Driving in Scotland: on the left. Please don't forget
Thinking about driving in Scotland? Worried about single-track roads? Wacky roundabouts? Manual gear-shifts? Here's what you need to know. Some say we're trying to put people off on this page but you do need to know where, for example, some of Scotland's more dangerous roads are.
Driving in Scotland
If you are planning a visit and thinking about driving in Scotland then here are some practical notes on what sort of experience you can expect.
The information here is mostly intended for overseas visitors, though folk from other parts of the British Isles are most welcome, especially if they have never driven Scotland’s roads before. (I suggest some of Scotland’s scariest roads, further down the page.)
Naturally, driving in Scotland is quite like the experience in England, only slightly slower and less crowded (mostly). (Still, I’ve only been driving in Scotland for forty-odd years. What do I know?)
First of all, we drive on the left. So does England. So that’s a useful start. Especially if you are from elsewhere in the world and are driving into Scotland from England. You’ll have had some practice by the time you reach the Border!
Driving the main routes north into Scotland
The A1 – the east side
The northern section of the A1 before it reaches the Scottish Border is, in places, single carriageway – it isn’t a dual carriageway or ‘divided highway’ all the way to Scotland. So, chances are you’ll already be getting a bit frustrated even by the time you reach Berwick-upon-Tweed. (A place which we particularly like, incidentally. Well worth a stop.)
Beyond Berwick there are still a few single-carriageway sections to go before Dunbar, where it all speeds up and you whizz on towards Edinburgh.
The M6 and M74 – the west side
The west coast journey is better – Glasgow-bound, or beyond to Stirling, Perth, Aberdeen, it’s dual-carriageway all the way. Hurrah!
Other roads north through the Scottish Borders
Fairly scenic but potentially terrifying. See ‘the worst driving in Scotland’ below.
Driving north of Edinburgh
The main A90, if you are heading up the east coast towards Aberdeen, is straightforward, except where it goes through Dundee, where there are traffic lights and roundabouts, including a set of traffic lights to allow ‘Walmart wobblers’ easy access to the Walmart (ASDA) store. Imagine – main road traffic is held up just so folk can go to a supermarket. I’m astonished.
(If you find yourself stopped here, look to your right – it’s possible I’m the chap in the outside lane obviously waving his arms about and ranting on this topic at his long-suffering wife. We’re on this road a lot.)
Driving north of Glasgow
As above if you’re heading for Perth and beyond. It’s fine. Things start to get interesting if you are keen on seeing Loch Lomond. I never find leaving the city of Glasgow via Dumbarton and heading for Balloch the most relaxing of drives.
So just caa canny (Scots for ‘go easy’) if you’ve just picked up the hire car, will ya?
The road north up the west side of Loch Lomond is the A82. It’s quite well laid out in places, though it ain’t no divided highway. Then further on you are suddenly thrust into driving in 1960s Scotland.
OK, OK, they are improving it…and further north still, at Crianlarich, they now have a bypass at this middle-of-Scotland junction community. Beyond, again, you may find yourself on Rannoch Moor and Glencoe…see further down the page.
The A9 – does it deserve its reputation?
If you are making for Inverness from Glasgow or Edinburgh, you get all the way to Perth in a relaxed kind of way, then a little way beyond, and then may be surprised to find that the A9 ‘the Highland road’ then narrows to a single carriageway.
It’s still years away from ‘dualling’ all the way to Inverness, though there are a few sections and any road works you encounter are likely to be connected with planned road improvements.
The A9 isn't one of Scotland's easiest roads, in spite of the scenery. Now – and this is a Good Thing – it has average speed cameras – so don’t be tempted to take chances overtaking these heavy trucks. (The ones carrying goods that ought to be on the parallel railway. Oh, on that very topic, you also have to cheer if you see a Tesco/Stobart freight train while you drive the A9. Well done them for taking some traffic off the road.)
Anyway, I’m not putting you off am I? Just take your time. And those speed cameras have really calmed things down and altered driving behaviour for the better. (We know - we live in the north and drive it a lot.) Stop for coffee or lunch at Dunkeld or Pitlochry or any of the Speyside communities. You’ll be fine.
Driving north of Inverness
This is where you'll study your road atlas, if you prefer that to sat-nav. The best road atlas for Scotland - good value - is on that Amazon link.
The 'rim-road' all round the far north of Scotland was branded 'North Coast 500' a year or three back. This in turn attracted lots more traffic, a good percentage of which seemed to be interested only in how fast they could drive the sometimes not-terribly-wide roads.
So, the far north road system has became a victim of its own success. Well, that's tourism marketing for you!
As your map reveals, roads radiate out like the spokes of a wheel from the Highland capital of Inverness. If you go north by the Kessock Bridge (the A9 still) you’ll enjoy a few miles of divided highway. You’ll just be relaxing into it when, well, no surprises – it all narrows down again.
That’s it. It’s single carriageway all the way, wherever you go in the north. Remember though, when I say ‘single carriageway’ I do not mean ‘single track’. Oh, you’ll meet them in a few places – but not as much as you may have been led to believe.
Driving single-track roads in Scotland
I have a memory, as a small boy, being driven to Ullapool on the north-western seaboard and it was single-track road with passing places.
Now, and for years and years past, you can whizz along to Ullapool from Inverness in, ooh, little over an hour.
Roads out of Inverness to places like Ullapool and even Achnasheen and down to Kinlochewe, gateway to magnificent Glen Torridon, are hugely improved these days.
In fact, it’s in spectacular Glen Torridon, after Kinlochewe, in Wester Ross, that you may encounter your first single-track with passing places road.
There are a few rules, most of them golden. When a car approaches and it is clear that you are going to arrive in a passing place just ahead of the oncoming vehicle, IF the bay or passing place is on the right PLEASE stop opposite it.
DO NOT suddenly wrench your vehicle across the road into it. EVER. It gives me such a fright if I am that oncoming driver.
Obviously if the passing place is on the left, then you get into it. (Why? Because we drive on the left. Don’t tell me you had forgotten that already?) That’s rule 1. What I'm saying here is that you stop in a passing place - or opposite a passing place if the passing place is on your right.
Rule 2 is: do not hold up a vehicle coming up behind you. Pull into the next passing point and let them past with an airy wave of your hand.
It is, however, perfectly permissible to allow yourself to wonder why anyone would want to drive as fast as that when there is all this scenery to gawp at…but, then, they're probably trying to do that danged North Coast 500- thing in an afternoon. Sheesh.
It is actually, technically, an offence to hold up a vehicle behind you. In any case the fast-moving vehicle may be a local, though these days in the Scottish Highlands it’s much more likely to be a) someone from Yorkshire now living in the area or b) a tradesman from Yorkshire doing up the old croft-house the Yorkshire couple have just bought.
Finally, rule 3 is to give a cheery wave – both if you are the passing-place-ee or the passing-place-er. You may swear and name-call a little in front of the children if the other driver does not wave back. But most people are good at waving a thank-you. You might meet a bus on a narrow bridge too - but just take it nice and slow!
Oh and one more thing…please, not too fast, especially on the blind bends on the road to Ardnamurchan, or the stretch between Inverkirkaig and Lochinver, or…well, you’ll know it when you drive it.
Rush hour in Scotland’s cities
So, you’re just settling into the rented car and trying to get accustomed to this weird manual gear-shift. (Actually I typed that last word without the ‘f’ and almost let it go like that…anyway, you know what I mean.)
Here are a few places you would probably not want to be right now.
Let’s start with leaving Edinburgh and heading for the Forth Bridge (and beyond) after about 4.30pm. For that matter, heading west on the M8. Or anywhere near Hermiston Gait on the western outskirts of the city. Oh, and anywhere on the City Bypass.
Actually, it’s easier just to say, unless you enjoy queues, get clear of the capital by, say, 3pm at the latest.
Ditto Glasgow. Dundee at rush hour, along the A90 with all those roundabouts, can be tedious. Aberdeen, say, northbound over the Bridge of Don is a complete pain, though it has to be said that if you are driving north out of Aberdeen at this hour of the day then, as a visitor, you’ve given yourself a very odd itinerary.
What did you find to do in Aberdeen all day? Southbound it’s just as bad.
So, try to avoid all of Scotland’s cities in the rush hour. Simple as that. But then my wife says I have no patience.
The worst driving in Scotland
I have lived in quite a few parts of Scotland. I used to think that the standard of driving on rural roads in Aberdeenshire and Moray was the worst. Sometimes I still do.
But at least it had the saving grace that these roads were very lightly trafficked so the chance-taking driver often got away with it. I then lived on the edge of the Scottish Borders.
I now tentatively flag up that part of the south of Scotland as the home of the scariest drivers. (Actually, even as I write this, I'm thinking it's no worse than Aberdeenshire and Moray!)
The rural roads of the Scottish Borders twist and turn in a way that demand concentration. There are quite substantial towns. There is quite a bit of slow-moving agricultural traffic. The area is quite near Edinburgh so there is commuting traffic as well.
In short, you’ve got a lot of folk going from A to B, sometimes in a hurry. Naturally, they want to go by the shortest route. In the mind of a Borderer then, this means cutting corners wherever possible, as it makes the route shorter. Even when the corner is blind.
It isn’t relaxing for the visitors. However, they should keep in mind that the local phrase ‘a day out of Hawick is a day wasted’ means that some of the people suddenly encountered on the wrong side of the road are simply locals in a hurry to get back to Hawick.
Take special care on Scotland’s roads.
Here are some other roads in Scotland on which you should be extra vigilant. Firstly Rannoch Moor and Glencoe (see pic above) on the A82.
This is part of the road to Skye, covered in more detail on that link. Mountains loom, moorland rolls out on either side. Caravans creep along; tourists with fast cars press on for the west, delivery lorries trundle relentlessly. Everyone is going at different speeds for different reasons. Woo-hoo, scene set for scary overtaking.
Secondly, the main A82 (again) through the Great Glen, linking Inverness and Fort William. Exactly the same reasons as above but this road has even fewer places where overtaking is possible. (It’s part of my general aversion to the Great Glen, alluded to on other pages.)
Thirdly, the A75. This east-west connection down in the south of Scotland carries traffic to Ireland as well. Still, nobody much goes to Galloway – though there is a big page on this charming part of Scotland on that link. Besides, there are lots of alternate routes if pootling east to west.
In conclusion, I am on the point of apologizing for potentially scaring the bejaisus out of you if you were in two minds about driving here. Heh, it’s fine if you promise to keep your eyes on the road and not stare out at the scenery too much.
And a wee mention of roundabouts. Apparently we’re very fond of them. Just give way to traffic already on the roundabout coming in from your right. No exceptions. Finally: roundabouts with traffic lights on them. Nope, no idea why they exist. But watch out for 'em.
Take a look here at some more facts about Scotland.