The Scottish political world is holding its breath this weekend.

Tomorrow, in Edinburgh’s High Court, Alex Salmond, the former SNP leader and First Minister of Scotland, will go on trial accused of 14 criminal charges including attempted rape, sexual assault and harassment.

Journalists – and the political world – have been talking of little else for months.

It would, of course, be illegal to report any rumours or the identity of the claimants. The accusers in sexual assault and rape trials have anonymity.

Journalists or editors who disclose any information that could prejudice a criminal trial, or make comments likely to influence jurors, could be guilty of contempt of court, and end up in jail.

Already, one pro-SNP commentator, the former British diplomat Craig Murray, has been warned by the Crown Office that a satirical post he published in January could be “gravely” in contempt.

So, no satire or speculation from me. I make no comment about Mr Salmond’s guilt or innocence. I’ll just say that these are serious charges, potentially carrying long prison sentences.

And that the Crown Office has released a lot of detail already.

The indictment alleges that Mr Salmond attempted to rape a woman in his official residence in Bute House in June 2014. He is said to have pinned her against a wall, to have removed her clothes and his own, before pushing her on to a bed and lying naked on top of her.

In December 2013, he is alleged to have caused a woman to lie on his bed, struggled with her and pulled up her dress.

Other charges include an allegation he groped a woman in the Ego nightclub in Edinburgh in or around 2010, and to have removed a woman’s shoe in 2013 and tried to kiss her foot.

Mr Salmond insists that he is innocent of all criminal charges.

Like any defendant, the former First Minister has the presumption of innocence on his side. His guilt must be proved beyond reasonable doubt.

This trial – of one of the leading Scottish politicians of the age – will have huge political reverberations. It comes at a crucial moment for the SNP and the nationalist movement.

Salmond’s prosecution intersects with growing divisions over the future direction of the independence campaign. It could also affect Nicola’s Surgeon’s future as leader.

There is a parliamentary inquiry into what the First Minister knew about the allegations about her mentor, and when she knew them. She has admitted that she held a number of private meetings with Salmond about the allegations without informing her civil servants.

More seriously, this trial breaks just as increasing numbers of SNP activists are despairing of the prospects for a second independence referendum. Sturgeon keeps promising to deliver indyref2, but it never arrives.

Many frustrated nationalists believe that if Alex Salmond had still been leading the party, there would have been a referendum of some sort by now. They believe Sturgeon is too small ‘c’ conservative. Too insistent on a strictly legal route to independence.

Salmond – and I state this not as a character reference – was one of the most successful populist politicians Britain has ever produced. An insurgent with a unique gift for communicating with Scottish voters of all backgrounds, he always led from the front.

In 1990, after he became leader of the SNP, he pulled the party to the left and made “Independence in Europe” the party’s mission statement. Then, in the mid-1990s, he defeated the fundamentalists in the party and persuaded the SNP to support devolution.

Labour Politicians like the Cabinet minister, George Robertson, said that the Scottish Parliament, inaugurated in 1999, would “kill nationalism stone dead”. It did precisely the reverse.

In 2007, Alex Salmond declared himself First Minister of the first SNP Government in history. Then,

in 2011, he led the SNP to a landslide election victory and demanded a referendum on independence.

At the time, independence was much less popular than the SNP. This was why the then-prime minister, David Cameron, agreed to a referendum in the first place thinking he couldn’t lose. In the event, the Yes campaign came within little more than five percentage points of winning the 2014 referendum, plunging the UK state into panic.

With that track record, it is hardly surprising that many nationalists see Salmond as a politician

who can literally do no wrong and refuse to believe the charges against him.

Two years ago, before the sexual misconduct allegations first arose, Salmond had been making clear he intended to return to active politics, following his retirement in 2014. He even suggested he would be one of the leaders of the next independence referendum campaign. Not everyone in the party thought this would be a good thing.

At no time did he challenge Nicola Sturgeon’s leadership – she was, after all, his protege and worked intimately with him for over a decade in the Scottish Government. But Salmond was known to be looking for a safe route back into Parliament.

Then in August of that year a story was leaked to the Daily Record that two civil servants had made complaints of sexual misconduct by Alex Salmond in 2013. Salmond rejected the allegations and in turn accused the head of the Scottish Civil Service, Lesley Evans, of misconduct.

He took the Scottish Government to the Court of Session and won in January 2019. The Scottish Government admitted fault and ended up paying Alex Salmond £500,000 of taxpayers’ money. It was massive humiliation.

Most people, Salmond included, thought that would be an end of the matter. But only weeks later he was arrested by police on multiple charges of attempted rape and sexual assault.

His followers simply refuse to believe that this icon of independence is anything but innocent. SNP members have poured tens of thousands into his defence fund.

This has allowed him to put together a high-powered defence team, led by Gordon Jackson QC, Dean of the Faculty of Advocates. He is supported by Shelagh McCall QC, the chair of the human rights organisation Justice Scotland.

Some years ago, Jackson successfully defended a Collie dog, who was about to be put down after allegedly biting a policeman. He won after Brigitte Bardot flew in to support the defence.

Such glamorous witnesses are not expected in the Salmond case. But all eyes will be on the High Court of Justiciary tomorrow to see if Jackson can deliver an even greater legal victory.