Getting around Scotland
Scotland operates a modern and effective transportation system, including high-quality road, railway and bus links, managed and regulated by the Scottish Government’s department of transportation. Getting around Scotland using public transportation is generally a mix of state-operated and commercial services. If you are travelling across the water to and between the islands, air and sea travel is also an option.
Urban transport and travel between major and minor towns and cities is effectively provided by public transportation (primarily bus and train). However, if you plan to tour the country, a car allows you to access more remote areas with poor or no public transportation. This applies particularly if you plan to visit the Highlands, Islands, mountains or rural areas. Hire cars are easily available from international companies in towns and cities.
As Scotland is a small country, air travel is uneconomical on most short routes. However, it is the fastest way to reach many of the islands. Flights can be very turbulent, as Scotland is notorious for rain, wind and storms and the planes used are small, e.g. Saab 340s, Twin Otters and Islanders.
Loganair – operates the majority of Scotland’s internal flights, under a franchise to FlyBe through whose website you can book flights. FlyBe offer a number of connections to UK and European airports from Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Inverness and Glasgow. FlyBe also has a codeshare with British Airways so you can book through-tickets from more distant parts.
Flights are available from Glasgow International Airport to Campbeltown, Islay, Barra, Benbecula, Stornoway, the Orkney Islands and the Shetland Islands. Flights are also available from Edinburgh Airport to Stornoway, the Orkney Islands and the Shetland Islands. There are no direct flights between any of the mainland airports.
Flights can be expensive, although Loganair-operated flights to the islands are sometimes included in FlyBe sales and special offers. It should be noted that flights can be disrupted or cancelled due to weather conditions, particularly in Winter. Flights heading to and from Barra can also be disrupted or cancelled owing to the state of the tide, as the island’s runway is a beach. As a guide, the flight time from Glasgow to Barra is approximately 1hr, and the flight time from Glasgow to the Shetland Islands is approximately 2hrs & 30 Mins.
Loch Lomond Seaplanes also operate from Glasgow Science Centre with flghts to Loch Lomond, Tobermory and Oban. Flights however are expensive. A return flight to Oban for example costs £129. The plane can also be chartered, but to do so generally costs in excess of £1000.
Train is one of the faster ways to get around many parts of the country. Journey times are often the same as by road – while there may be many stops, high speed between stops compensates for this. On some routes, the train is considerably faster (e.g. Edinburgh to Dunbar/North Berwick). However, on some routes the train is considerably slower than by road because of the convoluted route the train takes. For example, the maximum permitted speed on some sections of the Far North Line from Inverness to Wick is 90mph, however because the line runs around the Dornoch Firth and calls at Scotscalder, more than an hour is added to the journey.
First ScotRail – operates the majority of the Scottish rail network, which covers most of the country. You can also travel by inter-city services which will have started or have their final destination in England. These are provided by East Coast, Virgin Trains, TransPennine Express and CrossCountry and are generally more comfortable with more facilities, e.g. wi-fi. East Coast services also have a buffet car. The routes operated by East Coast and CrossCountry are particularly useful for travel between Edinburgh and stations up the east coast of Scotland to Aberdeen. The main rail terminals are:
Aberdeen Station – with trains to all Scottish cities. Lines radiate in the direction of Edinburgh, Glasgow and Inverness and call at intermediate stations. Services are also provided to London and most other parts of England.
Edinburgh Waverley Station – with trains to Aberdeen, Fife, Glasgow Queen Street, Inverness, Perth and Stirling. There are also inter-city trains to most English destinations via the East Coast route.
Glasgow Queen Street Station – with trains to Aberdeen, Edinburgh, Cumbernauld, Fort William, Mallaig, Perth and Stirling. For trains to Inverness, change at Perth.
Glasgow Central Station – for trains to South West Scotland including Ayr, Kilmarnock and Stranraer; West Scotland including Dumbarton and Greenock; and Lanarkshire including Hamilton and Lanark. Inter-city trains to English destinations (primarily Manchester, Birmingham and London (Euston)) via the West Coast route.
Inverness Station – for trains to Wick and Kyle of Lochalsh. Also connections for the East Coast and London
The train services which run via the West Highland Railway to Fort William and Mallaig from Glasgow Queen Street take in some wonderful views of the Scottish landscape, and footage from the line was used in the Harry Potter movies.
Generally train fares in Scotland are comparable to the rest of the UK, and are more expensive than most European countries. If you buy a ticket right before you travel, a typical off-peak fare between Glasgow and Edinburgh might be £10 return, and between Edinburgh and Aberdeen £40 return. However, as throughout the UK rail system, advance purchase tickets offer cheaper fares. It is best to avoid peak time services between Glasgow and Edinburgh or commuter lines around Glasgow, as trains are often overcrowded at rush hour.
On some of the rural lines, services only run a couple of times a day. For example, the Far North Line (Inverness to Wick) and the Kyle of Lochalsh line (Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh) have only around 3 to 4 return journeys a day Monday to Saturday and just one on a Sunday. So take care when travelling along these lines, as if you miss your train it could be a while to wait for the next one.
In Scotland, a car enables you to reach almost any part of the country. It is also the best way to take in the spectacular scenery of mountainous, rural and Highland areas. However, although Scotland is not a big country, car travel can take significantly longer than you may expect. The mountainous terrain means that crossing from the east to the west usually involves taking circuitous routes. With the exception of the Central Belt and the North-East, where there are motorways and dual carriageways and travel is fast and easy, road conditions in Scotland can be below Western European standards. Beware of defects such as potholes, ruts, cracks and patches in both urban and rural roads (but not motorways or dual carriageways which are maintained to a higher standard by the Scottish Government).
Many rural roads feature are narrow, have many bends and chicanes, are unlit at night, and are vulnerable to poor weather. If you have a car that handles well, these roads can be fun to drive. Added to this, scenery is often breathtaking. However, do not be fooled into driving too fast or overtaking recklessly. As in the rest of the UK, the speed limit on country roads is usually 60mph (100km/h), although the Scottish Parliament has recently acquired the power to set its own speed limits in Scotland. 60mph/100kmh is too fast for many roads, where you may easily run into a sharp blind hairpin bend without warning. Drive cautiously if a rural road is unfamiliar. You will also find frequent speed cameras and traffic patrols on main roads.
As in the rest of the UK, traffic in Scotland drives on the left. Drivers from other countries should take special care if they are not used to driving on the left or if your car is left-hand drive. If driving a left-hand drive car, you may find it difficult to see traffic in your passenger-side door mirror and overtaking may be more difficult and hazardous.
Scottish drivers tend to be slightly worse than the rest of the UK and accident rate is higher in rural areas such as the Highlands and Aberdeenshire. Despite this, dangerous practices are common on these rural roads such as driving too fast and overtaking recklessly. Aggressive motorcycle riding is also a major problem on some of Scotland’s rural roads, and the annual accident rate is abnormally higher than the UK average. Even if someone is coming up fast behind you, do not be goaded into increasing your speed. They will overtake (at their own risk!) if you keep to a speed at which you are comfortable. Added to this, weather can be poor, particularly in the interior of the country. In winter, you are likely to find roads closed by snow, with “snow gates” being closed (literally a huge gate that traffic police use to close off the road). Most Scottish drivers do not fit snow tires or snow chains, and combined with reckless driving, the accident rate in winter weather is higher. In coastal areas, mist or fog can be a problem. Listen to radio travel bulletins and avoid car travel in poor winter weather.
In remote areas many roads are single track. Passing places are provided at intervals. These are marked by diamond shaped white signs labeled “Passing Place”. Sometimes, these are incorrectly installed as a square sign. On older, less-used, single track roads black and white striped poles may still be used as markers. If faster traffic comes up behind you it is the rule that you should pull into a passing place and allow the other vehicle to pass. When two vehicles approach each other on a single track road, experienced drivers will both adjust their speed so as to reach the passing place at the same time and pass each other slowly, avoiding the need for either vehicle to come to a stop. You should pull in to the passing place on your left or if the passing place is on the right hand side, stop opposite it so that the oncoming car can pull into it.
Many rural roads are poorly maintained and lack crash barriers, so you should drive carefully and never assume that it is clear around the next bend or over the next hill. Use main-beam/high-beam headlamps. You may also find cattle grids (also known as cattle guards or Texas gates). These are used if livestock is loose in the area and should be negotiated very slowly as they can have an adverse effect on your vehicle’s steering. In these areas keep your speed down and watch out for livestock such as horses, sheep, cattle and deer.
Many bypasses have been built to allow faster travel, but the visitor will miss out on some of the beautiful scenery of Scotland. In some areas, road signs will indicate that the road on the next exit will rejoin the main route by showing a semi-circular exit and entrance with the destination name in the middle. This allows the driver confidence to take more scenic diversions into small towns or to find a place to stop and have lunch.
Finally, do not drive if you have consumed alcohol. Drink-driving is illegal in Scotland and not tolerated by the police. It can be difficult to estimate how much is within the legal limit so the safe limit is zero. It attracts severe punishments by court judges: Sentences include jail terms (including lengthy jail terms if you cause an accident while drunk), large fines, confiscation of your car (according to recent new laws) and if you are from the UK, disqualification from driving.
The bus is one of the cheapest way of getting around in Scotland, however it is also the slowest and least comfortable. Bus journeys in and out of Glasgow or Edinburgh at peak times can become very unpredictable due to the congested motorway network in the Central Belt – therefore think twice before using buses as an option to make tight connections with other transport modes. You can get to most large towns and cities on the Citylink bus, but it is more expensive than Megabus. Megabus is a very cheap way to travel, as ticket prices start at £1 if booked weeks in advance, and rising to over £10 for peak-rate or last-minute fares. A 50p booking charge is applied to every ticket.
Megabus departs from Aberdeen, Dundee, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Inverness and Perth, going between these Scottish cities as well as to English destinations. Note that with Megabus you can book only online (from 45 days to 30 minutes before departure).
Citylink runs a quarter-hourly bus service between Edinburgh and Glasgow. This service runs out of the main bus stations (Buchanan Street in Glasgow and Saint Andrew Square in Edinburgh), and the journey takes about an hour and ten minutes some twenty minutes slower than the train but half the price of a peak-rate train ticket.