THOUSANDS OF people yesterday took part in a rally in Edinburgh in support of Scottish independence and to hear First Minister Alex Salmond insist he is on course to win the referendum in 2014.
But opposition parties said the turn-out, which fell short of the predicted numbers, was an ill omen for the Yes campaign.
Lothian & Borders Police estimated around 5000 people took part in the first annual March And Rally For Independence, compared to the 7000 organisers had anticipated.
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Compared to the mass rally for independence in the Spanish region of Catalonia last week, where 1.5m Catalans, or 20% of the population, took to the streets, yesterday's event drew less than 0.1% of Scotland's population, despite a rare afternoon of glorious sunshine.
Two years ago an STUC rally against public-sector cuts drew more than 20,000 people to Edinburgh. In 1992, a pro-devolution march brought around 30,000 to the capital in mid-December.
However, yesterday's event was clearly enjoyed by the people of all ages who followed a pipe band from the Meadows to Princes Street Gardens in a forest of Saltires.
There was a brief scuffle before the speeches as a kilted marcher attempted to snatch some Union flags from rival demonstrators, and the police made two arrests.
However, the rest of the day was good natured, with musical interludes woven between speeches by a range of public figures including former Labour MP Dennis Canavan, journalist Ruth Wishart, and human-rights lawyer Aamer Anwar.
Organiser Jeff Duncan, who spoke first, said the rally was intended to "kick off the process" towards the independence referendum and that it would be four to five times bigger next year, and far bigger again in 2014, just before the referendum.
The First Minister said independence offered a "different way" to the Westminster government's agenda of cuts to health, education and welfare. To cheers and applause, he said of the Coalition: "Why should they choose austerity [for us] when we want to choose to invest in the future?"
"We choose a different way to protect the people of Scotland and we want the right to choose whether our people should be sent into illegal wars, the right to choose to remove weapons of mass destruction from the shores of Scotland."
He also announced the SNP-backed Yes Scotland campaign, which supported the rally but did not organise it, had gathered 100,000 signatures for its Yes Declaration since launching on May 25.
Salmond was followed by Independent MSP Margo MacDonald, who urged the crowd to persuade others by engaging with them sympathetically.
"If a third of Scots believe in independence, then every one of us has two years to persuade another Scot, and we are home and dry," she said, while referencing the many policy differences within the Yes camp by declaring the SNP were "daft" to float policy on the defence of an independent Scotland, including membership of the nuclear alliance Nato. Another anti-Nato remark drew loud cheers.
SNP defence spokesman Angus Robertson, who is leading the push for Nato membership, later refused to comment on MacDonald's remarks.
Although independence's millionaire backers, such as Jim McColl, see it as a route to lower taxes, the rally was very much on the left, with many speakers attacking the Coalition's welfare reforms. There were marchers from the Greens, Scottish Socialists and Solidarity – accompanied by former MSP and convicted perjurer Tommy Sheridan – and the Labour splinter movement, Labour for Independence.
Canavan, chair of Yes Scotland, said his 26 years as a Labour MP convinced him Westminster is "out of touch" with Scotland, and independence would bring "higher standards of social justice".
Sean Clerkin of Citizens United called for a "fundamental redistribution of wealth", while former Socialist MSP Colin Fox said he wants Scotland to be a "modern democratic republic". The SNP wants to maintain the monarchy.
Green MSP Patrick Harvie said only radical transformation would attract voters. "A Scottish version of the status quo will convince nobody," he said.
Labour MSP Patricia Ferguson said: "Despite the huge drive by the SNP to get people to attend, this has been a damp squib and a personal embarrassment for Alex Salmond."
Conservative MSP David McLetchie added: "Alex Salmond's march for separation attracted fewer people than a struggling third-division football team."
WHY WE MARCHED
Vince Godley, 58, gas engineer, Dunblane (SNP): "I believe in the dignity of independence. You don't see the Irish rushing to join the UK union for all their troubles."
Paolo Casterta, 35, support worker, originally from Italy (Scottish Socialist Party: "The Socialist Party fully supports independence. Things can be done to improve Scottish society and the referendum will be the occasion to do that."
Tom Hastings, 57, ecologist, Ayrshire (SNP – probably): "Without independence Scotland is going nowhere. I'm pleased with what the Scottish Government is doing for the environment. We have the most ambitious carbon-reducing targets in the world."
Michael Dixon, 26, public affairs, Edinburgh (SNP): "I'm part of Young Scots for Independence, the official youth wing of the SNP. We want people to consider independence, even if it's the first time they've thought about it."
Marina Lyle, 30, North Lanarkshire councillor (SNP): "The rally is to get the point across about independence and making people aware of it."
Jennifer Broadhurst, 38, student, Stewarton. (Scottish Greens): "I hope for a better future and a more fair and equal society."
Brian Gallagher, 30, self-employed tiler, Bellshill (no party): "Independence is something I've always believed in.
The construction industry has been decimated. Lots of guys in the industry are on the dole. The illegal war has killed more than one million people and we are paying."
Andrew Dyce, 29, lecturer, Glasgow (SNP): "I'm taking part in this celebratory march to support independence."