There are a few things you need to know before you travel to Scotland. With two amazing and historic cities in Glasgow and Edinburgh, and more opportunities for outdoor activities there is something for everyone in Scotland. As long as you don’t mind some unpredictable cloud coverage with a chance of rain.
We had more than just a wee bit of fun in the charismatic and stunning highlands of Scotland. It’s packed with history, stunning landscapes, great food, and charismatic locals.
It doesn’t matter if you are a regular traveler or first-time traveler these are a few things you should know before you travel to Scotland, the rest I’m sure you will figure it when you get there!
Traveling to Scotland for the First Time?
1. Just a Wee Drink
There are two things you need to know about the people of Scotland. They are some of the friendliest people on earth and they like to drink. Don’t be surprised when you hear the classic line “oh, it’s just a wee drink” or “how ’bout a wee dram o’ whisky.”
Although, Scotch is of national pride and an amazing spirit it is not what the Scottish drink every day. The most popular drink these days is gin and beer. So, we got to make friends and relive our days of African safari with some gin & tonics.
You should get used to saying the word wow if you are planning a road trip around Scotland! The rugged mountains that appear to be older than time itself are cloaked in thick heather that washes across the landscape in a sea of green and purple. In all the places we have traveled the Scottish Highlands is one of the most beautiful regions we have ever seen.
We weren’t prepared for the beauty of the highlands or the Isle of Skye and knew nothing about the landscape of Scotland before arriving. It only took an hour of driving out of Edinburgh before we were out of the car snapping photos.
3. Freedom to Roam
One thing to know when you take your trip to Scotland is there is no such thing as trespassing. Everyone has the right to roam along the countryside, including farms. The “freedom to roam” is the public’s right to access public or privately owned land for recreation.
This doesn’t include houses, gardens, or military bases, so don’t go squatting on someone’s porch, but it does allow people to enjoy the land and inland water for their own well being. The only stipulation is that you must do so responsibly and safely.
So, mind the sheep and close the gate!
4. Cloudy With a Chance of Sun
Despite what you may see in countless photos and videos (we’re guilty) Scotland has some notorious weather. Expect clouds, rain, wind, sideways rain, fog, and the occasional sun. If you’re coming to Scotland for a suntan you may want to rebook your flights. It’s best you come prepared with at least a rain jacket and waterproof boots.
Forget the umbrella! Wind + Umbrella = Not Good If you want to know more we’ve got a packing post for Scotland!
There is a serious amount of Scottish pride these days. With a rich culture and the Scottish flag flying just about everywhere it’s impossible not to get into the Scottish mood.
6. Forget Fish & Chips
The Atlantic Ocean supplies a copious amount of amazing seafood to Scotland. Fish and chips may a be a classic dish, but there is a lot more to food in Scotland these days than a fried piece of cod. Look for amazing smoked salmon, fresh oysters, langoustine, trout, scallops, and even sea urchin. We had some amazing meals on our Scotland trip. You can check out the best of our Scottish food here.
7. Beware the Midges
If there is one terrible, terrible, terrible thing about Scotland it is the bloody midges – and the Scots will agree! We’ve dealt with a lot of insects in our travels, but none as bad as midges (and yes that includes our year in Africa). They are tiny flying insects that are attracted to your nose, eyes, mouth, and every exposed piece of skin.
Oh, and they fly in swarms and they bite. If you run across a patch of these flying demons you will know it.
The best defense is some bug spray and clothes that cover your skin. We did see some photographers with these things that might be a worth while investment… We didn’t know if we should laugh or applaud them.
8. Aye Lassie and Lads
Loch, hill, ben, and glen are just a few names you’ll need to learn when you travel to Scotland. These aren’t names of people, but various natural features you’ll find throughout the country.
Lochs are what the rest of the English speaking world refers to as lakes. Hill or Ben can refer to a mountain, and glen means valley. Also, I’m convinced all pirate talk in movies is just a bunch of Scots. Aye, lassie!
9. There are a Few Narrow Roads
Wondering how to travel in Scotland? Well, one of the best ways is to drive yourself! If you plan to drive through the Scottish Highlands or the North Coat 500 be prepared for some single track roads. The vast majority of roads in Scotland are one lane with a small passing area to allow to oncoming cars to pass.
These passing points are roughly every 400 meters or so to let oncoming traffic get through. The car closest to a passing point should be the one to yield. That does not mean crossing the path of another vehicle into the passing point. If the passing place is on your side of the road you move over, if it is on their side you wait for them to approach you.
10. and Shaggy Cows and Black Sheep
There are more sheep in the Scottish Highlands than there are people. In other words, there is a lot of sheep, like a ton, Scotland thank you for supplying the world with wool.
They also gave us an animal with probably the best hairdo in the world. The Highland Cow, ‘ighland coo’, shaggy cow, or kyloe. If you’re traveling Scotland spotting one of these iconic animals is an absolute must.
Transport Around Scotland
Most trips to Scotland will start and end at Edinburgh Airport. The best way to travel around Scotland is with a rental car, especially if you’re traveling with a group. Driving in Scotland is no joke and it’s important to realize that before you rent a vehicle. For starters, the Scots drive on the left side of the road, with the steering wheel on the right.
Second, instead of stop lights and signs to idle at most of the roads in Scotland run smoothly because of roundabouts. Yes, roundabouts. Those are the circle streets you may get a wee bit nervous about driving on if you’re not used to them.
Third and most important – the roads on the North Coast 500 are often small single track roads fit for just one vehicle at a time. There are passing points every 400 meters or so to let oncoming traffic get through. The car closest to a passing point should be the one to yield.
We traveled around Scotland for two weeks and paid about $300 for a car rental in Scotland, which was a pretty decent deal in my opinion! I generally like to check comparison sites so I can get the best prices. My favorites to look at are:
- RentalCars.com: Provides comparisons for car rentals in Scotland.
- AutoEurope: I can often find deals here for car rentals in Europe.
- Discover Car Hire: Searches rental car prices around the globe.
Internet in Scotland
If you want to stay connected while in Scotland I would recommend picking up a Sim card and purchasing data when you arrive. We personally purchased 12 GB of data for £20 with Three. Their coverage extended into patches of the highlands and allowed us to at the very least check our emails, Instagram, and Facebook each day. Other comparable telecom companies in the UK include O2 and Vodafone.
When is the Best Season to Travel Scotland?
High season (July-September): Like most places in Europe, Scotland’s high season runs from July to mid September. This is when you will find the best weather as noted above, but also crowds. Days are longer, the weather is warmer, and hotel and car rental prices are at their highest.
Shoulder Season (May-June and Late September-November): We’ve traveled to Scotland during the shoulder season and loved it. The weather is cool, the leaves are orange and yellow, and the vibe in the air is wonderful. This is also when we’ve found great deals on car rentals and guesthouse. However, popular places like Glasgow and Skye were very busy. We saw sunny days, but also had a lot of those rainy Scotland overcast days.
Low Season (Late November-April): The temperatures are cooler during the low season in Scotland and you stand a very strong chance of getting caught in a rain (or snow) storm. If you plan to travel to Scotland during this time you absolutely need a packable rain jacket, travel umbrella, and waterproof boots. The upside is you’ll find low prices and low numbers of tourists. If you are in Scotland over the holidays make sure to take part in the festivals around the cities!
Where to Stay in Scotland?
Kingsmills Hotel – Inverness
Pretty much every North Coast 500 road trip starts or ends in the highland capital of Inverness. Accommodation is limited for the demand, but those lucky enough to book in advance can score rooms at the Kingsmills Hotel. The Kingsmill is one of the best places to stay in the city. The hotel offers wonderful service based out of a 17th Century residence.
Natural Retreats – John O’ Groats
This is probably one of the coolest places to stay when it comes to accommodation in Scotland. These glass-faced self-catering apartments are located in the most Northernly town in Scotland, John O’ Groats, on the British Isle. They come equipped with awesome features like a mud room, media hub, a large kitchen, a front porch, coffee machine, wood stove, and three full bedrooms making it perfect for families. Waking up to mesmerizing views of the Orkney islands is one of the best ways to start your day on the route.
Old Drynie House – Black Isle
This was actually the first “true” bed and breakfast we have stayed at together (even after 60 countries!). It was a splendid experience and the character of a well run Scottish bed and breakfast makes it a must for anyone traveling the North Coast 500. We had a lovely pink room with a fireplace, sitting lounge, and it was even stocked with a nice selection of DVD’s. The morning’s breakfast was beautifully served on lovely china in a group setting. The selection of fresh fruits, baked goods, and hot breakfast items was splendid. Having smoked Scottish salmon and eggs in the morning is a real treat when in Scotland.
What to Pack for Scotland
You’re going to need something to carry your belongings in while you’re traveling around the world. Even if you’re not doing extensive hikes you need at least something small for day trips. My favorite daypacks are from Camelbak. You can see all our other backpack recommendations below:
The fleece sweater is a perfect layer when combined with an outer shell to keep you warm. We purchased wool sweaters from independent retailers in Scotland, but good ones weren’t easy to find. For those with less time a little bit of online shopping for wool sweaters will suffice. Start here!
Goretex Rain Jacket
We’re building up a collection of shell jackets. We always carry one in our pack and they’ve come in handy many times. Weather around the world can be iffy in Scotland, so it’s best to be prepared. They are lightweight, durable, packable, waterproof, and windproof and really a great travel rain jacket. We have a bunch of different shell jackets after several years, but my favorite right now is from Arc’teryx.
Any jacket can do the job, but the top dollar ones will hold up and really help in inclement weather.
I love real books, but for traveling it can be easier to carry a lighter and more compact item like a Kindle. Plus, then you can download new books on the go!
Please consider purchasing a travel water bottle before your trip! We hate to see one time use plastic bottles ending up in the ocean. The tap water is so good here – seriously please don’t be one of those tourists that buys plastic water bottles. It’s a waste of money and plastic!
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