THE SNP last night won a resounding victory in the Moray by-election brought about by the death of its MSP, Margaret Ewing.

Nicola Sturgeon, the party's Holyrood leader, hailed the success with an increased majority of 6385 as a vindication of nationalist policies and boost for positive campaigning.

The Tories were second, followed by the LibDems and Labour trailing in fourth place.

With the SNP out of sight of their rivals with 12,653 votes, Ms Sturgeon said: "This is an extremely good result for the SNP and a vindication of our positive campaigning.

"It is also a good signal for the year ahead and the next Scottish elections, and the other parties' claims have been shown to be completely without foundation."

The nationalist candidate, Richard Lochhead, who resigned as a list MSP in order to fight the seat, said after his win: "This is a tremendous night for the Scottish National Party.

"This SNP victory sends a powerful message to the nation.

"The people have rejected the failed policies of the London-based parties in favour of a Scottish independent future."

Tory aides put a brave face on their performance, insisting that Mr Lochhead would be "on probation" until the election next year when their candidate Mary Scanlon would beat him.

Ms Scanlon said: "I am very proud that I fought a positive campaign on the issues that matter to the people of Moray and as the selected candidate for next year I will continue to campaign to win Moray."

The LibDems had high hopes of doing well in this seat and had confidently assumed they would overtake the Tories but these were dashed last night.

Danny Alexander, the Liberal Democrat for the neighbouring Inverness constituency, accepted the SNP victory but said: "It looks like the LibDems have once again put in a strong performance in this byelection."

The poor showing of Labour at a difficult time for the party came as no surprise to their campaign team.

Peter Peacock, the education minister and Highlands LabourMSPs, conceded it had been a poor result for Labour but said the trends showed that Alex Salmond, SNP party leader would still be well short of his target of 20 gains next year.

The turnout was announced at 45.7per cent. Polling in the constituency was described throughout the day as "slow but not low", and in the pattern of what normally happens in the area, with most voters visiting the polling stations after work.

Within hours of the polls closing last night, the SNP party's campaign team said it was confident that Mr Lochhead would not only hold the seat but would maintain a comfortable majority.

Mr Lochhead was defending Ms Ewing's majority of 5312 over the Tories, who were in turn looking to at least close that gap and fight off any challenge from the recently resurgent LibDems.

Both Mr Lochhead and his Conservative challenger had to resign their positions as regional listMSPs in order to contest the by-election.

For the SNP it was vital to hold Moray, particularly at a time when Mr Salmond is preparing to contest the neighbouring LibDem stronghold in Gordon at next year's Holyrood election.

The constituency, with its mix of the fishing industry, agriculture, RAF bases, whisky and tourism, was contested stronglyby all parties. For the LibDems it had been important in terms of momentum following their defeat of Labour in Dunfermline and West Fife, and for the Conservatives it had been a vital arena in which to demonstrate that coming from second place they were not a spent force. To push that campaign the Tories launched early and attracted criticism for punting Ms Scanlon as a friend and natural heir to Ms Ewing, appropriating the phrase "a bonnie fechter for Moray" and frequently failing to mention that she was actually a Conservative candidate. The Tories also fell foul of the local newspaper for naming supporters in leaflets who later recanted, while the LibDems also fell out with the Northern Scot for falsely citing its support for their candidate Linda Gorn.