The majority of Scots live in the central belt, with Glasgow in the west and Edinburgh in the east. Public transport in this region is efficient and most places are easily accessible by train and bus. Further south and north it can be a different story: off the main routes, public transport services are few and far between, particularly in more remote parts of the Highlands and Islands. With careful planning, however, practically everywhere is accessible, and the scenery is usually adequate compensation for a long journey.
Continue reading to find out more about...
Scotland has a modest rail network, at its densest in the central belt, skeletal in the Highlands, and nonexistent in the Islands. ScotRail runs the majority of train services, reaching all the major towns, sometimes on lines rated among the great scenic routes of the world.
You can buy train tickets at most stations, but if the ticket office at the station is closed, or the automatic machine isn’t working, you may buy your ticket on board from the inspector using cash or a credit card. Those eligible for a national rail pass can obtain discounted tickets, with up to a third off most fares. These include the 16–25 Railcard, for full-time students and those aged between 16 and 25, and the Senior Railcard for people over 60. Alternatively, a Family & Friends Railcard entitles up to four adults and up to four children a reduction.
In addition, ScotRail offers several regional passes. The most flexible is the Freedom of Scotland Travelpass, which gives unlimited train travel within Scotland. It’s also valid on all CalMac ferries, Glasgow Underground and on various buses in the remoter regions. The Highland Rover allows unlimited train travel within the Highlands. Lastly, there’s a Central Scotland Rover, which gives unlimited train travel on lines between Glasgow and Edinburgh.
BritRail passes (britrail.com) are only available to visitors not resident in the UK and must be purchased before you leave your home country. The pass is available in a wide variety of types. If you’ve been resident in a European country other than the UK for at least six months, an InterRail pass, allowing unlimited train travel within Britain, might be worth it if Scotland is part of a longer European trip. For more details, visit interrailnet.com. Note that Eurail passes are not valid in the UK.
On most ScotRail routes bicycles are carried free, but since there are only between two and six bike spaces available, it’s a good idea to reserve ahead and a requirement on longer journeys.
By coach and bus
All of Scotland’s major towns and cities are served by a few long-distance bus services, known across Britain as coaches. Scotland’s national operator is Scottish Citylink (citylink.co.uk). On the whole, coaches are cheaper than trains and, as a result, are very popular, so for longer journeys it’s advisable to book ahead.
There are various discounts on offer for those with children, those under 26 or over 60 and full-time students (contact Scottish Citylink for more details), as well as an Explorer Pass, which gives unlimited travel throughout Scotland. Overseas passport holders can buy a Brit Xplorer pass (in 7-, 14- or 28-day versions) in the UK, from National Express (nationalexpress.com), or at major ports and airports.
Local bus services are run by a bewildering array of companies, many of which change routes and timetables frequently. Local tourist offices can provide free timetables or you can contact Traveline Scotland (travelinescotland.com), which provides a reliable service both online and by phone. Some areas in the Highlands and Islands are only served by a postbus, vehicles carrying mail and a handful of fare-paying passengers. They set off early in the morning, usually around 8am and, though sociable, can be excruciatingly slow. You can view routes and timetables on the Royal Mail website (royalmail.com/postbus).
In order to drive in Scotland you need a current full driving licence. If you’re bringing your own vehicle into the country you should also carry your vehicle registration, ownership and insurance documents at all times.
In Scotland, as in the rest of the UK, you drive on the left. Speed limits are 20–40mph in built-up areas, 70mph on motorways and dual carriageways (freeways) and 60mph on most other roads. As a rule, assume that in any area with street lighting the limit is 30mph.
In the Highlands and Islands, there are still plenty of single-track roads with passing places; in addition to allowing oncoming traffic to pass at these points, you should also let cars behind you overtake. In remoter regions, the roads are dotted with sheep which are entirely oblivious to cars, so slow down and edge your way past; should you kill or injure one, it is your duty to inform the local farmer.
The AA (theaa.com), RAC (rac.co.uk) and Green Flag (greenflag.co.uk) all operate 24-hour emergency breakdown services. You may be entitled to free assistance through a reciprocal arrangement with a motoring organization in your home country. If not, you can make use of these emergency services by joining at the roadside, but you will incur a hefty surcharge. In remote areas, you may have a long wait for assistance.
Car rental in Scotland is expensive. The major chains are confined mostly to the big cities, so it may be cheaper to use small local agencies – we’ve highlighted some in the account. Remember, too that fuel in Scotland is expensive – petrol (gasoline) and diesel cost well over £1.20 per litre. Automatics are rare at the lower end of the price scale – if you want one, you should book well ahead. Camper vans are another option; rates start at £400 a week in the high season, but you’ll save on accommodation – visit walkhighlands.co.uk to view a range of options. Few companies will rent to drivers with less than one year’s experience and most will only rent to people over 21 or 25 and under 70 or 75 years of age.
Scotland has more than sixty inhabited islands, and nearly fifty of them have scheduled ferry links. Most ferries carry cars and vans, and the vast majority can – and should – be booked as far in advance as possible.
CalMac has a virtual monopoly on services on the River Clyde and to the Hebrides, sailing to 22 islands and 4 peninsulas. They aren’t quick – no catamarans or fast ferries – or cheap, but they do have two types of reduced-fare pass. If you’re taking more than one ferry, ask for one of the discounted Island Hopscotch tickets. If you’re going to be taking a lot of ferries, you might be better off with an Island Rover, which entitles you to eight or fifteen consecutive days’ unlimited ferry travel. It does not, however, guarantee you a place on any ferry, so you still need to book ahead.
Car ferries to Orkney and Shetland are run by Northlink Ferries. Pentland Ferries also run a car ferry to Orkney, and John O’Groats Ferries run a summer-only passenger service to Orkney. The various Orkney islands are linked to each other by Orkney Ferries; Shetland’s inter-island ferries are mostly council-run so the local tourist board is your best bet for information. There are also numerous small operators round the Scottish coast that run fast RIB taxi services, day-excursion trips and even the odd scheduled service.
Apart from the three major airports of Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, Scotland has numerous minor airports around the Scottish Highlands and Islands, some of which are little more than gravel airstrips. Airfares fluctuate enormously depending on demand – if you book early enough you can fly from Glasgow to Islay for £50 one-way, but leave it to the last minute and it could cost you more than twice that. Most flights within Scotland are operated by flybe (flybe.com), or its franchise partner Loganair (loganair.co.uk). For inter-island flights in Shetland, you need to book direct through Directflight. Competition emerges from time to time, with Eastern Airways (easternairways.com) currently offering flights from Aberdeen to Stornoway and Wick.
Tours in Scotland
Minibus tours that operate out of Edinburgh (and Glasgow) and head off into the Highlands are popular with backpackers who want a quick taste of Scotland. Aimed at the youth market, they adopt an upbeat and irreverent approach to sightseeing, as well as offering a good opportunity to get to know fellow travellers.
The current leading operator, Haggis (t0131/557 9393, haggisadventures.com), has bright yellow minibuses setting off daily on whistle-stop tours lasting between one and six days, in the company of a live-wire guide.
Several other companies offer similar packages, including Macbackpackers (t0131/558 9900, macbackpackers.com), which runs tours linking up their own hostels round the country, and Wild in Scotland (t0131/478 6500, wild-in-scotland.com), which takes in the Outer Hebrides or Orkney. The popular Rabbie’s Trail Burners tours (t0131/226 3133, rabbies.com) don’t aim squarely at the backpacker market and have a rather more mellow outlook.