So you want to rent a car in Scotland? Heed my warnings.
You’re one-stop survival guide for renting and driving a car in Scotland. Plus, the story of that time I almost got to see The Queen of England, thrown in free of charge!
- Definitely rent a car
- Logistics and how to save some money
- To insure or not to insure?
- There are map readers in this world and there are those that spend the extra $ on a GPS
- The rules of the road
- Be prepared to drive on single-track roads
- A tale of caution
I like to think of myself as a bit of an expert, having driven an unnecessary amount in the country, been apart of a little incident and dealt with rental drama. I did it all so you don’t have to!
This is what happens when you don’t plan well:
Google wouldn’t let me add any more stops, but this is roughly the route I took during my week in Scotland. Many many hours of unnecessary driving.
Do it! Rent a car!
While it’s not completely necessary for getting around, as they do have public transportation in the Highlands, I seriously encourage anyone visiting the area to rent a car.
As I explained in my post about arriving in Glen Coe, the drive is a major part of the experience of visiting Scotland, and you don’t want to miss out on being able to pull over whenever you want, for however long you want.
Especially if you’re not a big planner like I am, you have the option to go wherever, whenever! But do book accommodations well in advance, especially if you want to visit Isle of Skye.
I found myself just bouncing about, listening to the advice of the locals and going from there. I had a minor timetable because the car had to be back on a certain day and I booked some beds in the places I wanted to visit, but other than that, each day was a new unknown adventure.
Let’s talk logistics
The rental age in the UK varies by rental agency, but most require you to be at least 23 or they’ll add on extra fees.
I don’t know why they chose 23 as the fateful age, as a 22 (and a half thank you very much) -year-old I felt personally attacked, but then again I did unfortunately end up being a menace on the road… touché UK rental agencies.
As punishment for being born in ’95, I paid a fairly large fee. Some rental companies charge a fee for young drivers even into the 23/24 age groups, so look out for that and check multiple companies out.
You can also cut costs by being able to drive stick like most of the world can! Manual cars are about a hundred dollars cheaper and I found that automatic cars are a lot harder to come by.
Also, fun fact, and another blow to my driving reputation:
The speed limit signs are in mph, not km/h as one might think being in metric system land.
I knew my car’s odometer was in miles per hour, but thought maybe it was because I had an “american-style” automatic, and figured the speed limit signs were in kilometers per hour (they aren’t labeled!). Consistent with the belief that Americans, operating with our imperial system (Fahrenheit makes sense for body temperature, I’ll give it that), don’t know how to make simple conversions, I had absolutely no idea what speed to go the entire time I was in the country.
“Why didn’t you just look it up?” You’re wondering. I didn’t have access to the Internet for almost the entire week, and when I did, I prioritized maintaining my existence on social media.
So, I decided to just go… slow. Figuring the speed limits couldn’t be too high since the roads here so twisty and and small, I went an average of 40mph, often not daring to go over 50mph.
Turns out I was going significantly under the speed limit! Those “70” signs really do mean 70 mph.
Me and a paper map? HA
I paid an extra fee for a GPS, I wouldn’t have made it out of the parking garage without it. I used my smartphone too, but you’ll find yourself out of range and out of luck if you rely on that 100%. I suggest getting the GPS, then using a paper map as a backup.
As expected, the GPS isn’t totally accurate in some of those far corners of the Highlands, I found myself on a surprise ferry at one point.
It’s priceless to have, just don’t follow it blindly.
I went on to become very well acquainted with paper maps just a short week after I left Scotland. Once my phone called it quits (I may have expedited the process), paper maps became my lifeline.
To insure or not insure?
Me on the phone with my mother:
“Should I get this insurance?”
“Should I get it? He’s ‘seriously’ recommending it.”
“Are you sure?”
“Just get the insurance.”
This is how it always goes, isn’t it? If not with your mother, inside your head.
You do you, but let me just say, thank God I got the insurance. If you’re not used to driving on the left in tight winding roads, get the insurance. At the very least, tire and glass protection if they offer it.
Now, the actual driving part
The guy at Sixt handed me the keys and then I was on my own. As I said, getting out of the tight little garage was a challenge in itself. Then I had to navigate downtown Glasgow.
There was a lot of screaming, from me and others.
Once I left the city and was in route to the Highlands the traffic began to ease into nothing, and it was just me and the awfully tight Scottish country roads for a while.
Picture the windows down, wind blowing through my hair, shades on, coming around the bend of a cliff into a gorgeous valley during golden hour.
That would have been nice… reality tells a different story.
Hands clenched on ten and two, at least 7 cars piled behind me as I try to navigate the relentless turns, the car banging into the left wall every few minutes, tears steadily falling from my left cheek. Yeah, that’s more like it.
Rules of the road:
- Drive on the left
- Learn how to drive on single-track roads – there’s a method to this madness
- Don’t quickly brake in the middle of the road
- If you want to pull over, put your turn signal on in plenty of time and start breaking ahead of time
- Let people pass you if you’re driving slow
- Pay attention at all times, the scenery is very distracting
- For the love of God, stay on the left
Driving on the left is more daunting than I originally thought.
“Pft, relax Mom, you’re like totally buggin’,” I originally thought when my mom expressed concern about me driving abroad.
I got used to it fairly quickly though, but no matter what you’ll probably find yourself driving on the wrong side with someone frantically flashing their headlights at you at some point.
And at first you’ll be like “What’s your damage, guy?” Then you’ll realize, oh, it’s you 🙂
A lot of the Highlands’ roads don’t even have two lanes, but the rule still stands; if a passing place is on your left, pull into it and let the oncoming car go. I had never experienced single track roads, even in the boonies of Southern Delaware, so chances are you never have either.
The easiest way to explain how to navigate them is to watch this cute, very polite little video that I watched before I left the States.
One thing the knowledgable Highland cow did fail to mention was waving. The best part about driving in the Highlands is getting a little wave from each and every person that drives past you.
It’s very uplifting.
Once you catch on and someone doesn’t wave back to you you’ll curse their entire existence.
Pulling over at high speeds at the drop of a dime was one of the unexpected aspects of driving in the Highlands.
It basically goes like this, “Ooo that looks pretty.”
You’re zooming by, then all the sudden you see a little area where you can pull off, “I need it. I NEED the pretty!!”
You slam on the breaks and veer off of the road into the mini car park nearly causing multiple accidents.
Nothing like a 70 mph swerve into a short rocky overlook over a cliff of death!
There aren’t many places to turn around, you’ll miss a few of these, you’ll get a few. Just don’t break in the middle of the road with people behind you.
In other words, don’t be an idiot tourist on the road, you can be an idiot tourist when not operating machinery if you must.
Follow all of these rules and maybe you won’t be a total aggravation to everyone around you like I was.
If you still haven’t caught on yet, yes, I crashed the rental. And I had a lot of time on my hands during the whole process so I scribbled down the ridiculousness that was happening around me.
Coming at you live from Lix Toll Garage in Killin, a tale of caution:
Spent the better part of my Saturday in the back of a police car.
I knew this trip would be full of firsts and exciting experiences, but almost tipping the car over into a loch was an unwelcome one. The rental’s two left wheels are hanging on to an inch of road for dear life.
Now I’m that tourist that stops the entire flow of traffic on a main road for two hours.
The roads in the highlands are very narrow and winding and, for some reason, driving on the left makes me want to stay closer to the left. I spent much of my time on the road permanently cringing while I repeatedly banged into the stonewalled sides that seem to line every inch of road in this country.
There was heavy traffic, as heavy as traffic can be in this sparsely populated area, and I was coming around a particularly narrow bend with two stone walls on either side.
With a loud “Pop,” I lost control and swerved off the road.
Luckily, Scotland produces some of the nicest people I’ve ever encountered, and an entire family stopped almost immediately to help me.
I was sitting at a 45 degree angle off the embankment kind of laughing at myself and shaking my head at how unfortunate this situation was.
The son rushed over and opened up the door to give me a hand out. They were all afraid the car would roll into the loch so I grabbed my phone, wallet and papers from the rental company that I thought I’d never have to use.
If the car had actually rolled into the loch I think I’d have to cut my Scotland visit short, hitch a boat to Ireland and change my name.
As I stepped out of the car I realized just how remarkably unfortunate the situation was. The car was literally inches away from disaster.
Before I could assess any physical damages the mother ran up and gave me a hug and a kiss, and a bottle of sparkling water. She even apologized because she only had sparkling and couldn’t offer me still.
She knew me well, I hate sparkling.
Meanwhile, the father was grinning ear to ear having the time of his life directing traffic until the police arrived a few minutes later.
The police are another kind bunch. I mean really nice.
I was of course worried I’d have to spend a fortune and that this would get looked into as negligent driving or something (because man was I negligent). They were sincerely just glad that I was ok.
I spent the next hour or so in the back of their car while they controlled traffic. I was on and off of the phone with the car rental place back in Glasgow, grudgingly repeating my license plate information over and over again.
“Delta yankee sixty-six, delta freddy alpha.” Officer Neal taught me to say it like that after hearing me say “No not ‘B,’ ‘D’ as in ‘dog,’” enough times.
On a side note, have you ever tried to have a conversation with someone from Glasgow (or Scotland in general)? It’s like you know they’re speaking English… but… no… it’s completely indecipherable.
About a month later in Budapest I had a group of guys from Glasgow as roommates and one guy, Chris, whose name was a complete mystery to me for days because the word coming out of his mouth was certainly not Chris, needed one of his buddies to translate everything he said.
Since leaving I started following a bunch of Scottish humor accounts on instagram. When you can decipher what their saying, their humor is second to none.
Finally a short Santa-looking character in washed out blue overalls came to save the day. He strolled up with a hook in his hand and casually connected it to the side of the car and within minutes my little survivor is on all fours and attached to the tow truck.
Only the start
I’m finally in the truck with Santa and about two miles down from where we started he pulls off behind some other cars and a “Hot Snacks” trailer.
“I’m going to get a coffee and a bit to eat.”
As he goes to shut the door he pauses and says, “would you like something to eat?”
Hobbits! You’re all a bunch of hobbits.
I’d just like to be on my way, actually. The trip wire didn’t catch me in the middle of a jaunt through the countryside, I have places to be. I’m supposed to be nearly in Braemar by now.
Today is the Braemar Gathering, where once a year on the first Saturday in September, men come to play cultural games like the caber toss and the Scottish hammer throw. There are bagpipes, kilts, dancing, the whole shebang, and all in front of Her Majesty The Queen.
It’s not like I planned this entire trip around this day or anything.
Santa is caught up talking to someone now. Nobody around here is in a hurry to do anything it seems.
We’re pulling into the garage, which they pronounce “gare-edge,” and I’m thinking “Alright sweet they’ll toss these tires off, throw on some new ones and I’ll be on my way.”
Let’s fast forward to five hours later
I am still in the damned “gare-edge.” I’ve been here so long I’ve made friends with a few of the mechanics.
James tells me, “Scots are the most inefficient people.”
Yes I’d have to agree, I’ve been back and forth with the car rental place and these guys for hours just for each to say:
“Well they need to fax over the paperwork.”
“No, we sent it over an hour ago.”
“The paperwork is incomplete.”
And repeat and repeat.
It’s nearly 6 p.m., and the garage that the car rental place wants my car sent to is closing. They also don’t even have the tires my car needs.
James is on the phone with the rental company again and slaps it down, “We’re good!”
“Ay!” erupts from the little office and the guys get to work changing my tires.
It took about 5 minutes.
Needless to say I’ve missed the Braemar Gathering.
*Read* I’ve missed THE QUEEN OF FKN ENGLAND. Who knows if she’ll even make it another year!
Now I’m on my way north to Forres for my next adventure, staying in a man’s tipi in his backyard. Didn’t anticipate arriving in the dark.
As the man at Lix Toll said, at least I can say I had a “smashing” time.
Here’s a look at some of the traffic I managed to cause in the middle of nowhere. If turn your volume on you can tell I had no idea what Santa was saying.
Big ol’ whoopsiedaisy!
When it was time to leave Scotland I quietly dropped the rental back off in the middle of the night and conveniently broke my phone a couple days later. So who knows if I owed anything for the damages, I surely don’t plan on looking into it.