Public transport in Scotland is generally good, but it can be costly compared with other European countries. Buses are usually the cheapest way to get around, but also the slowest. With a discount pass, trains can be competitive; they’re also quicker and often take you through beautiful scenery.
Traveline (0871 200 2233; www.travelinescotland.com) provides timetable info for all public transport services in Scotland, but can’t provide fare information or book tickets.
The main ferry operators are Caledonian MacBrayne (CalMac; 0870 565 0000; www.calmac.co.uk) for the west coast and islands, and Northlink Ferries (0845 600 0449; www.northlinkferries.co.uk) for Orkney and Shetland. CalMac’s Island Rover ticket gives unlimited travel on its ferry services, and costs £52/75 for a foot passenger for eight/15 days, plus £249/372 for a car, or £124/187 for a motorbike. Bicycles travel free with a foot passenger’s Island Rover ticket. There are also more than two dozen Island Hopscotch tickets, which give lower fares for various combinations of crossings; these are listed on the website and in the CalMac timetables booklet available from tourist offices throughout Scotland. Northlink ferries sail from Aberdeen and Scrabster (near Thurso) to Orkney, from Orkney to Shetland and from Aberdeen to Shetland. See the relevant destinations for full details of ferry services and fares.
Hitching is never entirely safe in any country and we don’t recommend it. Travellers who hitch take a small but potentially serious risk. However, many people choose to hitch, and the advice that follows should help to make their journeys as fast and safe as possible.
Hitching is fairly easy in Scotland, except around big cities and built-up areas, where you’ll need to use public transport. Although the northwest is more difficult because there’s less traffic, waits of over two hours are unusual (except on Sunday in ‘Sabbath’ areas). On some islands, where public transport is infrequent, hitching is so much a part of getting around that local drivers may stop and offer you lifts without you even asking.
It’s against the law to hitch on motorways or their immediate slip roads; make a sign and use approach roads, nearby roundabouts or service stations.
The national network is operated by Scottish Citylink (0870 550 5050; www.citylink.co.uk), with comfy, reliable buses serving all main towns. Off the main roads, you’ll have to switch to local services. If planning a journey off the main routes, phone Traveline (0871 600 2233; www.travelinescotland.com) for up-to-date timetables.
Many remote villages can only be reached by Royal Mail postbuses (0845 774 0740; www.postbus.royalmail.com). These are minibuses, or sometimes four-seater cars, driven by postal workers delivering and collecting the mail. They follow circuitous routes through some of the loveliest areas of Scotland, and are useful for walkers – there are no official stops, and you can hail a postbus anywhere on its route. Fares are usually £2 to £5 one way.
From April to September, Macbackpackers (0131-558 9900; www.macbackpackers.com) offers a jump-on, jump-off minibus tour running from Edinburgh to Inverness, Skye, Fort William, Glencoe, Oban and Stirling. A ticket, valid for up to three months, costs £75. It also offers one- to seven-day guided minibus tours of the Highlands, as do the following outfits:
Haggis Adventures (0131-557 9393; www.haggisadventures.com)
Wild in Scotland (0131-478 6500; www.wild-in-scotland.com)
Travel by car or motorcycle allows you to get to remote places and to travel quickly, independently and flexibly. Scotland’s roads are generally good and far less busy than in England, so driving’s more enjoyable. However, cars are nearly always inconvenient in city centres.
Motorways (designated ‘M’) are toll-free dual carriageways, limited mainly to central Scotland. Main roads (‘A’) are dual or single carriageways and are sometimes clogged with slow-moving trucks or caravans; the A9 from Perth to Inverness is notoriously busy.
Life on the road is more relaxed and interesting on the secondary roads (designated ‘B’) and minor roads (undesignated). These wind through the countryside from village to village. You can’t travel fast, but you won’t want to. In many country areas, and especially in the Highlands and islands, roads are only single track with passing places. Remember that passing places are not only for allowing oncoming traffic to pass, but also for overtaking – check your rear-view mirror often, and pull over to let faster vehicles pass if necessary. It’s illegal to park in passing places. In the Highlands and islands there’s the added hazard of suicidal sheep wandering onto the road (be particularly wary of lambs in spring).
At around 98p per litre (equivalent to more than US$7 per US gallon), petrol’s expensive by American or Australian standards; diesel is about 1p per litre cheaper. Distances, however, aren’t as great. Prices tend to rise as you get further from the main centres and are over 10% higher in the Outer Hebrides (around £1.09 a litre). In remote areas petrol stations are widely spaced and sometimes closed on Sunday.
Car rental is relatively costly and often you’ll be better off making arrangements in your home country for a fly/drive deal. The international rental companies charge from around £140 a week for a small car (Ford Fiesta, Peugeot 106); local companies, such as Arnold Clark (0845 607 4500; www.arnoldclarkrental.co.uk), start from £23 a day or £110 a week.
The main international hire companies:
Avis (0870 606 0100; www.avis.co.uk)
Budget (0870 153 9170; www.budget.co.uk)
Europcar (0870 607 5000; www.europcar.co.uk)
Hertz (0870 844 8844; www.hertz.co.uk)
Thrifty Car Rental (0808 234 7642; www.thrifty.co.uk)
Tourist offices have lists of local car-hire companies.
To rent a car, drivers must usually be aged 23 to 65 – outside these limits special conditions or insurance requirements may apply.
Scotland’s rail network extends to all major cities and towns, but the railway map has a lot of large, blank areas in the Highlands and the Southern Uplands where you’ll need to switch to bus or car. The West Highland line from Glasgow to Fort William and Mallaig, and the Inverness to Kyle of Lochalsh line are two of the world’s most scenic rail journeys.
Bikes are carried free on all First ScotRail trains, but space is sometimes limited. Reservations are compulsory on certain rail routes, including the Glasgow−Oban−Fort William−Mallaig line and the Inverness−Kyle of Lochalsh line; they are recommended on many others. You can make reservations for your bicycle from eight weeks to two hours in advance at main train stations, or when booking tickets by phone (0845 755 0033).
There are two classes of train travel: 1st and standard. First class is 30% to 50% more than standard but, except on very crowded trains, isn’t really worth the extra money.
First ScotRail (0845 755 0033; www.firstscotrail.com) operates most train services in Scotland. Reservations are recommended for intercity trips, especially on Fridays and public holidays; for shorter journeys, just buy a ticket at the station before you go. On certain routes, including the Glasgow−Edinburgh express, and in places where there’s no ticket office at the station, you can buy tickets on the train.
Children under five travel free; those five to 15 usually pay half-fare. On weekends on some intercity routes you can upgrade a standard-class ticket to 1st class for £3 to £5 per single journey – ask the conductor on the train.
There’s a bewildering array of ticket types.
Single Valid for a single (ie one-way) journey at any time on the particular day specified; expensive.
Day Return Valid for a return journey at any time on the particular day specified; relatively expensive.
Cheap Day Return Valid for a return journey on the day specified on the ticket, but there are time restrictions (you’re not usually allowed to travel on a train that leaves before 9.15am); relatively cheap.
Open Return For outward travel on a stated day and return on any day within a month.
SuperSaver The cheapest ticket where advance purchase isn’t necessary; can’t be used on Friday, and travel must be after 9.15am Monday to Thursday; the return must be within a calendar month.
Saver Higher priced than the SuperSaver, but can be used any day; travel must be after 9.15am on weekdays.
Value Advance Similarly priced to SuperSaver but with fewer time/day restrictions; however, you must buy tickets before 6pm on the day before travel and specify both outward and return journey times; limited availability so book early.
Discount railcards (www.railcard.co.uk) are available for people aged 60 and over, for people aged 16 to 25 (or mature full-time students), and for those with a disability (0845 605 0525, textphone 0845 601 0132). The Senior Railcard (£20), Young Persons Railcard (£20) and Disabled Persons Railcard (£18) are each valid for one year and give one-third off most train fares in Scotland, England and Wales. Fill in an application at any major train station. You’ll need proof of age (birth certificate, passport or driving licence) for the Young Persons and Seniors railcards (proof of enrolment for mature-age students) and proof of entitlement for the Disabled Persons Railcard.
There are lots of companies in Scotland offering all kinds of tours, including historical, activity-based and backpacker tours. It’s a question of picking the tour that suits your requirements and budget. More companies are listed in destination chapters under Tours.
Classique Tours (0141-889 4050; www.classiquetours.co.uk; 8 Underwood Rd, Paisley PA3 1TD) Bus tours of the western isles in vintage 1950s coaches, departing from Glasgow and staying in atmospheric country hotels.
Mountain Innovations (01479-831331; www.scotmountain.co.uk; Fraoch Lodge, Deshar Rd, Boat of Garten PH24 3BN) Good-value guided activity holidays and courses in the Highlands; walking, mountain biking, kayaking, skiing and horse riding.
Most domestic air services are geared to business needs, or are lifelines for remote island communities. Flying is a pricey way to cover relatively short distances, and only worth considering if you’re short of time and want to visit the Hebrides, Orkney or Shetland.
British Airways/Loganair (0870 850 9850; www.loganair.co.uk)
Eastern Airways (0870 366 9100; www.easternairways.com)
Highland Airways (0845 450 2245; www.highlandairways.co.uk)
British Airways/Loganair is the main domestic airline in Scotland, with flights from Glasgow to Barra, Benbecula, Campbeltown, Islay, Kirkwall, Sumburgh, Stornoway and Tiree; from Edinburgh to Inverness, Kirkwall, Sumburgh, Stornoway and Wick; from Aberdeen to Kirkwall and Sumburgh; and from Inverness to Kirkwall, Stornoway and Sumburgh. They also operate interisland flights in Orkney and Shetland, and from Barra to Benbecula.
Scotland is a compact country, and travelling around by bicycle is a perfectly feasible proposition if you have the time. Indeed, for touring the islands a bicycle is both cheaper (in terms of ferry fares) and more suited to their small size and more leisurely pace of life. For more information, see p59.