Driving in Scotland can be intimidating, especially if you’re used to the right side of the road. But it’s so worth it! Here’s what you need to know before your Scottish road trip.
Driving in Scotland
Scotland is perfect in almost every way: its scenery is unparalleled, the land is littered with castles, their national cow is furry and adorable, and wearing tartan shawls is completely acceptable. There’s just one thing: they drive on the left side of the road.
If you’re going to explore all that bonnie Scotland has to offer, the best way to go is a road trip. Some of its most epic gems are located down remote roads, miles away from any bus or train station. But for those of us who don’t hail from the British Isles, that means along with dodging free-range sheep herds and learning what to do with roundabouts, we must also drive on the “wrong’ side of the road.
My family has never shied away from road-tripping in foreign countries. Driving a 15-passenger van along narrow Greek mountain roads? Check. Maneuvering stick-shift in a snowstorm in the Italian Alps? Done. Driving on the left side was just one more car-related item to check off on our “things we’ve done while traveling” list.
If you’re brave enough to give it a go, driving in Scotland will be one of the best experiences of your life. There’s just nothing like blaring some bagpipe music while wheeling through the Highlands. So if you’re planning a road trip through Scotland but are intimidated by driving there, I’m here to tell you that you can do it! And to calm your fears further, here’s everything I wish I had known about driving in Scotland before I got there, from one right-side-of-the-road-driver to another.
8 Things to Know About Driving in Scotland
The Left Side of the Road
Let’s get the elephant out of the room first. Yes, in Scotland, cars drive on the left side of the road. For those of us who aren’t used to that, that sounds terrifying, like having to learn how to drive all over again (and who wants to do that on vacation?!?)
But I found it to be MUCH easier than expected. After a day or two into our week in Scotland, I stopped trying to get into the left side of the car (Riley from National Treasure II, anyone?), and remembered that I needed to use my left hand for shifting and using my blinker. The brain is amazingly flexible and can make the jump to left-side driving pretty quickly. The moments I found to be most difficult were roundabouts, exiting parking lots, and turning right into the correct lane. I found yelling “left side!!” at myself in these moments to be helpful!
And if you’re nervous about being the one bozo on the road who has no idea what they’re doing, remember this: Scotland is an extremely popular tourist destination, and a large number of cars on the road are being driven by people who also have no idea what they’re doing. You’re not alone!
One of the more challenging things about driving in Scotland is that their roads are very narrow, especially compared to the wide highways with luxurious shoulder space that we have in the USA. Those don’t exist in Scotland, even on the main roads. I found staying in my lane to be difficult not because I was driving on the left, but because I had no extra room to play with.
Some of the narrowest roads we drove are extremely popular with tourists – like the main road around Loch Ness. It’s not a hurdle and should not stop you from a Scottish road trip, just be mentally prepared and take your time!
One Lane Roads (a.k.a. Single-Track Roads)
You don’t have to be in the middle of nowhere in Scotland to find yourself driving on a one-lane road – they are all over the place! And by one-lane, I don’t mean each car has it’s own lane. I mean, the road is only wide enough for one car, even though two-way traffic is allowed. So instead of freaking out the first time you’re driving down one and find a truck barrelling directly towards you, helpful to know what to do with these roads before driving in Scotland.
One lane roads pose certain challenges – like the fact that they are, obviously, one lane, and only one car can go along at a time. So what happens when two cars find themselves driving right at each other? Someone pulls into a “passing place.” A passing place is a small pull-out, extended shoulder placed periodically along one-lane roads. When two cars are approaching each other, the first one to reach a passing place is supposed to pull over and allow the other car to pass before proceeding.
Passing places are on both the right and left side of the road. Technically, you’re supposed to pull into the ones on the left; if there’s one on the right, stop in the road and wait for the oncoming car to pull into the passing place on the right before you continue on. However, I pulled into the one on the right many times (hello, confused American here) and no one ever got angry. But if you can remember to do it correctly, I’m sure the Scottish drivers will appreciate it!
Also, don’t be afraid to take your time on single-lane roads. Though these roads tend to be the narrowest and most harrowing, most go to some of the most beautiful Scottish destinations. Stay calm, take a deep breath, and enjoy the stunning scenery out your window.
Speed limits are not always posted, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. Scotland has “national speed limits” for different types of roads. If you don’t see a speed limit sign, you can assume the national speed limit for that road is in effect.
Speed limit signs look like the one below, with a black number in a white circle outlined in red:
National speed limits:
- Motorways and dual carriageways (multi-lane highways): 70 MPH
- Single-carriageways: 60 MPH
- Urban/built-up areas: Generally 20-30 MPH
Sometimes you’ll see a blue speed limit sign, like the one below. Those signs mean that that’s the minimum speed limit. So no poking along and staring out the windows in those areas!
When I wrote my guide to driving in Tuscany, I complained about the ridiculous amount of nonsensical signs posted along Italian roads. Scotland’s signage isn’t nearly as confusing, and many of them are intuitive or easy to figure out. But there are a few signs that are unclear that you’ll want to know about before driving in Scotland.
Start of Motorway Regulations: When you see this sign, it means all motorway regulations, including the national speed limit, are now in effect. The symbol with two lines and a bridge over it represents a motorway.
End of Motorway Regulations: The opposite of the first sign; all regulations, including the national speed limit, are ending in 1 mile.
No Overtaking: Or no passing, as we say in the US.
Prioritize Oncoming Vehicle: This is particularly important for all those single-lane roads. This means that you need to yield to the oncoming vehicle.
Uneven Road: This isn’t a need-to-know sign; but we saw it EVERYWHERE and never could figure it out until we got home and looked it up. The sign doesn’t necessarily mean the road is uneven, because we saw it in places where the road was completely fine. Perhaps the road was uneven at one point, but has since been fixed but the sign was left up. Who really knows? But it’s everywhere, I tell you.
For a comprehensive list of all UK road signs, go here.
Animals on the Road
In much of Scotland, free-range sheep, goats, and cows are quite common. And they act as if the road is as much theirs as it is yours. So just keep your eyes open and be patient if a sheep herd decides to cause a traffic jam!
My family has always gotten an international driver’s license when road-tripping overseas, but you don’t actually need one for driving in Scotland. A valid driver’s license from almost every country is also valid in the UK. For a complete list of valid drivers’ licenses, go here.
I’m used to driving in the Washington, DC area, where everyone is quick to cut you off, flash rude gestures, or slam on their horn if you do something to make them angry. Driving in Scotland was heaven in comparison.
Despite their long history of conquering, maiming, and decapitating their enemies, the Scots are actually incredibly friendly and easy-going. Everyone we met was happy to help us and give advice. And when we made a driving mistake, no one tried to take off our head.
So do your best to follow the rules, but don’t stress out if you make mistakes. You’re new to driving on the left, and people understand that. Just enjoy your trip!
With these tips, all of you right-side drivers will be able to conquer driving in Scotland and have an epic road trip. Now if you want to know where to go on your road trip, be sure to check out my 8-day Scotland itinerary!
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