Like a certain James McFadden, Alex Salmond can resist everything except the temptation of an open goal. Joining Labour's Cathy Jamieson in parliamentary congratulations for the conquerors of Paris last week, the first minister turned on the proverbial sixpence and found the net. Scotland's remarkable victory over France he said, unblushing, was "part of the mood of optimism that is sweeping the nation".

Prior to the match, national coach Alex McLeish had observed that his squad are a gallus bunch. Perhaps they have been taking tips from Salmond. Gallusness is his undiluted life's blood. If he senses optimism then the nation - "C'est moi", as a Frenchman once put it - is surely bursting with the stuff.

It is a large claim to make of a single football match won against the odds, but we 90-minute patriots won't worry too much about that. Nor will we quibble over the fact that we have not, in fact, qualified for anything yet, whether it be Euro 2008 or independent membership of the European Union. This was "our greatest victory ever" (apart from the one 40 years ago against actual World Cup winners, who happened, as a bonus, to be English). If football is a barometer, the weather is set fair.

Mind you, there was not a cloud in the sky three decades ago either. Optimism? Some of those who marched, flew, hiked and sailed with Ally's Army had actually convinced themselves that a resurgent Scotland could win the World Cup. Home rule was on its way; the team feared no-one; bring them on. Indeed.

There are men of a certain age who never got over Argentina 1978. Some argue that it put the national sport back decades, that the difference between unbridled optimism and insanity proved to be very slight. There are political theorists, meanwhile, who still wonder if a calamitous showing in South America left this country so drained and confused and fretful it simply could not cope with the 1979 devolution referendum. Whatever the truth, the old tale is a cautionary one.

There is, however, nothing much wrong with optimism, given the traditional Scottish alternatives. You could even draw a useful lesson from the national football team. None of its members would have made the French team. McFadden, like several others, is not guaranteed a starting place by his club. We have no supernaturally gifted talents to hand. In a small country, even the supply of merely proficient players is uncertain.

They have self-belief, however, and enough optimism to shock World Cup finalists to the core. They're gallus and yet, somehow, realists too. There is no trace of the Argentina hubris in them. That sounds, on the whole, like a reasonable prescription for a nation of five million or so souls on the far fringes of Europe. It sounds, equally, like a reflection of the mood Salmond claims to detect.

Tempered optimism has a habit of becoming self-fulfilling. Years of the "Scottish cringe" led us to believe that self-confidence would always be a fragile thing, that the limits to aspiration were painfully clear and undeniable. Optimism, even in small doses, leads you to understand that perhaps it is the cringe that is fragile, that mumping for decades is self-defeating, self-destructive, unprofitable and dreary. When some south of the Border decided to label us "whingeing Jocks", they knew how to hit the mark.

Salmond, as they say, talks a good game. But he proceeds from the belief that talking a good game is half the battle. There is no sensible way to measure the truth of his claim that optimism is sweeping the nation. But football aside - you can't argue with a scoreline, though the French will do their best - anecdotal evidence is on his side.

There is a buzz around politics, for one thing. In part, this has to do with the sheer novelty of seeing the Labour Party in opposition. The political world simply feels different. Yet the tone, and with it the mood, has changed.

Oddly enough, you get a better sense of this from those who refused to believe that the SNP could ever win power than from convinced Nationalists. The early praise for Salmond's administration has been most marked among unionists capable of noting that the sky hasn't fallen in, that the first minister has a considerable following among non-Nationalists, and that lassitude has evaporated.

Take the decision to recognise reality and call an executive a government. Some around Gordon Brown, emboldened perhaps by prime ministerial churlishness, seemed to take it for granted there would be an outcry. Instead, the public asked a simple question of the devolved administration. Does it govern? Then it's a government. Downing Street's refusal to accept the verdict looked like yet another attempt to put Scotland in its place.

You could easily argue, of course, that Salmond hasn't done much yet, though he would beg to differ. You could say that what has swept the nation is a mere honeymoon effect, or an outbreak of wishful thinking. It is a first minister's job to believe that all is for the best in this, the best of all small countries in the world. But even that laboured slogan has been discarded. For publicity purposes, Scotland is now "a breath of fresh air". That sounds right.

Reports, again anecdotal, from the world of the arts also speak of optimism. As with football, Scotland's culture has advertised a renaissance more often than is strictly feasible, but the sense of possibilities and opportunities is strong. Those who work in the arts seem comfortable in the 21st century, and certainly more secure in a sense of identity that, finally, matches and mirrors the country's sense of itself.

Words are easy, obviously, but the right words carry weight. A decade or so ago the possibility that optimism and the SNP might coincide would have had captains of industry and commerce threatening to book helicopter flights to Berwick and all points south. Instead - those anecdotes again - they are reported as reassured, when not actively impressed, by the government's hopes for repatriated economic power, cuts in corporation tax, and an assault on lamentable growth rates.

Mere straws in the wind, you may say, and you would be right. The jury should stay out, you will add, and that would be sensible. Problems? Gordon Brown's Treasury is about to squeeze Salmond (and the rest of Britain) for cash, for one thing. Scotland's health remains, in the parlance, diabolical, for another. Parts of our infrastructure are a joke; the financing of higher education is a problem waiting to happen and the energy debate has yet to make contact with reality.

I could go on. Most of us could. But the interim report would still say that reasons to be cheerful about Scotland are growing in number while reasons for the old dolefulness diminish.

Just remember this: McFadden wasn't supposed to score and Scotland were not supposed to win. They did, though, because, gallus to the end, they believed they could. And they added another couple of ounces to the national stock of optimism. Think of it as a strategic reserve. Can a football match really change the national psyche?

"IT'S amazing to see what we can do when we get rid of the chip on our shoulder. We have absolutely had a change in our mindset but we still at times have an inferiority complex.

"We are a great race for putting people up there and then tearing them down. Even if we lose the next game, so what? We've beaten one of the best teams in the world.

"We should think about the number of world champions this country has produced, the world-famous engineers and inventors. We have forgotten just how good we are, but I think that attitude is beginning to change.

"When I worked with Motherwell James McFadden was playing for them. I gave each player a piece of paper and asked them where they would like to come in the league. Of all the respondents only one said they wanted to be first, and that was James."

Sports psychologist Tom Lucas "An issue for Scots is when things go well we don't know how to sustain that feeling, instead we claw the feet from it. We look for the downside and that means we don't get that winning momentum. We have to learn to be more optimistic and trusting that success can last.

"When people win it generates so much positive emotion and dynamism and leads to better relationships because we are more open.

"The fact is we have won against France for a second time, hopefully that will mean people will get out of the idea it was a miracle."

Carol Craig, director of the Centre for Confidence and Wellbeing "Very often when you are the subject of an attack such as that carried out by terrorists at Glasgow Airport, the in group' can become more cohesive.

"There was also an opportunity to take someone as an example prototype, to create a typical representative of the group. In that case it was John Smeaton. He was someone we could say Yes, he is one of us and I can be like him in a way.' He facilitated good cohesion and collective self-esteem. It raised the sense of social wellbeing in Scottish people."

Psychologist Dr Fabio Sani of Dundee University Scotland is finally coming to terms with itself. I think some of the changes we have seen recently are generational, but there's more change to come. A variety of things have happened recently in Scotland and we feel better about ourselves. We are moving away from the whingeing Jock.

"I think we have seen two things synergised, the government is helpful in driving things further, but I think you could argue the growth of confidence came from the election. We still have a long way to go, though."

Kenny MacAskill, secretary for justice "Haud yer horses .... we're not there yet. Brilliant result last night, almost unbelievable, but what's the betting we'll slip up in Georgia and have to rely on beating Italy at Hampden in our last game?"

Anonymous posting on BBC Scotland website "Football has a profound effect on our social relationships with others. If you think about it, normally if you go into your corner shop you don't speak to the owner, but now you know you can say to them, Wasn't that brilliant last night?' You know you will get a positive response. In a sense it not only creates a sense of pride in your own head but also creates relationships with others."

Professor Stephen Reicher, social psychologist at St Andrews University "Several matches have been described as the greatest game Scotland has ever played, and having been present at most of them I must rate Wednesday's performance up there with the win at Wembley in 1967 and Joe Jordan's goal against Czechoslovakia at Hampden in 1973 which took us to the World Cup finals."

George Peat, SFA president Interviews: Rachelle Money