Vacationing in the Scottish highlands w/o car - madness?
March 15, 2013 6:08 PM   Subscribe

My family and I are considering a vacation in the Scottish highlands this summer, but aren't sure whether it would be worthwhile, given our lack of car. If it does make sense, we'd love specific advice about places to see and/or tour companies to patronize. Could any Mefites familiar with Scotland weigh in?

My family has been considering a vacation in Scotland this summer, since we have reason to be in Europe anyway. By "we", if it matters, I mean parents with children in their twenties, all Americans, who have varying degrees of experience with England/Europe. Unfortunately, due to previous negative experiences on British roads, certain members of our family refuse to rent a car while there. We were hoping to spend the 1-2 weeks in the Scottish highlands, but have been trying to figure out exactly how best to do this while carless. We had thought about going with a tour company, but after looking into it, our concerns are kitschiness, too young of an environment (sleeping in bunk beds at youth hostels and being on a week-long bus trip with drunk college students), and generally not having an experience as good as that which we could plan ourselves if we had a car. Unfortunately, we are also trying to be frugal, which probably rules out many better options. My questions are:

1. Is it worthwhile to try to see the Scottish highlands without renting a car, or would this be like trying to see the American West without renting a car? (Along with this, how bad is driving in the Scottish highlands, versus, say, on very narrow hedged Welsh roads, or in London traffic?)
2. If the answer is yes:
a) Is there any good public transportation around the Scottish highlands which takes you to some key areas without changing buses four different times, etc.
b) OR can anyone recommend any reasonably-priced Scottish tour companies that cater to adults (i.e. no partying and a focus on more serious aspects on the tour - this is at the particular request of my parents).
3. What in the Scottish highlands is most worth seeing?

N.B. The alternative to all of this is simply to spend the time elsewhere in Europe. We were thinking about a city break (see: carlessness) - probably Paris, which half of us have not been to, and which the other half have not spent extensive time in.
posted by UniversityNomad to Travel & Transportation around Scotland (21 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
My husband and I (Americans) traveled in the Highlands a couple of years ago and I would not want to do it without a car. There are so many small places to stop and interesting things to see and I think you'd miss a lot without that level of flexibility and independence. And really, the only dicey part of driving was the first hour getting used to driving on the other side of the road, and the occasional roundabout in the more southerly urbanish areas between Stirling and Edinburgh (although by the end of the 10 day trip we were old hat at that sort of thing, too). There are single track roads, which came as quite a surprise the first time we saw them, but traffic was very, very light in the rural Highlands so it wasn't ever a problem. It may be worth noting that we were there in late September - traffic is probably heavier in the summer tourist season. Still, I don't think you would find it unpleasant to drive.

Our itinerary was Edinburgh-Inverness-Skye-Ullapool-Glencoe-Stirling-Edinburgh. It was fantastic, the best trip of my life to date.
posted by something something at 6:47 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

Haggis Tours - tours all the famous haggis factories of the Scottish Highlands*
Go Blue Banana

* Not actually: they do hop-on-hop-off service and short and long tours. Was good fun! And wasn't full of young crunchies partying.
posted by sebastienbailard at 7:18 PM on March 15, 2013

I seriously doubt it will work for you without a car. I often have to travel in the Highlands on business despite being a non-driver and it only works by getting as close to my destination as possible by train and then joining up with a car owner/or taking a taxi. There are seriously beautiful rail journeys, but once you get off the train if you are without a car you are stuck again. Occasionally from desperation, I've bought out a taxi for an afternoon in remote areas. Even if you get somewhere by rail, you wont be able to get about easily without a car. The only really dangerous road is the A9 which you can avoid at its worst by taking the train to Inverness. The alternatives are mostly for student backpackers. There may be coach tours for seniors but I would expect those to be quite heavy on kitsch.

You could island hop - try doing the islands by ferry and buses timed to join up with them and then take day tours from the main tourist towns. Maybe rail Glasgow to Oban on the fabulous West Highland line, then base yourself there and take ferries to the islands and bus tours?
posted by Flitcraft at 7:22 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

My friend and I did it without a car and it was gorgeous. We took an overnight train from London to Inverness then went up to the Orkney Islands (you MUST go!) and then came down on the Highland Line to the Isle of Skye and over to Edinburgh. Loved it. So civilized.
posted by ThatCanadianGirl at 7:34 PM on March 15, 2013 [2 favorites]

I read this as "My spouse and I with our X number of kids would like to tour Scotland without a car". Then I could tell you that if you had a baby or something, that would be a no go, but if you had a couple of adventurous kids, that could work out.

That was an incorrect assumption on my part. The fact that you're going to need some sort of personal transportation while there remains. You can't take a bus to the Tesco in rural Scotland. I'm still wondering about how many people we're talking about. 4? 8? 20?

My suggestion, try to line up a rental of at least one of those minivan type things, and find two or three people willing to drive. It isn't so bad. You'll get used to those odd right side angles in a day or two.

Just make sure to not drink at all if you're driving later, a friend's older (late 60's) mother got hit with a DUI ticket while in Wales. I was the lucky guy who got to bail her out/pick her up.

Good luck, the driving culture in the United Kingdom can be fun and infuriating at the same time.
posted by Sphinx at 8:43 PM on March 15, 2013 [1 favorite]

That was supposed to be 'left side angles' up there.
posted by Sphinx at 9:17 PM on March 15, 2013

I think it would be difficult without private transportation unless you are going to do a tour.

A couple of years ago my partner and I did a tour with Wild in Scotland, who were fantastic and come highly recommended by me. It was a young crowd (generally 20's), but there were a couple of parent-child pairs as well, with the kids being in their 20s. There was a certain amount of walking, but I don't think active people in their 40s and 50s would have an issue with it, and although we went out for a few drinks in the evening I wouldn't characterise it as "drunk college students" - though I am from Australia, so YMMV. :-) You can check out what you see on their web page. I didn't feel there was any lack of seriousness - the scenery was breathtaking (we did this tour) and there was a focus on visiting historical sites and understanding a bit about their stories. It might be worth talking to Wild in Scotland (or another tour outfit) to find out what they could do for your family - could you bunk together in a room with just family members? Could you pay extra to stay at a nearby motel instead? (Some of the longer tours include staying in castles etc. for some nights, which I think would be awesome, but would not necessarily be comfortable).

As regards roads: I sort of share the hesitation of your group members. I have distinct memories of long stretches of one lane roads in the highlands - as in, if another car comes, one of you has to pull off the road to let the other pass. There are bays at regular intervals for passing, but I found it quite harrowing when we met another vehicle. I was going to say that you'd be on the opposite side of the road, but that would be less relevant on single lane roads! However, everybody is in the same boat with regard to the narrow roads, so if you have a couple of gutsy people willing to drive, getting a van of some kind might be an option.

I hope you get to go to the Highlands, they are one of my most memorable travel experiences!
posted by Cheese Monster at 10:35 PM on March 15, 2013

Depends. If you want to travel around enough to see the Highlands comprehensively, then you'll either need a tour company or you'll need a car. (And whike Highland roads are quiet, they're often single-track, windy, and shared with locals who drive along them surprisingly fast.) If you're okay with being based out if one spot for a while, then it's absolutely doable; I don't drive and I've had several great holidays in the Highlands. See the train map here for what's accessible that way.

I suggest doing something like this:

- Start off at Edinburgh or Inverness, and get a tour from there that'll take you around the North. (I don't have any personal experiences with tour companies but have Scottish friends who aren't into drunken partying who've spoken very well of Rabbie's Tours, so they won't be high on immaturity or kitsch.)

- Once the tour's over, head to Glasgow (hour from Edinburgh by train, couple more from Inverness) and get another train up the West Highland Line to Mallaig. The scenery on that journey is spectacular, and Mallaig at the end of the line is gorgeous. Rent a cottage or a hotel there. You can get boat trips out to some of the islands (Skye, Rum and Eigg for sure) from Mallaig, or you can take the train back down to some of the tiny stops along the way. You could also break the journey with a night at one of the little villages the train stops at - most have hotels.

You could also see the far North yourself - fly to Orkney, or get the train to Thurso + ferry.

As for what you should see - honestly, it's all gorgeous, so I'd recommend just relaxing and getting a feel for the area rather than trying to tick off places on someone else's list. Places I really like, though:

- Inverness is pretty and a nice spot for further explorations. If you want scenery plus some of the conveniences of staying in a city, it's for you.

- the West Highland Line (already mentioned) is amazingly beautiful, worth doing just for the scenery. You can also take it to Oban (the train splits, some carriages going to Oban and others to Mallaig, but they won't let you go the wrong way for your ticket) and take some ferry trips out from there.

- Mull and Iona are lovely. If you're not driving, I recommend seeing these via a boat trip again (you can get there from Oban, possibly Mallaig).

- Coll and Tiree - again really pretty, and islands with a different feel to them than Iona and Mull. Ferry journey from Oban, hire bikes when there, or else just spend a day or so and enjoy.

- Barra in the Outer Hebrides - ferry trip from Oban (long), or fly from Glasgow via a tiny plane that lands on the beach, which is an experience worth doing by itself.

- The area around Stirling, particularly up to Killin and Callander, is beautiful.

- If you want to see the mountains up close but don't fancy climbing them, you can get a gondola ride up Aonach Mòr near Ben Nevis (nearest train stop is Fort William on the West Highland line) and see them that way.
posted by Catseye at 12:54 AM on March 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

You could definitely pull something like this off with trains, but you will be drastically limiting yourselves and probably paying more for it. Renting a car for a few weeks would almost certainly be cheaper than train tickets for four people to 2 or three different towns. And as mentioned above, once you get to your destination, you're pretty much stuck again without a car.

I drove with two friends, and we were all terribly anxious about driving on the other side of the road and all that, but we got over it super quick and once we were out of Edinburgh it was actually some of the most pleasant driving I've done, uh, ever. If it's even an option, I would recommend getting a car.
posted by dogwalker at 2:50 AM on March 16, 2013

I heartily recommend Scotrail's 'Rover' tickets, which will give you unlimited rail, bus and ferry travel for a certain number of days. You probably want the Highland Rover.
posted by Happy Dave at 3:52 AM on March 16, 2013 [2 favorites]

Edinburgh resident here. Staying in the Highlands without transport could be limiting. You'd have to really like the place you were staying in. Perhaps better to stay in one or more bigger cities and have mini excursions by train or coach with overnight stays. Another option might be to arrange to hire a bike.

Worth noting that you might find mobile phone reception very patchy away from major roads and population centres.

Driving is OK up here, actually open road driving is OK anywhere in Britain. That said, driving on narrow country roads requires observation and forward thinking (always know where the next crossing place is). If you behave sensibly on country roads then the locals can usually work around you because they've done it before, after your first couple of tractors it gets easier. I, personally, would never drive in central London.
posted by epo at 4:59 AM on March 16, 2013

Not having a car will restrict the amount of country that you can cover in your time - and it will restrict where you can go. If you are happy to live with these constraints then there are many great options available to you:
1. Your trip will probably start out in Glasgow or Edinburgh - both these cities reward walking around them, both are but and train hubs and both are the starting point for many organized tours.
2. Scotland has a rail network which serves as a great gateway to its outdoors - I can't think of many other countries that are so lucky in terms of its reach and it beauty. The West Highland lets your be whisked on a sleeper from London and deposited next morning, gloriously in the middle of nowhere, at Rannoch Moor, for example.
3. The islands of Scotland are served by an equally great network of ferries - take a train to Oban and then take your pick of island adventures. There will usually be a bus to take you to your final destination.
4. Don't neglect walking and cycling - you can hire bikes in tourist destinations or in the larger cities - and you should be able to take them on trains and ferries.
posted by rongorongo at 5:13 AM on March 16, 2013

Re your NB -- I gotta say, if if you rather go carless, and if half the people in your group haven't been to Paris, I'd go to Paris.
posted by escabeche at 6:19 AM on March 16, 2013

I've travelled around Scotland with and without a car. Having access to a car does give you a lot more flexibility and the option to travel much further, but there are some great places you can visit that are very well served by local buses.

We once rented this cottage which is a short walk into Portree in Skye with access to all the skye buses. To get there you can get a train/ferry/bus from Glasgow or Edinburgh (which is a fabulous train journey.)

If you are in a larger group then one advantage of using buses is that you have the option to split up and do different things, if some people want to spend a day climbing and the others just want to potter around on the beach or whatever.
posted by Lanark at 6:45 AM on March 16, 2013

I think you'd be seriously handicapped in the north without a car; but I think you could do the Great Glen, which gets you Loch Ness, Ben Nevis, and lots of really good places. It can be walked, canoed, cycled or boated, and I reckon getting the bus would be feasible too. If you started at Inverness and went down to Fort William, you could go on to Oban and hop over to Mull and/or a couple of other islands, depending on time. Plenty of decent hotels/b&bs.

Would require some planning or a willingness to improvise, but I reckon it could be excellent.
posted by Segundus at 7:18 AM on March 16, 2013

Another useful site. Apparently there's a CityLink bus which runs the whole route.
posted by Segundus at 7:26 AM on March 16, 2013

Yes, I think it is possible. I've had lots of car free trips/excursions (normally 1-3 nights away) round the Highlands, and several with cars, too.

Positives of car free travel:
  • You're not all stuck in close proximity to each other in a quite possibly steamed up car, and you'll probably have a better chance to look at the views.
  • You'll actually meet people, especially if you're on a local bus. I'm not promising everyone will be up for a conversation, but I'd be very surprised if you don't meet some really nice people.
  • You will be able to get to lots of places in the middle of nowhere, and literally walk out of a bus or station and up a mountain.
  • There's an app for that! You should find it as easy to plan out where to go on that as you would on a satnav, with less panic over missing turnings, etc. That app's online only, and you may well be out of reach of mobile signal in a few places (rural coverage in the UK is poorer than much of the rest of Europe), so CycleStreets (make sure to download the 500MB map pack before you leave) would be my recommendation. It has bus stops on its Point of Interest list.
  • You can feel very comfortable that you're having a positive impact on the local economy. Especially if you're on a bus from Inverness or Wick or Oban out to a village, you'll know that you're helping keep a community lifeline alive.
  • There's no need to worry about who's driving, so everyone's an equal. And everyone can have a taste when you go on a distillery tour or have a pint with their pub lunch.
  • It will probably be more expensive than getting a small car (e.g. a Kia Picanto (think modern day Geo Metro) runs to about £100 a week), the same price as getting a Ford Focus, and cheaper than getting a minivan.
  • You might not get to everywhere you want, and as it's summer, the last bus may well return at 7pm, leaving you with 4 hours of daylight to kill back at the B&B.
  • You will have to run to a schedule, which may be inconvenient.
My thoughts on this overall: Well, you'll be able to read between the lines that I think it's a great idea. Orkney is a very strong recommendation, and very easy to get round. There should be a bus tour around the historic sites on Mainland, and you'll want to take that. Get the ferry from Stromness to Hoy, and there's a minibus taxi across to see The Old Man of Hoy. Also, I've heard very good things about Fingal's Cave, which is the same hexagonal basalt as Giant's Causeway in Northern Ireland. I wouldn't recommend bothering to go to Cape Wrath in the far northwest, just because all that's there is remoteness, but otherwise, there's no real secret & most places will be nice.

As for where to stay and eat, there will probably be a cheap and fairly rough pub, a cosy, friendly pub and, about ¼-½ the time, a very posh pub in each small town. Go for the cosy one, and half the time you'll eat very well, and the other half the time, you'll eat at (wild guess) Applebee's quality. You may be able to stay there for a reasonable price, or there may be a B&B to stay in. Outside the cities, SYHA hostels are good places to stay. Many are old castles, and have individual rooms for groups of any size from 4-8+. In the cities, the budget chain hotels in the UK are Travelodge, Premier Inn and Days Inn. Book those ahead of time.

If you want to save on your budget for lunches, then you can buy very good sandwiches at supermarkets in the UK (this is a "things you take for granted about your own country and don't realise until someone mentions it" thing for me). The best are at Marks & Spencer, but any of the supermarket chains will have good ones. Newsagents will probably have bad expensive sandwiches. Small cafés will serve cheese toasties at very reasonable prices, which warm you straight through to your arteries. You'll have had a huge breakfast in the morning, anyway. But you didn't ask for a guide to tourism in the UK, so maybe I should leave it there.
posted by ambrosen at 7:30 AM on March 16, 2013 [3 favorites]

I did parts of the Highlands many years ago without a car because I was too young to rent one. It can be done but I'd think it would be much more convenient to have a car. Also I was young and didn't mind waiting around for buses in the rain, or being stuck an extra night somewhere because I'd misjudged the train schedule. But I did very much enjoy my trip and it should be much easier to plan nowadays with the internet. You just have to work within your limitations. At the time I did the whole trip by walking into the town tourist office and asking for advice.

Without a car I went to Fort William, Oban, Mull and Iona, using a combination of train, bus and ferry. I had some sort of Scotland transport pass. I also did some day tours with bus tour companies. It was long enough ago that I can't give specific tour companies because I don't remember and I'm sure they've changed. I do remember specifically going on a bus tour of Mull that dropped you at the ferry to Iona because the ferry was too small for buses. I just looked it up and it looks like it hasn't changed at all!
posted by interplanetjanet at 8:01 AM on March 16, 2013

1. It's doable.
2. If the answer is yes:
a) Take the train from Glasgow to Mallaig.
3. Everything on the train from Glasgow to Mallaig. You can stop off along the way or just go right through to Mallaig. From Mallaig you can take the ferry to Skye.

I am a Scotsman who has driven around the highlands and taken the train.
posted by mani at 12:42 PM on March 16, 2013

I am someone who HATES driving, yet two years ago I was driving lots of small country lanes in Scotland (drove to Aberdeen from Kent, via Oxford and the Lake District) including in the driving rain, and it was fine. Admittedly I am used to driving on the left hand side of the road, but once you have a day or two under your belt you would be fine.

I have also lived and tried to travel around Scotland without a car, and it can be "interesting". As other have pointed out, you are at the mercy of train and bus timetables. You haven't given any indication of the fitness and age of your party, but to see some of the more remote stuff without a car you may need to either do some serious walking (I don't mean day long hikes, but like a decent walk from a bus stop/train station to where you want to see) as often as it will 'deposit you on the doorstep', serious waiting around in the rain for transport, or go with a tour. But it depends what you are interested in more - historical monuments, quaint villages or natural beauty? Not saying you can't do all, but it is easy to do a trip visiting major tourist spots by public transport than it is to visit the 'wild highlands'.

Also, the cost of public transport is not all that cheap. For example, to travel this evening from Glasgow to Fort William on the Citylink bus would be ₤22 per adult one way. By train going tomorrow, which is a bit slower, it is ₤13 per adult one way. Of course booking ahead can work out cheaper, but not always. The advantage is you avoid the hassle of driving (which for me is a big draw of public transport) but you will end up paying for it in fares, time and inconvenience.

tl;dr: I am a huge fan of public transport and I hate driving. But in the UK I find myself often taking the car when travelling because public transport is the inconvenient and expensive option most times. Or you could just to the Highland by Rail with a tour company that organises that kind of thing.
posted by Megami at 4:48 AM on March 17, 2013

Oh, and if you plan train travel in Scotland or anywhere in Europe for holiday purposes, you should check out The Man in Seat Sixty-One. His site is awesome.
posted by Megami at 4:50 AM on March 17, 2013

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