Driving Scotland; 2000 miles of Scotland at that, was one month of my life I shall cherish for an eternity and I learned some things I hope will help you on your journey driving Scotland.
First off, you do not need an SUV or 4WD truck in order to drive the Scottish Highlands, unless you’re hauling sheep shit, or maybe a gaggle of screaming kids. But I got talked into a plug in hybrid Mitsubishi Outlander… ironically making me an Outlander in an Outlander.
I flew into Gatwick and stayed in London for the first 5 days of my month long journey of mostly driving Scotland. Quite frankly, driving in London just outright sucks. Last thing you need is something long, heavy and wide with 500 controls you don’t understand and I’ve driven in Rome, Berlin, NYC, Boston without even batting an eyelid. I say avoid driving London at all costs. If you must, avoid the rush hour and definitely get a small and easily maneuverable vehicle.
If you are comfortable with a manual stick shift, I still suggest you pay the extra money for an automatic. I have no issue driving a stick, I rent stick shifts in countries all over the world… but driving in traffic on city streets or navigating one track roads with unexpected wildlife crossing your path, on a different side of the road than you are accustomed is asking for trouble and I do NOT recommend it. The start and go style of traffic in both of the above mentioned scenarios, will making shifting gears a huge and potentially dangerous pain in the ass.
Parking (as in any major city) even more than outright sucks and seriously, anyone that tells you driving on the other side is easy, is an asshole.
You do get the hang of it. Once you’ve hit a few curbs, and lopped off a couple of side mirrors. By then, if no one has been decapitated or mutilated you’ll likely be right as rain. But it isn’t easy. Yes you’ll get the hang of it, but still it isn’t easy. The second you’re a wee bit tired, or have taken even a short break, it’s a little daunting again, and you’ll find yourself chanting “left side, left side, left side” for a bit. Remember, driver is always closest to the center line, wherever you may go.
When driving Scotland, the motorways are ok. You’ll get the hang of them pretty quick. But only pass on the far right lane, don’t dawdle there. It really pisses people off if your not hauling ass in the fast lane. They will tail you within inches. Flustered in the fast lane, on an uncomfortable side of the road, is not where you really want to be when driving Scotland.
When driving Scotland after England, expect traffic to drive 10 miles per hour faster than what you got accustomed to in England. If you are not confident enough to drive at least 10 miles over the speed limit, then stay out of the far right (the fast lane) once you’ve hit Scotland.
If you’re driving in London or Birmingham (God help you) or into the countryside… last thing you need are distractions. Rent a car similar to the one at home. If you drive an SUV or truck at home, rent a similar make car. Then gag the kids, put the damned phone away (or have it set only for GPSing), stick some reminder in front of your face on the windshield to stay left, and you’re on your way!
Make sure you know if you’re running on diesel or not. Petrol nozzles are interchangeable unlike in the US where diesel nozzles won’t fit into non diesel tanks (and still people manage to make the error here). There are a ton more diesel cars there. The noxious scent of diesel permeates every truck stop with glee. If you make the error, DO NOT START THE CAR. For an exorbitant fee most garages are ready and willing to drain your tank. That’s far less expensive than ruining the rental car with the wrong gas. You’re not covered for it either.
Most onboard navigation systems created for automobiles outright suck. Where do bad UI designers go once the game industry has snuffed them out? They go on to make onboard automobile navigation systems, or so say my UI industry friends. So if you have a decent data plan (and are NOT relying on ATT) then WAZE is by far the best navigation option, google maps is second. Both are free, easy to use and extremely reliable, as long as your service provider is NOT ATT.
You need a local provider, especially when driving Scotland. Anywhere North of Inverness with ATT (and likely other non UK providers), there are times when you are shit out of luck. If you put a map of Scotland in front of you, take a ruler and line it up with Inverclyde and Inverness then draw a line across from ocean to ocean. When driving Scotland, north of that line, is pretty much where your connections will get dodgy, and even non existent the further North or East driving Scotland that you go. You need a solid local provider, direct, not through your provider if you plan to rely on your cell service anywhere North of that line. In places like Durness, the Orkneys, deep in Glenelg to Arnisdale or way up in Skye you’re still going to struggle with signal at times.
When off of the highway, even the main roads in the U.K. are skinny, windy, at times surprisingly congested. Many roads are expected to manage two way traffic, when only one vehicle barely fits. Many roads (London) are built for horse buggies (London), and now carry anxious and impatient motorists (London), from sunup to sundown. Did I mention London? Oh and Birmingham (holy shit, Birmingham) what a cluster fuck. Next to the word Clusterfuck in the dictionary, should be traffic in city center Birmingham.
London is a driving nightmare. Logistically speaking not only are there far more motorists than it can handle, London drivers, especially in the business districts, are relentless and impatient. They know you’re a tourist driving the wrong side of the road, and they don’t care! In fact I think they hope you die. I now know why they have such strong gun control in the U.K., otherwise there’d be hourly gun battles in the streets of London and Birmingham.
Driving Scotland’s more remote roads are skinny, often one track for two way traffic and many are open range. If you see a sign that says “Sheep Road” or “Feral Goats” expect to soon come upon said creatures in the middle of the road, usually after a blind turn.
Surprisingly (especially for an American where the entire US road system and infrastructure is crumbling beneath us) the roads in the U.K even many of the remotest roads in Scotland are very well maintained. Here’s the fun part though, the speed limit on most of these roads is 60. Yeah, you read that right. And I mean 60 mph, not those silly kphs the rest of Europe so much enjoys screwing up Americans with.
On the above picture yo can see a “Passing Place” sign, these are here for you to let people pass on one track roads. Be courteous, pull to the left and let them go, especially if you are not willing to go the speed limit. Visit Scotland has a great guide to utilizing passing places and driving safely on the other side of the road.
I found Edinburgh, Inverness and Glasgow fairly easy to navigate. Driving was not stressful and signage was clear and abundant. At the time I was driving Scotland, there was no excessive traffic. I was able to find parking in all three cities with ease. Although I was there off season and I assume it is more difficult during season especially when it is festival time.
You’ll find that a great deal of the remotest areas when driving Scotland, the Borderlands, the country roads of Aberdeenshire and along the NC500, roads are freshly and recently paved, I simply don’t recommend that beyond the obvious reasons, such as a larger group of people, that anyone needs an SUV when driving Scotland.
Seems to me the entire country, especially the “wilds of Scotland” and the North Coast 500 aka NC 500 have been trampled on well enough from tourist driving Scotland, tour buses and the like. Just take it easy. Treat the areas you visit with respect. Park in designated parking areas as much as possible and be aware of where and on what you are parking when you choose to pull over in areas with no parking. Be alert so as not to block anyone’s way, and move over to the left at passing places if someone wishes to pass, and you’ll be good to go.
Also, Lallybroch doesn’t REALLY exist. Jamie isn’t hanging out at the other side of Clava Cairns. Midhope Castle aka Lallybroch (which isn’t castle at all) is often overrun by overzealous tourists, causing havoc with the locals and the busy farming community. So let them be. How’d you like people parking all over your neighborhood, running over the local livestock, flora a fauna and blocking your way in and out all day and night. Sure you can visit these places, but just be considerate… please.
Outlander in an Outlander Driving Scotland
I’m not sure that the Mitsubishi Outlander was named after the series or the book, or if it’s just a coincidence. I cannot imagine it’s named after the movie Outlander, which really kinda sucked and had nothing to do with Scotland. I’m not sure if the Hertz guy had a sick sense of humor or just needed to move out extra inventory, but there I was… an Outlander in an Outlander. Hogging the road in an unnecessary SUV.
I semi enjoyed the vehicle in some ways, but not that I allowed the Hertz guy to talk me into it last minute. It was after midnight, I’d just flown 8 hours and I just wanted to get into London, connect with my Airbnb contact, have a big glass of wine and sleep.
“Only $75 extra” he said. It sounded great until I realized he meant $75 a day (that’s a standard Hertz upgrade trick, so beware)
“But I’m driving Scotland for a month, that’s a lot of money.” I replied.
“I’ll give you a great deal!”
… now I know this trick well. I’ve rented cars a lot. They will give you a deal on a sports car or SUV when they have an abundance of them and are light on or actually out of the car you had reserved. Always haggle at this point! ALWAYS (especially if you’re footing the bill). I knew this trick. I don’t know what happened. I was tired. It was after 1am now. I just wanted the fucking car and to be on my way. So nearly $700 later, (far more than I could spare) off I went into the dead of a moonless, starless night driving from Gatwick into the heart of London, in a plug in hybrid (not even knowing what that was) with all sorts of buttons and levers, driving the other side of the road for the first time in almost 30 years.
Learn from me! And enjoy!