Hi everybody! In spring 2016 I spent 5 weeks travelling Scotland solo via public transportation, only hiring a car on the Isle of Skye (where the hikes I wanted to do were too remote to rely upon the limited coach routes/times).
And I'd travel the same way again! Yes, sometimes a situation of "You can't get there from here" tossed a wrench into my plans (For example, Ballater to Dufftown: Short trip by car, hours out of the way to include Aberdeen by coach) and soliciting a ride with someone with wheels proved necessary (I even waved down a ride on a rainy day standing beside a sheep paddock between Kirkwall and Stromness, Orkney, convinced the overdue coach scheduled to come down that stretch of road wasn't going to materialize).
If you do make use of public transportation, the Traveline SW app is invaluable. Purely invaluable. As of 2016 it was a free app. Even with a fee, it is worth downloading.
Plunk in departure and destination locations, choose the routes that best suit (by dep time, fewer transfers, coach instead of rail if you're on a tight budget, rail instead of coach is you want more remote scenery, daytime travel for sightseeing or nighttime for sleeping, etc), pull up the map to see route in red, zoom in for street map details for walking sections. It's fantastic.
I'd save screen shots of the results on my iPad so I could access all of the info when wifi wasn't available. If ferries (such as Cal Mac services because you want to include Stornaway to Ullapool, for instance) are involved, the results will be included.
Example, Ullapool to Plockton: The next departures are listed, all involve a walking transfer and coach and rail, all under 4 hrs of travel. Note, today as I post this it's Sunday afternoon in Scotland, another example of how doing one's research is crucially important, no travel options remain for Sunday, Monday morning at 9:59 is the next departure (In some areas public travel options are not available seven days a week - often no travel options on Sundays, welcome to the Highlands!)
I choose to depart Monday morning, 9:59am, details listed include walking instructions of 1/2 km, coach route #891 toward Kinlochbervie, exit at Garve and transfer to ScotRail toward Kyle of Lochalsh, exit at Plockton station, walk 1 km into town.
Note: For coach travel, buy your ticket from the driver. Ask about the ride-all-day fare for that area if you'll be transferring busses within one county or larger city. For rail travel, book online 24+ to 48+ hrs in advance for reduced fares. You can collect your ticket from the dispensary box at the station with the credit card you used online. Some stations weren't yet open if I was travelling super early, or didn't have a dispensary box so I'd show my online purchase conformation to the conductor once I was on the train. Easy peasy.
To also save ££ choose travel times outside of busy commute times; cheaper, often by enough to pay for your lunch or supper that day.
Exiting at the hotel at Garve, not knowing where exactly the ScotRail station is, pull up the map of the route from the bottom of screen. The map can be zoomed in to see street names for walking sections between transfers.
Note: Coaches don't always transfer/depart from actual bus stations; sometimes you'll be exiting or catching a bus outside of a Morrison's grocery store (Ft. William) or a centrally-located parking lot (Tobermory) or a rural crossroads (John O'Groats) with just daffodils and black-faced sheep to keep you company. "Baaa aaa aaa!"
I really hope knowing about this valuable app helps anyone who is planning their travels around Scotland using public transportation. The country's transportation systems are very good considering the remoteness of parts of the Highlands and Islands. I used this app more than any other.
On that note, a second app not to be without, is NAVMII GPS ROI & UK. I relied on it to work out where I was during the more remote rail or coach stretches, what castle ruin we just passed and how far I was from my destination. On busy city busses in Glasgow and Edinburgh, the NAVMII GPS app allowed me to see how close I was getting to the unfamiliar stop I needed to get off at - rather than watching the street sign pass by...
Good luck, make use of the terrific public transportation systems and enjoy your Scottish adventures! Slainte mhath!