SHOULD Alex Salmond ever consider giving up politics, a career in stand-up comedy is surely worth a shot. Delivering the Immortal Memory at a Burns supper in Whiterashes, a blink-and-you'll-miss-it village half-a-dozen miles from Inverurie, he has the throng in the palm of his hand, one joke piled upon another until a gaggle of tartan mini-skirted lassies are beside themselves with laughter.

He is concerned, he says, for the future of the planet, threatened as it is by the women of Whiterashes's habit of flying in strippers from far-flung places to the detriment of the ozone layer. What's wrong, Salmond wonders, with the native talent? Three men of a silvery age - a plumber, a joiner and a sheep shearer - are plucked from obscurity and made to stand up, demonstrating, alas, that not all the best produce can be supplied locally.

"The women of Aberdeenshire can fake an orgasm," Salmond informs his potential constituents. "I should know that. That's nothing. The men of Aberdeenshire can fake entire relationships." Nobody, certainly no politician, revels in the limelight quite like the SNP leader. Over the course of the next three-quarters of an hour, he gooses Gordon Brown; Tony Blair; Jack McConnell, "a wee courin', timorous beastie"; Tommy Sheridan; the Daily Record, which he calls Pravda; and William Wordsworth. "So bloody what!" is his verdict on the last-mentioned's host of golden daffodils fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Eventually, he turns his attention to Burns, whose memory he is ostensibly meant to be immortalising. What he admires most about Burns, he says, is his humanity. Rather sweetly, Salmond sings a couple of lines of A Man's A Man, which allows him to recollect the opening in 1999 of the Scottish parliament and the bemused look on Prince Philip's face when Sheena Wellington encouraged the gathering to sing: "Ye see yon birkie ca'd a lord,/ Wha struts, and stares, and a' that." Not since John Redwood's attempt to sing the Welsh national anthem in Welsh, he says, had he seen someone so out of place.

Exercising improbable restraint, Salmond keeps his speech virtually free of political tub-thumping. There is a time and place for everything and the Whiterashes Burns supper, where mince is served with the haggis, neeps and tatties, and there is faintly burnt trifle for dessert, is not the occasion for overt electioneering.

Nevertheless, one learns quite a lot about Salmond as the evening progresses. There was a time, he says, when he was up for anything and rarely spurned an opportunity to be on television. He appeared on Call My Bluff and Have I Got News For You. "I very nearly," he confesses, "went up the jungle with Christine Hamilton." He professes to have been an admirer of the late rake, Sir Nicky Fairbairn, who in his cups in the House of Commons once lifted the kilt of fellow Tory MP Bill Walker, exposing a pair of red panties. Any doubters, says Salmond, can see him later and he will supply them with chapter and verse in Hansard. Musically, he insists he is a devotee of Tammy Wynette, "a gay icon". He calls for a moment's silence, to show "solidarity" with Tony Blair in his hour of need. It lasts no longer than it takes to draw the shortest of breaths.

It has gone 11pm by the time the formal proceedings are brought to an end and the tables and chairs cleared away to allow the band to set up and the dancing to begin. Salmond takes the opportunity to work the room. He is 52 and boyishly bouncy. His hair is beating a retreat but his eyebrows are bushier than Denis Healey's. Having long eschewed the kilt, he now wears trews at such events which, when accompanied by a waistcoat, make him look like one of Henry Raeburn's 18th-century sitters. When he sits down his white shirt inadequately camouflages his swelling stomach.

It's obvious that Salmond, unlike other politicians, enjoys schmoozing and is a natural meeter and greeter. One gets the impression he would be happy doing it even if he were not in politics. What's more, people seem at ease with him, eager to josh and argue. There is no doubt that, were you to poll the people in the Whiterashes village hall, victory at the forthcoming election in May would be assured.

But it is not likely to be as easy as that. If Salmond is to lead the Nationalists at Holyrood after May 3 he must come from third place to first in order to eclipse a LibDem majority of 4500 and thus win the Gordon seat on which he has set his heart. Nor can he expect any help from the Tories, who four years ago finished second, and Labour, who came fourth with almost 3000 votes. Indeed, it is perhaps fair to surmise that the enemies of the SNP, and of Salmond and independence, will do everything they can to ensure a LibDem victory, even to the extent of standing aside.

"I have to win the seat," Salmond tells me later, once he has extricated himself from Whiterashes and is nursing a dram in a nearby hotel. "I'm told it's incredibly difficult to do." So why take the risk? Why gamble his career on such a finely-balanced constituency when he could have engineered a safe seat for himself? It is necessary, he says, to make a point, to demonstrate to his fellow candidates that if the election is to be won the SNP must achieve 20 more seats than they have at present. Gordon is number 18 on their wish list. "Also," adds Salmond, with his customised air of studied confidence, "I think we'll win this seat and I think I'll win it well. At the end of the day ,people will vote for an idea and a vision."

Birth Of A Nationalist As leader of the SNP, however, Alex Salmond is accustomed to losing elections. It comes with the territory. Since Salmond joined the party, when he was a student at St Andrews in the 1970s, its fortunes have wavered like a fever chart. Whatever the reason he became a nationalist it was not because it offered job security or the promise of power. His conversion is generally credited to his then girlfriend, Debbie Horton from Hackney, who was secretary of the student Labour club. After an argument in December 1973, she told him: "If you feel like that, go and join the SNP." The next day Salmond did. The following day he and a friend attended the sparsely-populated AGM of the university branch of the Federation of Student Nationalists. Being the only two fully paid-up members of the SNP, they were duly elected president and treasurer.

It was while at St Andrews that Salmond got a foretaste of the travails to come, losing the election for student president by a handful of votes, the only time he has lost a personal vote. It still rankles. The winner, he recalls, was a Tory called Peter Bainbridge. "It serves me right because I called him Braindamage throughout the campaign. Last I heard of him he was an executive with BP, doing very well. Good luck to him.

"Actually, the guy who could have won was the guy who came third. He was the best candidate in my opinion. He was a divinity student called Bill Hogg. I always remember his hustings speech. Bill made a speech saying - because Peter was chairman of the Tory club and I was chairman of the Student Nationalists, standing for the broad left - that the issue in this election is not left or right but up or down'. He should have won just on that phrase alone."

In hindsight, though, nothing could have been more predictable than Salmond's conversion to nationalism. He was born in Linlithgow and is proud to be a Black Bitch, a compliment denoting those whose mother and father were born within the boundaries of the ancient town. His father, Robert, a civil servant, was a working-class Labour supporter, known in his navy days as Uncle Joe because of his Stalinist leaning. His mother, Mary, who died in 2003 aged 82 while accumulating Munros, was a "Winston Churchill Conservative". Salmond was the second of four children. His full name is Alexander Elliot Anderson Salmond, and he was named after the local Church of Scotland minister. The chief influence on his childhood, however, was his grandfather, Sandy. He was Linlithgow's plumber and knew the town like the back of his hand.

"I was instructed in the Scottish oral tradition literally from my grandfather's knee," Salmond once wrote in an essay on what being Scottish meant to him, "and I have little doubt that this was the strongest influence in my life in determining my attitude to nationality and identity. In retrospect I know that most of the incredible tales told to me by my granda were via Walter Scott or Blind Harry but were always salted with local colour. In Linlithgow, where much of Scottish history was made and unmade, this task was far from impossible.

"He showed me, for example, the ground where he said Edward I had camped before the Battle of Falkirk; he showed me the window from where the Regent Moray was shot dead in the high street. He even told me the names of Bruce's men who retook Linlithgow castle for the Scottish cause by jamming a haycart under the portcullis. Since my granda claimed that that well-known Lithgae family and bakers the Oliphants were involved, this caused some degree of confusion in my young mind as I imagined the lads in the bake- house dusting flour off their overalls before storming the gates of the palace!"

As a schoolboy, Salmond was unable to participate as much as he would have liked in sports because he was asthmatic. In the opinion of one teacher he was a "cheeky monkey". At Linlithgow Academy, he preferred to sit at the back of the class, among the girls. Though he was no swot, he was a fan of the poetry of RS Thomas, the blind Welsh nationalist. Early on, he learned how to woo voters, offering in a mock election free ice cream to those who sided with him. Read into that what you will. Not surprisingly, he made his biggest impact on the stage when, as a boy soprano, he sang the title role in Gian-Carlo Menotti's opera Amahl And The Night Visitors, which was received warmly in his home town's newspaper. His music teacher recognised his talent and wanted to export it, to Australia. But his voice broke at the crucial moment and Scotland was denied its own Aled Jones. A novelty CD, released in 1999, showed just what a loss Salmond was to the performing arts.

After a short spell at what was then Napier College in Edinburgh he went to St Andrews University where he studied mediaeval Scottish history and economics, in hindsight a dream combination for an aspiring leader of the SNP. He supplemented his student grant by investing shrewdly at the local bookies. He wore a denim jacket, Maoist cap and hair down to his shoulders.

His time at St Andrews coincided with that of Michael Forsyth, the future Thatcherite and secretary of state for Scotland. But they barely crossed swords, saving themselves perhaps for later duels. Forsyth is one of the few adversaries he finds unpardonable. "He arrived at St Andrews drinking pints of heavy and left drinking gin and tonic," he once told me. "People change their minds, of course, but he changed his drinking habits, his politics and his accent for social emulation."

On leaving university, Salmond spent several years working for the government economic service in Scotland, before moving to the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, which would later stand him in good stead in a constituency which relied on both. He then went, in 1980, to the Royal Bank of Scotland, where he became chief oil economist. Though, as Andrew Marr has pointed out, Salmond is as romantic an idealist as anyone in the SNP, in a party with a terrible weakness for culture he stood out as "a hard-headed man of numbers".

There is little doubt that had he stayed in banking he would have risen vertiginously, constantly pummelling his superiors with imaginative ideas. As it was, he resigned in 1987 to contest Banff and Buchan, ousting the sitting Tory MP, Albert McQuarrie, "the Buchan Bulldog", in an uncompromising contest. Instrumental in Salmond's victory was Moira McGlashan, a former civil servant whom he'd married in 1981 when she was 43 and he was 26. From the outset, they agreed that she would play a behind-the-scenes role and make no public statements. But her inconspicuousness and lack of profile is disproportionate to her importance to him. Chic, witty and personable, she is at his side at party conferences and is a mainstay in the constituency.

Asked whether, if elected first minister, he and Moira would leave their home in Strichen and move to Bute House he laughs off the possibility. "Moira wouldn't like it," he says. I wouldn't be so sure about that. Once, recalls Salmond, just once, he and Moira were invited by Donald Dewar to the first minister's Christmas party. The year was 1997. Though they'd been "vigorous opponents" for most of their careers, they were enjoying what Salmond calls a Scottish autumn. "We were actually on incredibly good terms. It wasn't a relationship that flourished immediately, but over the weeks in the run-up to the devolution election it's one that developed extraordinarily well."

At the party, Salmond was talking to Muir Russell, then head of the Scottish Office. He looked around and couldn't see either Dewar or his wife. "Muir said, They've gone up to the private apartments.'" Salmond scurried after them and discovered them coming out of a cupboard. "Nothing untoward was suspected on my part," he hastens to say. "We're talking about Donald! And Moira!" Sadly for scandalmongers, Dewar had been showing Mrs Salmond Bute House's book collection. "You want to be careful with Moira," Salmond cautioned the first minister. "You don't realise she's got a measuring tape in her handbag for the curtains."

Devolution And Beyond IN the hornet's nest of Scottish politics, the ceasefire between Dewar and Salmond was not likely to last long. And nor did it. First, came the revelations that Dewar, having courted Sean Connery to bring the devolution debate to life, had simultaneously been conspiring to deprive him of a knighthood. Then, of course, came the first election to the reconvened Scottish parliament, which saw Labour come out on top, leaving Salmond to lick his wounds and wonder what might have been.

In 1999, I shadowed him during the final days of campaigning. Not for one moment did he show a flicker of doubt that victory was within his grasp. An interview with him in the Scotsman, for whom I worked at the time, carried the headline, Convinced Of Victory Against The Odds. "Certainty and self-belief are attributes which any leader must have to survive in the brutal, judgemental and egocentric world of politics," wrote Peter McMahon, who would later become Henry McLeish's adviser. "Salmond has all these attributes, in spades."

The fact was that the SNP was fighting against an incoming tide. No national newspaper supported it and the PR system made it almost impossible the for the Nationalists to gain an overall majority. Salmond himself was under attack for opposing the Nato intervention on Kosovo, leading Robin Cook to dub him "the toast of Sarajevo", and the proposed "penny for Scotland" plan allowed Labour to cast the SNP as the party of tax and spend. Meanwhile, the LibDems let it be known that they would only consider forming a coalition with Labour. In a last-ditch attempt to counter the almost universally hostile press coverage, the Nationalists launched their own newspaper, which succeeded only in denuding the party coffers.

Despite all of the above, Salmond remained remorselessly, indefatigably upbeat, breezing into a bakery in Perth with the brio of a man who feels his destiny is about to be fulfilled. In the last, frantic days of campaigning, nobody kissed more babies or flirted with more old ladies. As dawn broke over Macduff harbour, Salmond, his wife at his side, emerged from the town hall, having persuaded 16,695 people to vote for him, giving him a majority of more than 11,000. The news from elsewhere, however, was not so good. The SNP had gained just 35 seats, far fewer than they had projected or needed. Yet, while all around showed signs of fatigue, Salmond insisted on returning to his hotel and cracking open the bottle of champagne which he had won as the Scotsman's best performer in the grinding election battle.

By then, Salmond had been SNP leader for 10 years and looked as if he could go on for another 10. There certainly was no internal threat to him and no other potential leadership candidates who could match his charisma. His resignation, therefore, on July 17, 2000, came out of the blue. Winnie Ewing, the matriarch of the SNP, was not alone in deeming it "totally unexpected". Though Salmond insisted that after 10 years it was time to let someone else take over, rumours abound as to the real reason for his abrupt departure. Was he ill? Was Moira? Was a skeleton about to emerge from a cupboard? It was known that a Labour MP had encouraged journalists to comb Ireland in search of Salmond's supposed gambling debts, to no avail.

"There was a number of things going on," says Salmond now, as midnight comes and goes, "I'd said I'd serve 10 years to a number of people. Also, I thought 10 years was a reasonable spell. The party was in good nick and I thought it was time to hand on the torch, that sort of thing. Also, I was pretty scunnered with the Holyrood project. I didn't think that people would wait 300 years to get a parliament and then concentrate on building a parliament. I just didn't believe that. The vote we took in 1999 to abandon Holyrood I thought we'd win. I thought we'd turn it over in the first parliament. There were only four votes in it. Donald said, of course, he'd resign. He told his MSPs he'd resign. But I did come up with a good phrase. I said the parliament could meet in a hut and be a parliament if it kept the respect of the people. It could meet in a palace and not be a parliament if it lost the respect of the people."

What's his opinion today of Holyrood?

"What's done is done. It's not where it should be and it's not what it should be. And whoever gets the window-cleaning contract will be a millionaire. But architect Enric Miralles was not without talent. I never said he was. There are aspects of the building that - if not genius - are inspired. But the issue is over in terms of public resonance. People accept it's there. After all, the cost of the Olympics has overrun 10 times. And the debating chamber - Signor Miralles wanted to build a banana. He wanted MSPs to commune. I said if I was communing with Mr Dewar I wanted to do it without binoculars."

Holyrood Or Bust Communing with Dewar is no longer a possibility. Nor is it certain who will be communing with who come May. The forthcoming election, for the two principal adversaries - McConnell and Salmond (who became SNP leader for the second time in 2004) - is bound to be defining, leaving at least one of them so bloodied they are unlikely to lead their parties for long afterwards. For Salmond, the differences between 1999 and 2007 are several. First, and most significantly, there is the reality of devolution. Eight years ago, he says, people were being asked to think about independence before they'd tried devolution. What was the biggest problem then is presently the biggest advantage.

"It's much more reasonable to say, You've seen it running, there must be something else, there must be something better'. I think people realise that if you want a real parliament you better give it real powers. People want something respectable that they can look up to. Not a pocket money' thing, a subsidiary thing. I think there's a realisation of that now. In 1999, people's expectations were much higher than the parliament's abilities. That to me is the most underlying feature of Scottish politics."

He is encouraged, too, by the coming on board the Nationalist bandwagon of erstwhile unionists such as Michael Fry and Harry Reid and by the promise of funding by Sir Tom Farmer and the appointment or Peter Howson - "What a guy! He's doing a painting for us for the election!" - as an SNP arts adviser. The unpopularity of the war in Iraq and the cash-for-peerages saga - spurred by SNP MP Angus MacNeil - have also sent his optimism levels soaring. Every time you pick up a paper, it seems, the Nationalists have another reason to rejoice, be it Gordon Brown apparently backing England to win the World Cup or championing Britishness to Little Englanders bellyaching over the Barnett formula and wishing Scotland were independent. The latest opinion poll suggests that SNP's lead over Labour is holding.

"It does seem," says Salmond, turning astrologer, "that circumstances - like stars in the heavens - are conjoining to create an event which gives us a fantastic opportunity." However, he is too long in the tooth to read too much into what the runes say. While much has changed since 1999, much has remained the same. In general, the media remains hostile to the SNP, and no newspaper has been brave - or foolhardy - enough to give it sanction. On top of which there are 50 years of Labour dominance north of the Border to overcome. As Salmond notes, though countless thousands marched against the Iraq war, they continued to vote for those who had promoted it. The extent to which inertia can be overcome is as yet immeasurable by pollsters. The above-mentioned poll put at 41% those who do not know where - or even if - they will cast their vote. Disenchantment with government is not inevitably reflected at the ballot box.

None of which Salmond himself can do a lot to change. He is frustrated, though, that the first minister won't debate head-to-head with him. McConnell will wait, presumes Salmond, until a suitable platform can be found which will also accommodate Nicol Stephen of the LibDems and Annabel Goldie of the Tories. "It's a shame in a way," he says, "because we've always had a tradition, unlike Westminster, of leadership debates in Scotland. Donald Dewar was never frightened to debate. Even George Robertson, the shadow Secretary of State, wasn't frightened to debate. So it speaks ill of him that he should be holing up in Bute House."

Meanwhile, Salmond must make do with Douglas Alexander, or his "smarter" sister, Wendy. What about Gordon Brown? Would he like to take him on? Yes, but there's scant chance of that, he says. "Because he's above that sort of thing. What's his psychological state just now? I mean, there he is all these years trying to create crustless pies then all of a sudden certain things are happening. His economic record may go pear-shaped. And Scotland's going out of control just as he was going to grab the pies."

This is Salmond in mischievous mode, the adult incarnation of the boy dubbed a "cheeky monkey" by his teacher all those years ago. It is a very Scottish characteristic which can be appealing. Pushed too far, however, it veers towards arrogance and hubris and bullying. One thinks of an appearance on Newsnight when he continued to bait an obviously wounded Henry McLeish. It was not an edifying sight, like a boxer still coming forward when his opponent was on the ropes and unable to defend himself. But it is perhaps symptomatic of the situation in which Salmond has found himself ever since he joined the SNP, whose role as the underdog has surely affected those stalwarts in its ranks who have hungered for decades for power and independence.

The former must precede the latter. May therefore looms large in the calendar. For Salmond, the focus is on outright victory. Talk of alliances with other parties is merely a diversion. Should the SNP have the most seats he believes that they should govern, irrespective of whether a pact between Labour and the LibDems could outnumber them. "I was a student when Ted Heath tried to stay in power by doing a deal with Jeremy Thorpe," he says. "The whole country - regardless of how they'd voted - said, Wait a minute'." The only party likely to cohabit with the SNP are the Greens. "We've had discussions obviously," he says. "As long as that's an arrangement for four years that seems to me reasonable. You couldn't do it on every vote because you'd be in permanent negotiations."

It is a tantalising prospect, the rebirth and political reconfiguration of a nation. Have Scots got the bottle for it? Or will the 90-minute patriots rise again and let it fall?