WITHIN minutes of asking Herald readers to vote for their favourite Scottish album, a passionate and articulate debate began in homes, workplaces and pubs, on social media, across the land and beyond.

Right from the word go one particular record kept cropping up again and again, almost always accompanied by the sort of language - “achingly beautiful”, “sublime” “awe and adoration” - that highlights how deeply music can touch our lives.

The album I’m talking about, that eventually topped our poll once the votes were counted, is Hats by The Blue Nile. It also happens to be one of my own all-time favourites, a collection of seven songs that has been with me for what seems like forever, providing comfort, inspiration and a feeling of home.

Released in 1989, Hats didn't have a hit single, nor did it sell particularly well. Indeed, many will still not have heard of either the band or album. For others, however, the lush, soaring soundscape, the cinematic lyrics, become part of them.

The Blue Nile’s Glaswegian frontman Paul Buchanan, who rarely gives interviews, can’t quite believe it when I tell him over the phone that the album he made with bandmates PJ Moore and Robert Bell three decades ago is officially the nation's favourite. I can almost hear him blush.

“What a lovely, wonderful thing, I’m genuinely astonished,” he says. “I’d honestly never have thought Hats would have done this. It’s so gratifying and very humbling, especially since there are so many fantastic albums on the list. Scotland’s musical landscape is so fertile.

“At a personal level there’s something redemptive in knowing that so many people love Hats - after all, you have so many moments of doubt in your life. The important thing for us when we were making the record was to stay out of the way of the music, to let people react to it in their own way rather than us attaching our personalities to it, and I hope we achieved that.”

Formed in 1981 after the trio studied together at the University of Glasgow, The Blue Nile released their debut album A Walk Across the Rooftops – which contains Tinseltown in the Rain and also made the list – to critical acclaim in 1984. Using then-new electronic technology, the record was sparse and spare, but featured flourishes of exuberance and romance. It didn’t sell many copies but was massively influential, gaining legion of ardent fans including the likes of Peter Gabriel.

For a litany of creative, professional and bureaucratic reasons that there is no room here to go into, the follow-up, Hats, didn’t arrive for another five years and thus the band's reputation for perfectionism - yes, tapes were burned - and slow progress was born.

Did they feel the pressure to come up with something different, even better, after the critical success of the first album? Is that why Hats took so long?

“I suppose we did feel pressure,” explains Buchanan, who lives in the city's west end. “We weren’t prepared for anything beyond making the first album. We were young men and it just wasn’t in us to let anything go out that we didn’t completely believe in or mean.

“When you’re being pressurised to come up with stuff it’s the worst possible circumstances in which to actually make anything. There were all sorts of circumstances affecting things at the time – mostly record company stuff – and we couldn’t get into the studio to actually start recording. There was no point in trying to tell people about these extenuating circumstances so we just said nothing.

“I admire other groups who can block everything out and continue producing great things every year. But for us it was about holding on until we were feeling the thing in the moment. If you set out to make something ‘big’, it’s doomed. You have to just let it be.

“In musical terms we wanted to be as honest as possible to give the record a chance of credibility. This vote is such a great compliment, the ultimate reward, because it means you are credible to people whose credence is worth having.”

Honesty and integrity were frequently used words by those who voted for Hats, alongside a feeling that the album offers a sense of completeness; there is love, longing and loss, but also resolution and even redemption in the songs. Where atmospheric opener Over The Hillside evokes the possibilities of the city and Let’s Go Out Tonight touches on the desperation of trying to keep love alive, Saturday Night elicits a more hopeful note to finish.

“It would be wrong to say we set out with any grand conception on Hats but as the record developed it took on a different landscape from A Walk Across the Rooftops, texturally and in terms of colour and what it was referencing,” explains 62-year-old Buchanan, whose last release was a solo album, Mid Air, in 2012.

“With no wish to determine whatever a listener hears in Hats, there was an approximate arc to it. It goes through chapters and in the fullness of our imagination it features songs that represented an hour-long story.”

For many, the record is inseparable from the city of its birth. In one of the songs, the exquisite piano and trumpet-led On a Midnight Train, a heartbroken Buchanan sings: “All the rainy pavements lead to you.” But how directly did Glasgow influence the writing?

“It’s just in your blood, how could it not?” says the singer, who featured last year on the Jessie Ware track Last of the True Believers and contributed to the 2016 David Bowie Prom. “Whatever happiness or sadness you’re feeling you project it on to the streets and buildings around you. Just before making Hats we had been to America and in some ways the sheer size of that crept in. But I still hear lines from the songs and think of a street near where I live in Glasgow.

“When you’re writing, you’re trying to relate to images in your mind. At that point you couldn’t walk past BHS corner on Sauchiehall Street on a Friday or Saturday night without seeing people waiting nervously for their dates – it was lovely and I guess it found its way in there. In Glasgow we are as entitled to glamour and romanticism as anywhere else, right?"

The band toured the album in the early 1990s and it gained a cult following, not least among other musicians. Fellow Scot Annie Lennox covered The Downtown Lights, while American soul legend Isaac Hayes recorded Let’s Go Out Tonight.

In the 15 years that followed, The Blue Nile recorded two further albums, Peace at Last and High, but no music has been made under the name since 2004. Despite this, as our poll highlights, Hats continues to grow in stature and affection, to be passed down the generations, partly because of the timeless quality that made it such a stand out 30 years ago. Elbow’s Guy Garvey and Manchester band The 1975 are among the younger generation of musicians to talk of their love for the album.

Buchanan recalls a feeling of relief when Hats, the album so many consider the band's masterpiece, was completed.

“I was really tired and just glad it was finished,” he remembers. “You never leave anything thinking it’s completely done, you just stop. But I don’t think we ever left anything at an insincere moment. I liked how it sounded. But it’s not until you finish that you sit back and think ‘that’s a personal record’.

“When we put Hats out we had no point of reference, no manager, nothing like that. PJ [Moore] always used to say we were just gentlemen amateurs.

“I look back and those are the good times, when you are unselfconscious and just making music with your pals. After that it all got much more complicated.

"I’m so glad we had that period. The three of us managed to keep a line between the music and us as people, I think. The music was our better selves."

Next week: read our interview with Frank Reader of The Trashcan Sinatras