It's been a year of constant warring with Labour, some victories, some wounds and a never-ending row over a golf course. Now as the first anniversary of the SNP's historic election victory nears, Kenny Farquharson embarks on a road trip to see if Scotland is a country happy with its new horizons
UNDER an azure sky a spring sun dapples the waters of the River Ness. A saltire flying lazily from the flagpole of Inverness Castle catches the breeze. A young waiter from The Mustard Seed, one of the growing number of chic restaurants on the city's riverbank, is pinning up a menu for that day's lunch specials. Sea bass baked with goat's cheese on a mint and honey sauce, anyone?
If ever a city represented a newly-confident Scotland it is the capital of the Highlands, named last month as the fastest-growing city in Europe. Once derided as the most parochial of provincial towns, Inverness now has a spring in its step, a shine on its shoes and a glint in its eye.
Where better, one year on from the Holyrood election that brought Alex Salmond and the SNP to power, to start asking if Scotland, too, has become a happier, more confident, more forward-looking place?
Last week I took a 145-mile journey down the spine of Scotland, starting on the banks of the Ness, making stops on my way down the A9 and ending up at the notorious Raploch estate in Stirling. Along the way I asked Scots what they thought about the state of the nation, 12 months on from the most momentous political change in Scotland for a decade. Has the past year seen a change for the good? Or is it a case of the same-old, same-old, with different faces at the top but little change on the dreary political landscape? My journey would confirm some preconceptions and pour cold water on others. For Scotland's First Minister it would produce cause for both quiet satisfaction and deep concern.
Checking out The Mustard Seed's lunch menu are mother and daughter, Linda and Rachel Sellar. Linda, 49, knows a thing or two about the feel-good factor – she runs The Health Shop, devoted to improving the wellbeing of folk from Inverness through aromatherapy and herbal tea.
"I do feel there's a new energy in Scotland since the election," she says, "and more of a feeling of national identity. I think they're doing well. There's more pride in our country."
Rachel, a 21-year-old student of international relations at St Andrews University, agrees: "I don't like the Scottish cringe – people need to get over that. We need to talk about the things that affect Scottish people. And it's good to have a little bit of banter with Westminster – that doesn't worry me."
Both women voted Nationalist a year ago, and both have a soft spot for Salmond. "He comes across as quite a down-to-earth honest politician," says Linda. "He's quite cute!" adds her daughter.
Can it get any better for Salmond? Lauded for his vision, his integrity and his cuteness? One answer can be found around the corner in a pub called Blackfriars, one of the best places in the north of Scotland for traditional music. In a corner of the bar, Andy Munro, a sandy-haired 35-year-old water commissioner, is sampling a pint of An Teallach from a brewery near Ullapool. He knows his beer and he knows his politics. For him, Salmond himself is the governing party's Achilles heel. "I think the SNP are a well-run bunch and they're doing some good," he says. "If they just work for Scotland and the Scottish people, and try to be different from other politicians they can be a breath of fresh air. It'd be grand."
You can tell by his tone that there is a 'but' coming, and it duly arrives. "But I've brushed with Salmond a couple of times socially and he's an obnoxious so-and-so. He's a bullish character and I think he's going to come unstuck. He's a brilliant orator and I'm sure his political mind is really quite sharp. But a lot of people I speak to think he's just a little bit too cock-sure. He's got to mind that."
Munro's feelings about Salmond are crystallised in the Donald Trump saga, in which the First Minister is accused of bringing undue influence to bear on Government planners to ease the passage of the US tycoon's 1bn golf resort on the Aberdeenshire coast.
"This thing with him and Trump had all the smell of something nasty going on," says Munro.
Salmond is usually regarded as the SNP's most potent asset, a seasoned politician with a merciless line in political invective. But Munro is not the only Scot who believes the First Minister may also be his party's undoing. Throughout my journey, I'm surprised to hear two themes raised again and again: questions about Salmond's temperament, and concern over his handling of the Trump affair. Over the past year the Scottish public has clearly been paying attention. While still enamoured with the novelty of an SNP Government, it seems people have been watching Salmond and assessing him, and the verdict on him as a national leader and as a man is only now beginning to emerge.
The road beckons, and the weather begins to change. By the time I pull into Carrbridge, 26 miles down the A9, the sunshine has been replaced with smirr and the temperature has turned decidedly chill. Carrbridge is an unpromising strip of guest houses surrounded by clumps of silver birch, still leafless in April. The local golf club's corrugated iron clubhouse is deserted. In the middle of this dreariness is an unlikely tourist attraction. The Landmark Forest Theme Park tries to bring a wee bit of Disney-style magic to the heart of the Highlands, with water slides, climbing walls, adventure playgrounds and – wait for it – a steam-powered sawmill.
Huddled against the cold, Deirdre McBride, 42, from Kinning Park, Glasgow, is hesitating in front of a sign that advertises the entrance fee as 10.05 for adults and 7.85 for children. With her are her mother, her husband and three kids.
"The weather doesn't bother us," she says. "We actually went to Aviemore to see Santa Claus Land, but we were told it was shut 10 years ago, so that was a bit of a bummer." Deirdre, 42, a student at Cardonald College in Glasgow, studying child care and early education, is a long-standing SNP supporter and is delighted with a government she says has the nation's best interests at heart.
"It was good to see them get in – Nicola Sturgeon did a lot of work for us to get us on the housing list. She personally wrote some letters that were a big help at the time." The McBrides' son Ben is autistic, and the SNP deputy leader's assistance was warmly appreciated.
Tellingly, this is not the first time on my short trip that I have encountered someone with personal experience of help from a prominent SNP politician. In Inverness I spoke to Charles Leakey, a second-hand bookseller who works from a wonderful 18th-century church hall heated by a massive cast-iron wood burner. Leakey told me how impressed he was with the work done by Fergus Ewing MSP, the minister for community safety, with the city's traders' association. Both testimonies illustrate one of the universal truths of politics, as true in Scotland as it is on the US election trail – the personal touch is priceless.
Salmond, says Deirdre McBride, is "one of the good guys. He's for the people. He comes across like that anyway".
Back behind the steering wheel, the weather takes another turn for the worse. The A9 is a smear of slush, and the Drumochter pass is a blind swirl of mist and snow. But it eases before the next stop, around 15 miles north of Perth. Dunkeld is a tidy, prosperous town on the banks of the River Tay. Outside the local florist shop, neat rows of primulas and pansies are laid out, ready for spring bedding – whenever spring decides to arrive.
In Dunkeld Post Office, postmaster Andy Granger says the mood of his customers can be divided into two distinct categories: "People are optimistic about the country, but pessimistic about the economy. The 49-year-old believes that in the short term the public will pin the blame for economic woes on global financial turmoil rather than the Scottish Government. A couple of years down the line, though, if Salmond hasn't achieved anything, it'll be a different story."
Granger, who spent 20 years as a policeman in Glasgow before moving to Perthshire, voted Conservative last year, but is wishing the SNP well. "People think the country is in good hands and is going forward," he says. But he has reservations about the First Minister – in particular his trademark swagger. "I'm not an admirer of Salmond's style – it's not a typical Scottish way of going about things. The Scottish way is a bit more modest, a bit more reserved."
In Dunkeld's main street, Martin Brooks is walking his dog, Sally, a 14-year-old lurcher. "The lurcher's a collie crossed with a greyhound," he explains. "It's a poacher's dog – not that I'm a poacher, mind." A retired firefighter who now works as a taxi driver, 54-year-old Brooks has grey coming through in his beard. Once an SNP supporter he now admits he is disillusioned with the party – and particularly its leader. Yet again, Salmond gets it in the neck over a certain curiously-coifed American millionaire. "I think he's made a right arse of himself with this Trump thing in Aberdeen. He gave them the OK, didn't he, even though he won't admit it. I think he's wrong. He should have kept out of it."
What of the Scottish public's view on the SNP's raison d'etre – independence? Salmond's theory is that an SNP Government at Holyrood will gradually build confidence in Scotland going it alone as a sovereign state. One year into the process, is he right?
The verdict from my day on the A9 is a mixed one. Taking the pulse of the nation is hungry work, and a Little Chef on the A9 between Perth and Stirling proves too hard to resist. Finishing a cup of coffee in the corner is an SNP voter who believes independence would be bad for Scotland.
Karen Britten, a 46-year-old primary school teacher from Dundee, is adamant. "I wouldn't like to see us totally independent. In Britain we need to be one – we're got a lot of history there. Yes, we need a government in Scotland that makes decisions for us and knows what we really need. But looking at the wider world it's important that we're unified within Britain."
A few miles down the road, however, in the shadow of the Wallace Monument, a convert to the independence cause is bringing his two sons to visit a shrine to a true Scottish patriot. William Gartley, a 42-year-old local authority employee from Tayside, says Scotland needs to be unshackled. "I'm a socialist and I'd always voted Labour," he says, "but in recent years I've been more interested in Scotland being in charge of its own destiny. So I voted SNP last time. They've done reasonably well, but the way the Westminster Government is treating them, Alex Salmond's fighting with one hand tied behind his back. They're not getting a fair run. As a nation we need a chance to make our own mistakes."
Approaching the end of my journey, having spoken to dozens of Scots along the way, a conclusion or two starts to take shape. One year on from their Holyrood triumph, the SNP is clearly still riding high in the public's affections. Even people who didn't vote for the Nationalists are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt for now. As for leadership, Alex Salmond is emerging as a man you either love or hate, and he has the ability to alienate some voters who are sympathetic to his party's aims. Almost all the negatives I heard about the SNP on my travels were criticisms of the party leader's judgment and personal style.
And so to the Raploch. Lying between the Wallace Monument and Stirling Castle it is, like them, a Scottish icon of sorts. Once infamous for its deprivation, drug abuse and crime, its reputation has improved slightly in recent years. But it is still a place where life seems to revolve round the off-license and the bookies, and where everyone seems to be "on the sick". A woman with a lined face and dyed blonde hair hurries out of the former carrying a bottle of High Commissioner whisky in a plastic bag. "Ah'm away for a wee drink, son, then watching the Rangers," she says. Nearby a tubby teenage boy in a yellow and black shellsuit is swinging a three iron around his head – and he doesn't look like a golfing enthusiast.
Sandra McKenzie, a 57-year-old woman with kindly eyes, was born in the Raploch and has lived here all her life. "There's good and bad everywhere," she says, "but this place is not as bad as people make out. I can walk around here at night with no bother."
A lifelong Labour supporter, she backed the SNP at last year's election, largely in the hope that Salmond would abolish the Council Tax that forces her to find 107 a month from her slim wage packet as a carer. But McKenzie is not yet willing to say if her decision was the right one. Her final word stands as a warning for the SNP as it celebrates a year in power: "They've not really had a chance to do what they said they would. The SNP still has to prove itself. If they mess it up I'll be back with Labour, like a shot."
She purses her lips: "We'll just have to wait and see."
THE SNP: A YEAR IN POWER - THE VERDICT
So how have they done? From pledges on class sizes, bridge tolls and the council tax to the all-important question of independence, Eddie Barnes looks at what was promised and what's been delivered
What they said they'd do
Increase nursery provision for three and four-year-olds by 50%. Cut class sizes in P1-3 to a maximum of 18. Reform the curriculum in secondary schools. End student debt and reintroduce grants. Wipe out the one-off graduate endowment payment.
What they've done
In the "concordat" with Scotland's councils, local authorities have pledged to make "substantial progress" on increasing nursery provision. They have also agreed to cut class sizes in primary "as quickly as possible". No progress on student debt or on grants, although a consultation document is promised. The graduate endowment has been abolished. Started a review on the future of Scotland's universities. "Curriculum for Excellence" is being rolled out
SNP pledges on nursery provision and class sizes are now in the hands of councils and, with cash at a premium, major doubts linger over their ability to deliver. Education Secretary Fiona Hyslop has had a tough time explaining ambitious pledges - particularly over cancelling student debt, which looks doomed. But the abolition of the graduate endowment was a crowd-pleaser.
What they said they'd do
Reverse the closure of the A&Es in Monklands and Ayr. Abolish prescription charges for the chronically ill and phase them out for the rest of the population. Introduce direct elections to health boards. Protect GPs and nurses in the community from harm.
What they've done
Monklands' and Ayr's futures are guaranteed. Prescription charges reduced from 6.85 to 5, but the chronically ill still have to pay (although fees for them have been cut by a half). Elections to health boards is out to consultation. GPs and nurses have got extra protection. Cervical cancer immunisation will soon be rolled out. Ministers will do more to boost public health, in a new bill soon to be launched. Meanwhile, the private sector has been told to forget any involvement in NHS.
Health ministers Nicola Sturgeon and Shona Robison have turned in a competent first year. Expensive policies on prescription charges and hospital closures will gain them popularity. But with structural reform for the 1bn-a-year Scottish NHS pushed aside, questions linger over whether it will be able to meet rising costs.
What they said they'd do
Scrap council tax and replace it with a local income tax. Freeze council tax in the meantime. Introduce a small business bonus, cancelling business rates for small firms. Cut the fat from the public sector by making savings of 1.5% of the entire Scottish budget. Slim down Scottish Enterprise. Phase out PFI with a new Scottish Futures Trust. Offer grants to first-time buyers.
What they've done
Council Tax frozen across the country at the beginning of this year. Local Income Tax plans published. Small business bonus introduced, offering major savings to small firms. Agreed with local government to find efficiency savings of 2% per year. Scottish Enterprise has been savaged. But the Scottish Futures Trust is still consigned to the future. The first-time buyer grants look set to disappear altogether.
Finance Secretary John Swinney has made a highly impressive start. The council tax freeze was a masterstroke of political manoeuvring. Meanwhile, small firms are delighted with the bonus scheme. The gloss has come off in recent weeks following the half-hearted publication of the government's LIT plans. And the apparent scrapping of the first-time buyer grant looks bad - but overall a highly satisfactory first year.
What they said they'd do
Recruit an extra 1,000 police. Demand Westminster hands over control of firearms legislation, in order to ban air guns. Crack down on binge drinking and cheap alcohol. Hand out community sentences to petty offenders, instead of jail.
What they've done
Ministers will make an "additional 1,000 officers available in communities". Air gun ban has got bogged down after the UK Government rejected changes. A crackdown on alcohol is to be unveiled this summer, but plans for an end to cheap drink have been pre-announced. Unveiled a 'Prisons Commission' headed by Henry McLeish to study early release and community punishment.
Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill has got stuck into the justice brief with commendable gusto, even if he has a tendency to go over the top, especially with his war on drink. The determination to distinguish petty repeat offenders from serious and dangerous criminals has been impressively argued. But the 1,000 police officers pledge has - if not unravelled - been a little tarnished, after it emerged many of the new coppers would be sought through "redeployment".
TRANSPORT AND THE ENVIRONMENT
What they said they'd do
Build a new Forth crossing. Scrap tolls on the Forth and Tay bridges. Update the Glasgow to Edinburgh rail line to reduce journey times. Improve the A9, A96 and A77. Boost links to the Islands. Introduce a climate change bill with mandatory cuts in carbon of 3% a year. Prevent new nuclear stations from being built. Quadruple support for micro-generation. Scrap the Edinburgh trams.
What they've done
Forth crossing plans have been announced, and the Forth and Tay bridges are now free. Plans for the Glasgow to Edinburgh line are under way. Plans to increase the amount of dual carriageway on the A9 are being investigated. Ferry prices to the SNP-controlled Western Isles have been slashed by as much as 50% (unlike in Lib Dem Orkney and Shetland). A climate change consultation has been issued, with ministers insisting they will block nuclear power. Forced to concede and proceed with the trams.
Dumping the tolls on the Forth and Tay bridges has handed the SNP the backing of thousands of motorists. But with both petrol-heads and tree-huggers among the ministerial team, no one can yet be sure exactly what the SNP stands for.
What they said they'd do
Publish a white paper on independence and deliver a referendum in 2010. Open discussions with the UK Government to transfer responsibility for North Sea oil and gas to Holyrood. Restart meetings of the Joint Ministerial Committee. Press to take the lead in EU negotiations over fisheries.
What they've done
Launched the "national conversation" on independence, setting out the options for future constitutional change in Scotland. Referendum bill still to be put before Parliament, but 2010 remains the planned date. Raised the debate over Scotland's control on broadcasting, Trident nuclear weapons and firearms legislation. Renamed the Scottish Executive as "The Scottish Government".
The "national conversation" has had a difficult time, having to jostle for space alongside the Unionist parties' "Constitutional Commission", leading to confusion among the public. However, the SNP's bid to keep the constitution at the top of the agenda has been a success. Salmond has also picked his fights cleverly, only attacking when his opponent's position is weak.
VOICES FROM AROUND THE COUNTRY
Annabel Fleming-Brown From Glasgow
The SNP has had a very positive effect on Scotland. It is clear to me that Alex Salmond is a politician of some stature. I think he is a very competent steward of the office that he holds and has gained wide respect in Scotland. I do have to question, however, whether he is pushing his political agenda on independence at a pace that may be uncomfortable for many Scots.
I also think that Nicola Sturgeon (right) is a quality player. She has shown determination to examine local issues as well as national ones. I found her recent stance on the 'Go Ape' project for Pollok Park in her constituency just as significant as her intervention in the retention of A&E departments early on in her office last year.
Geordie Riddle From Kirkhill near Beauly in the Highlands
On an agricultural front I do not feel the SNP has made any significant changes. It seems to me they have continued down the same road as the previous Government. Similar to the Labour Party, the SNP is just trying to make things more bureaucratic. I would much rather just be left to my own devices.
It seems Scotland is getting ever closer to gaining its independence and I think it is only a matter of time before the SNP Government gets what it wants, and that will be the end of us. Scotland will lose its identity and it will be sucked into Europe. We already pay them a colossal amount of money and I think they squander it. I have not yet seen any benefits for me and my community.
Andy Roony From Edinburgh
The only significant changes I have seen in Scotland over the past year have been in ethos, not in practice. There has been a lot of emphasis on Scotland's role within Britain. I don't think we have come any closer to getting our independence. It seems that the Government is thinking long-term and so is working slowly and subtly. If the SNP get re-elected than I predict we will see a much more aggressive leadership style.
I would like more discussions about the practicalities of Scotland breaking off from Britain. Instead of fussing over football issues or whether there is enough Scottish perspective in the news, I would like to hear about the Government's financial plans and how it plans to cope without the extra support.
Paul Macdonald Director of IFDNRG, a web and video hosting company in Edinburgh
As a small business, we are very happy with the way the Government is doing things. Because of the small business bonus we are better off by 2,600 this year and will save 8,000 over the next three. For a small business, these sums make a big difference. The barriers to getting office space have been alleviated and it is now easier for small businesses to expand. There are many support schemes out there from organisations like Scottish Enterprise but you have to jump through so many hoops, whereas in one fell swoop the SNP has given tangible support.
I am not a Nationalist, but from an economic perspective, I am much more supportive of them now.