One of the four countries making up the United Kingdom, Scotland is also one of the most fascinating travel destinations in Europe. Home to beautiful Edinburgh, stunning mountains, and interesting culture, it is equal parts historic, hospitable and wild. Full of hidden gems, but easy to get around, Scotland is just waiting to be explored — and with a rental car, you can get a good sense of its great diversity on a single trip.
When should you go to Scotland?
Similarly to the rest of the United Kingdom, Scotland has a distinctly temperate and oceanic climate. The temperature differences between winter and summer are quite small, but in general, the weather is quite unstable and can change extremely even within the same day. It is also true that Scotland gets a lot of rain and fog. That being said, there are also lots of clear and sunny days.
Edinburgh gets the largest number of visitors during the summer months when the weather is at its warmest — the average high temperature is 19 °C (66 °F) in August, the warmest month, and it can be significantly warmer on some days. Although April and May are noticeably cooler, some visitors prefer these months as this is when there is less precipitation than during the rest of the year. If you're more about culture and history, Edinburgh can be very nice to visit during the colder part of the year — temperatures rarely go below 0 °C (32 °F — as accommodation and car rental prices drop quite significantly (except for around Christmas and New Year). Some visitors also find Edinburgh especially atmospheric and great for photography in late autumn.
Glasgow, the largest city in Scotland, also gets most of its visitors during the summer months. Although its weather is quite comparable with Edinburgh (Glasgow being slightly warmer), Glasgow is a lot rainier in autumn and winter, especially from October to January when there can get as many as 18 rainy days per month.
The hiking season in Scotland lasts roughly from late April until September, mainly thanks to the increase in temperatures. Do keep in mind that nights are very, very short in the Scottish Highlands during the summer months — the region is at the same latitude as Saint Petersburg or Alaska and it never gets properly dark around the summer solstice. While most travelers love the experience, others find it hard to fall asleep, especially if camping outside.
The highland midges — a type of mosquito — are also most active during the summer months and can be a real annoyance if spending a lot of time in nature. Make sure you stock up on midge repellent before heading out to explore the great Scottish outdoors!
Now that you've decided when to travel to Scotland, check out our prices for the dates you have chosen!
Where should you pick up a car in Scotland?
Most visitors to Scotland choose to pick up and drop off a rental car at the airport. There are a number of international airports in Scotland, including in the Orkney Islands, the Hebrides, and the Shetland archipelago.
The two largest airports in Scotland are Edinburgh Airport and Glasgow Airport, serving the two main cities of the same name. Among the busiest in all of the United Kingdom, they are served by a number of car rental companies and offer flights to and from destinations all across Europe, as well as in North America, the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. Both airports host the flights of a number of low-cost airlines such as easyJet, Ryanair, and Wizz Air.
In addition to airports, it is also possible to pick up and drop off a rental car at other locations like some international hotels and the largest train stations.
Many car rental companies in Scotland permit one-way rentals. It is very popular to travel with a rental car between Glasgow and Edinburgh or between Aberdeen and Inverness. One-way rentals with the rest of the United Kingdom are also permitted, and many travelers drive from Edinburgh or Glasgow to Newcastle, Liverpool, or even all the way south to London.
How easy is it to travel around Scotland independently?
For the most part, Scotland is a joy to explore on your own. The roads and other infrastructure are in great shape, there are good accommodation options even in the most remote areas, and most things, including unique travel experiences, can be booked online in advance.
Although Scotland is not that small — if it were a sovereign state, it would be larger than half of the other countries in Europe — distances between cities are not especially large. Edinburgh and Glasgow are located practically next to each other and the trip between them takes about one hour. Aberdeen is about a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Edinburgh and Inverness, the main city of the Scottish Highlands, takes three hours to reach. Newcastle in Northern England is two hours south of Edinburgh, Manchester takes about four hours to drive to and London can be reached in seven.
While the overall driving culture of Scotland is quite polite, it has its fair share of reckless drivers and accidents. It's a good idea to be especially careful when driving in the Highlands — although the mountains themselves are not that high, the low density of traffic means that speeding is frequent.
While most main roads in Scotland are in great shape, some rural roads are not as well-maintained or, in the Highlands areas, very narrow and steep. Getting a car with a GPS system or an up-to-date traffic app is also a good idea if you plan to explore the rural and natural areas of Scotland.
How safe is Scotland for travelers?
Overall, Scotland is a very safe destination. Most local people are kind and helpful and the Scottish police are professional and trustworthy. Most visitors to Scotland do not have any trouble and have a great time.
Like anywhere else in the world, pickpockets and other petty crime occurs near popular tourist destinations, as well as in crowded public transportation. Always keep your belongings in sight and do not hesitate to ask for help if you feel threatened or have been a victim of a crime. The general emergency numbers in Scotland are 999 and 112.
Statistically, Glasgow has a higher rate of violent crime than most other cities in Western Europe. While the city is mostly safe to visit and tourists are not specifically targeted, it's good to keep in mind that the brawls and fights (which are the main reason for this statistic) usually happen in and near pubs and nightclubs, especially near the closing hours, and are very often the result of excessive drinking. Being reasonable with your own alcohol intake and not hanging in or around dodgy establishments is usually enough to keep yourself safe.
Glasgow is also infamous for its football (or soccer) hooligans, which are a small set of the supporters of the city's two clubs, Celtic and Rangers. The rivalry is known as the Old Firm. Football is a big part of the Glaswegian culture and support for the clubs runs along sectarian, social, and ethnic lines, making it a contentious and sensitive issue. While things have improved noticeably over the last decade, making sweeping and bold statements about football to strangers is probably best avoided.
What languages are spoken in Scotland?
The main language of Scotland, as in the rest of the United Kingdom, is English. Scottish English has a variety of dialects and accents, some of which can be hard for foreigners, especially non-native speakers, to understand at first. That being said, all speakers of English usually have no trouble communicating in Scotland.
Although Scots is sometimes considered a dialect of English, most sources list it as a separate language — and indeed, the differences are noticeable enough on an everyday level for it to be considered one. Scots is widely spoken in the eastern and southern parts of the country, including Glasgow. Glasgow patter, the local dialect, includes both Scottish English and Scots speakers and also has other influences. It is often spoken very quickly — come armed with patience and a sense of humor.
Scottish Gaelic is another large minority language of Scotland. A Celtic tongue, it is only very distantly related to English and there is absolutely no mutual intelligibility between the two. Instead, it is closely related (though not the same language) as Irish Gaelic and Welsh. Scottish Gaelic is mostly spoken in the western and northern parts of Scotland, including the Scottish Highlands. While virtually all Gaelic speakers know English, learning at least some Gaelic phrases can be a way to show respect as it is the native or ancestral language of many highlanders.
Head of Growth at DiscoverCars.com
Aleksandrs has over 10 years of experience in marketing with a focus on creating stellar content that provides topical insights using data. Having taken five road trips across Europe and one in the U.S., he is passionate about traveling by car. His favorite countries to visit are Denmark and Thailand. You can find him on Linkedin, Facebook, and Twitter.