you
Don’t rely on Google Maps – or indeed any journey calculator – when you’ll be travelling on rural roads in Scotland. Narrow or twisting roads mean you must drive more slowly in the interests of safety.
If you use any single track roads during your journey, there’s no telling how many times you might need to pull over into a passing place to let other vehicles through. Also, one of our top driving in Scotland tips is to take your time, anyway. Doing so is far more pleasurable than rushing around!
11. Fuel & Petrol Stations
Make sure you check the type of fuel required if you’re driving a hire car – it’s usually indicated on the cover of the petrol cap. Fuel (gas) stations can be sparse in remote areas so we recommend filling up your tank when you have the opportunity, especially if you plan to travel long distances. You can usually pay at the pump with your bank card although some more rural locations require you go to into the petrol (gas) station to pay.
12. Alcohol limits and driving
There are strict driving rules in Scotland when it comes to alcohol. It’s important to note that tighter limits apply than in England, so beware if you’ll be crossing the border. The limit is 50mg per 100ml of blood.
What does that mean? Scotland is famous across the UK for its zero tolerance attitude to drinking and driving. Just one drink can mean exceeding the strict limit. So it’s safest not to consume any alcohol at all when you’ll be taking to the wheel. Bars and restaurants offer a great selection of alcohol free beers and other beverages. If you’re visiting a distillery, they will usually give the designated driver samples to take-away and enjoy safely.
13. Electric vehicles and charging stations
Scotland is well set-up for electric vehicles (EVs) in comparison to the rest of the UK. There are more than 2,250 electric charging points across the country. You can view a map of ChargePlace Scotland locations to get an idea. Service stations may also have EV charging points.
If you do want to drive an electric car in Scotland, check for charging points when planning your route. Most EVs can cover around 150 to 300 miles before being recharged. Even when using fast charging, you’ll also need to factor in time, as it can take between six and 12 hours to fully charge an EV battery.
Parking regulations vary depending on the area. In cities, you’ll often find multi-story car parks and pay-and-display parking, while in more rural areas, parking might be free or less regulated. Always check for signage to avoid any parking fines. You can usually pay with cash or by card (contactless) or with an app which is displayed on the parking meter (the Ringgo app is popular). In the Highlands, there are many public car parks where there is an “Invitation to pay” (you’ll see it mentioned in the top left of the information board), this means that a payment is not mandatory.
15. Hiring a car
If you’ll be hiring a car in Scotland and you’re not used to manual transmission, then do consider renting an automatic. Automatic transmission is growing in popularity across the UK, and it’s not too difficult to hire this type of car. Many rental fleets do have less automatics available, though, so it’s best to book as far in advance as possible. It may also cost a little more.
Our tips on driving a manual include checking that your licence covers you to drive this kind of vehicle. It takes some getting used to if you’re not familiar, so you might want to practice in a location like a car park before hitting the road. Don’t forget that the gearstick will also be on the opposite side to what you’re familiar with, if you usually drive on the right! When driving a manual, don’t forget to press down on the clutch pedal each time you change gear. The car will soon make a disgruntled noise if you forget…
We highly recommend checking out Rentalcars, a car rental comparison site for the best deal on car hire. Also, some companies allow for a one-way rental although there’s often an additional charge for a one-way rental. This can be useful if for example you plan to drive from Edinburgh to Inverness but are then catching a flight out of Inverness.
16. Check your licence
As mentioned above, firstly do check whether your licence covers you to drive a car with a manual gearbox. If you plan to do that, of course.
If your overseas licence is in English, then it should be acceptable. Otherwise you’ll need an International Driving Permit (IDP). Your car rental company may require an IDP, however, so do make sure to check with them in advance. An IDP is very affordable, and not difficult to get, so to be on the safe side we do recommend bringing one.
A valid passport is also often required, though if you’re visiting from abroad you should have this with you anyway. You’d need some form of photo ID in any case and rental companies often ask for the credit card you used to make your online booking so make sure you have it on you! Some rental companies also require proof of return travel, plus an address you’ll be staying at in Scotland.
17. Driving age in Scotland
The minimum legal driving age in the UK is 17. Scottish teenagers can therefore start to learn at this age, so will be over 17 by the time they pass their theory and practical driving tests.
As well as staying on the right side of the law, you may need to have reached a certain age before you can rent a car in Scotland. Check with each hire company to find out if they have an age restriction. They may also require you to have been driving for a certain length of time before they’ll rent out a car to you.