SCOTTISH ministers have launched an international charm offensive to sell their vision of an independent Scotland to the world.

In the first foreign policy initiative launched in Edinburgh since 1707, senior SNP figures have begun an intense round of behind-the-scenes meetings with foreign dignitaries as they prepare the ground for next year's indyref.

Led by Deputy First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and fronted by External Affairs Minister Humza Yousaf, the diplomatic campaign is firmly aimed at pitching the independence project to a sometimes hostile international audience.

Last month, Yousaf made an unpublicised visit to the United Nations in Geneva where he set out his stall for Scotland as a "progressive" Nordic-style world player.

His officials, the Sunday Herald understands, also used the trip to cram up on the practicalities of UN membership.

Yousaf reckons such diplomacy is good for Scotland however we vote next year.

He said: "Scotland has always been an outward-looking nation. There is great international interest in Scotland's story and we are determined to harness that as it intensifies ahead of next year's referendum, Commonwealth Games and the Ryder Cup, bringing benefits to Scottish consumers, businesses, workers and citizens."

Currently on a tour of India, the Glasgow MSP gave a flavour of his campaign's international message. "Independence is an opportunity for Scotland to show leadership, to help bring closer the world we want to see," he said. "From day one, we would have world-leading expertise to offer in education, health improvement and research. As a good global citizen we would also aspire to develop global recognition in advocacy, peacebuilding and peacekeeping, as well as human and natural resource security."

The Scottish Government's draft budget for 2014-15 also spells out the bid to woo the world.

Scotland's "key international priority," it says, "is to increase the level of engagement with the European Union, particularly through developing enhanced links with France, Germany, Ireland and the Nordic and Baltic countries".

Outside the EU, the priorities are China, India, Pakistan, Canada and US and the Gulf states.

Much overseas work - sources stress - revolves around fostering trade and nitty-gritty issues, such as EU fisheries policies.

But even ministers conducting such routine talks are taking the chance to explain next year's vote, the Sunday Herald understands.

So much so that Foreign Office staff - previously privately criticised for taking little interest in Scottish missions overseas - routinely sit in on meetings between Holyrood ministers and foreign officials.

UK diplomats have been dampening concerns overseas that the referendum will encourage separatist movements elsewhere.

Scottish ministers, who have downgraded links with allies such as Catalan nationalists, are making a similar pitch.

Big London allies like France and America are silent on independence. But in diplomatic salons they make no secret of their indyref concerns, especially about any impact a Yes vote would have on the UK's military might.

The SNP charm offensive is designed to soften that hostility -or at least stop it spilling in to the public domain.

There have been successes, sources claim. This summer, former US president Bill Clinton visited Edinburgh. Yes camp insiders admit they were nervous he would make thinly veiled warnings about independence. He didn't. "That took some work," a source said.

Scotland's new diplomats are also working behind the scenes to turn down the volume of any negative noises about EU membership.

Four nations in particular can expect to be courted by the SNP: Greece, Latvia, Italy and Luxembourg, which will hold the EU presidency in 2014 and 2015.

Historian Phillips O'Brien, of Glasgow University, explains: "Other states are looking at the referendum in terms of their own security. What concerns them is the weakening of the UK and it defensive capability.

"Scotland needs to be prepared diplomatically. Independence is not just Scotland leaving England; it means the disappearance of the British state, a fixture in the world stage for more than 300 years. It changes an international certainty."

O'Brien, an American, reckons pressure from countries like Norway and Denmark - also courted by the SNP recently - was at least partly behind the SNP's most dramatic policy volte-face. "It seems to me that the change of stance on Nato was a part of this diplomacy," he said. "The party wanted to make clear that an indy Scotland would minimise the threat to Nato defences."

The SNP's opponents, meanwhile, aren't impressed with ministerial globetrotting. A spokesman for Better Together, the pro-UK campaign, said: "People in Scotland will be appalled to find out that rather than devoting their time to dealing with the issues they were elected to deal with, Alex Salmond and his ministers are off round the world trying to sell their independence dream."