For a small country, Scotland can seem remarkably big when it comes to getting from one part of it to another. To put it in perspective, mainland Scotland measures a maximum of 270 miles from north to south, and 150 from east to west: and in many places the east west figure is far smaller than that. Taking the Northern Isles into account adds another 170 miles in that direction, while the Western Isles (excluding St Kilda) push the frame 60 miles out in that direction. The total land area of 30,400 square miles or 78,800 square kilometers makes it a little smaller than the Czech Republic, and a little bigger than Panama: or, if you prefer, a little smaller in area than South Carolina.
But if Scotland is a small country, it is a small country with a complex geography, and it is this which can make it seem much bigger. For a start, it's a pretty awkward shape, with bits sticking out all over the place. And that's before you add deeply indenting sea lochs into the picture, or large areas of mountainous terrain, or the 790 islands, of which 97 are populated. All this can sometimes make getting around Scotland complicated, but it also ensures it is always fascinating.
For the purposes of getting around Scotland, you can regard the country in three distinct parts. The first is the Central Lowlands, home to 70% of Scots despite occupying just 20% of the land area. This extends from Aberdeen in the north-east, down past Dundee to Edinburgh, and then west across Scotland's central belt taking in Stirling en route to Glasgow and Clydeside, before finally heading south to take in Ayr. The second part is everywhere else in mainland Scotland. And the third comprises the inhabited islands.
Getting around the Central Lowlands is relatively straightforward. The distances involved are relatively short, the provision of transport infrastructure is fairly good, and the level of service available on public transport is quite good. Roads into or out of the main cities can become very congested, especially during the morning and evening peak periods, but whether you are travelling by car, bus, coach or train, you can usually count on getting to where you want to be fairly quickly and without the need for too much detailed planning.
The rest of mainland Scotland includes the Highlands and Argyll, the Scottish Borders and Dumfries and Galloway. Here distances are longer, roads of more variable quality (but far less busy than in the Central Belt), and the provision and level of service on public transport more hit and miss. Rather more forethought and planning is often needed than for a trip within the Central Belt.
The islands are made up of Orkney, off the north coast of Mainland Scotland; Shetland, which lies between 50 and 100 miles north-east of Orkney; the Western Isles or Outer Hebrides, which lie in a 130 mile north-south arc west of mainland Scotland in the Atlantic; and the Inner Hebrides, a large number of islands closer to the west coast of mainland Scotland. Here the issues divide into two, getting to the islands from the mainland, and getting around and between the islands once there. Most groups of islands can be reached either by ferry from the mainland or by air: with the choice between them depending on time taken, whether you want your car with you, and cost. Getting between islands is again usually a choice of ferry or air, even to some very small and remote islands. Travelling to and between the islands often needs fairly tight planning in advance.
For the rest of this page, it seems most helpful to consider travelling around Scotland from another point of view, by looking at each method of travel in turn and how it applies to the different parts of Scotland.
Whether they bring their own car, motorcycle or camper, or choose to hire a vehicle here, most visitors to Scotland travel around the country by road. Scotland's roads are of two main types. Trunk roads, the main through routes between cities or to important destinations, are the responsibility of the Scottish Government, while other roads are the responsibility of Scotland's local authorities. Roads in the Central Belt are usually pretty good, but tend to be under heavy pressure from traffic at peak times. Try driving along the M8 through Glasgow for a significant part of the morning or late afternoon, or heading south over the Forth Road Bridge during the morning rush hour to see exactly what we mean.
In the rest of the mainland and in the islands main roads tend to be pretty good, flowing reasonably well even at the height of the holiday season and, in many cases, underused much of the rest of the time. Minor roads vary from good to barely adequate, and in remote areas it is still common to find single track roads which require some care to drive safely. Our tables of Distances by Road between a large number of Scottish destinations can be seen here.
Bus travel tends to be widely available and well used within and around cities and towns. For longer distances and between towns and cities, coach services are fast and effective. In rural areas, bus services are often available, if sometimes infrequent. Before we leave the roads altogether, one final option sometimes worth considering in the more remote parts of Scotland is hitch-hiking.
Rail travel remains an option across a surprisingly large part of Scotland. The Central Belt is extremely well served by rail, and more lines are being built or planned. Railway lines are a rarity south of the Central Belt, apart from the a line to Ayr and Stranraer and the main lines heading north from England to Edinburgh and Glasgow: though a railway has been built from Edinburgh to Galashiels.
North of the Central Belt, Inverness, can be reached by rail via either Perth or Aberdeen. And from Inverness, lines connect to Thurso and Wick in the far north, and Kyle of Lochalsh on the west coast. Glasgow has connections north to Fort William and Mallaig, and to Oban. Rail is a pretty good way to get around, especially as it allows you to see some of the most remote and beautiful parts of Scotland.
Most inhabited islands can be reached by ferry services. Ferries to and between the inner Hebrides and Western Isles are mainly provided by the state-owned company CalMac. A few smaller ferries to islands in Argyll and Bute are operated by the local authority. Anyone wanting to travel by ferry to Orkney has a choice of three providers, one of whom, NorthLink, is the only ferry operator to Shetland. The extensive networks of ferry services between Orkney's islands and between Shetland's islands are operated by the respective local authorities.
Air Transport has two main facets in Scotland. On the one hand, the main airports serving the cities are primarily a means of getting to Scotland rather than getting around it. But there are also services linking the cities and some outlying destinations and islands. There are also services that link outlying islands in Orkney with Kirkwall Airport, and between islands in Shetland. Flying into some of Scotland's smaller airfields can be an amazing experience. Barra is the destination of the world's only scheduled air service to land on a beach; while the hop between Westray and Papa Westray in Orkney holds the record for the world's shortest scheduled airline service.