NOT even Jack McConnell could restrain himself.

Fired by the euphoria of recent sporting success and prompted by the debate in the pages of this newspaper, the first minister pushed caution aside yesterday and waded into the national anthem debate, sparking reaction from all sides.

But anyone hoping for the first minister to come out with a categorical preference was in for a disappointment.

After telling journalists yesterday that politicians should not really talk about national anthems, Mr McConnell duly took up where Michael Tumelty left off in Wednesday's Herald when he said Highland Cathedral was a favourite tune.

Asked how he felt about the national rugby and football teams lining up for Flower of Scotland while in Melbourne the flag was raised to Scotland the Brave, Mr McConnell was initially cagey. "Politicians and national anthems can be a difficult mix, " he ventured.

But with the screen behind him at St Andrew's House showing a Saltire fluttering, he soon warmed to his theme as he went on to discuss the merits of various contenders in different settings.

He finally conceded that his own personal preference as a piece of music coincided with the view expressed the day before by Mr Tumelty - Highland Cathedral. But the first minister added: "I am not advocating it as a national anthem."

This tune was written for the bagpipes by Ullrich Roever and Michael Korb to mark the occasion of a Highland games held in Germany in 1982. In contrast to Flower of Scotland, the bagpipes can actually play all the notes.

The first attempt at lyrics, by Ben Kelly, came from the standpoint of a Scottish soldier posted overseas thinking back to "my Bonnie Scotland "where "heather grows and eagles soar". Two other writers, Donald Smith and Terry Mechan have had a go and there are apparently lyrics in German.

Before revealing his preference yesterday, Mr McConnell accepted that the public favourite, the Corries' ballad Flower of Scotland seemed to work better before rugby at Murrayfield than football at Hampden.

"Flower Of Scotland works at Murrayfield, for example, where it is very stirring and it lifts the crowd, lifts the team and I'm sure, to some extent intimidates the opposition.

"But I can also see how in the Commonwealth Games, the athletes chose Scotland The Brave, which is an athletes' choice because to some extent a national anthem that's played at an international games like that is played more for the tune than the words, so when the flag goes up, the tune is played.

"There are those who say Auld Lang Syne, but Auld Lang Syne is a song for the end of an evening rather than the beginning of the evening.

"If you're trying to chose a national anthem then it has to work in a whole variety of different settings and I think that's the challenge."

Nicola Sturgeon, Holyrood leader of the SNP, responded: "The Scottish Parliament has the power to decide on the Scottish national anthem, and so should take the lead now in the debate on the issue.

"Our national song should be an anthem of the people, and so we must use the powers of the parliament to encourage debate and participation by the whole country in this process."

She was not keen to offer a personal view on what the anthem should be. Nor was Nicol Stephen of the Liberal Democrats, although he leaned towards Flower of Scotland.

Norwas Annabel Goldie, but when pressed did confess a liking for Hamish McCunn's Land of the Mountain and Flood, which some will recall as the theme tune to the television series, Sutherland's Law.

Chris Ballance of the Greens has pressed before for the parliament to take a position on an anthem. "I would like to see Auld Lang Syne, with its message of linking arms across the world, adopted and recognised, " he said.

"There is a good argument for a Scotland-wide competition for a new song. In the end it is down to public acclaim, but I would hope we choose something forward-looking, and not celebrating blood or victory, or fallen fighters, as in Scots Wha Ha'e or Flower of Scotland."

Colin Fox of the Scottish Socialists, who might have been expected to go for Hamish Henderson's Freedom Come All Ye or Burns' A Man's A Man for A' That, suggested another Burns ballad, You're Welcome, Wullie Stewart, as upbeat, spirited and lively.