THE SNP began 2020 fresh from a landslide victory in Scotland following December’s General Election, and ends it on course for a majority in Holyrood next year. 

Nicola Sturgeon’s party remains well ahead of the opposition in the polls, and the First Minister enjoys the kind of approval ratings most politicians can only dream of.

Independence, too, has never been more popular.

A string of polls have put Yes ahead, suggesting a majority of Scots now back leaving the UK.

It’s a remarkable feat, made all the more extraordinary by the turbulence of the last 12 months.

Coronavirus ripped through Scotland like it ripped through the rest of the world, leaving grieving families and economic devastation in its wake.

The pandemic changed everything.

But even before the virus, Ms Sturgeon was dealing with an unprecedented year that many thought would be dominated by the trial of her predecessor and former mentor, Alex Salmond.

It began with the usual bout of constitutional bickering. 

The First Minister faced a backlash from some independence supporters in late January after calling for patience over a second referendum. 

In a speech at Edinburgh’s Dynamic Earth visitor attraction, she urged activists to focus on “building and winning the political case for independence”.

There are no “shortcuts or clever wheezes that can magically overcome the obstacles we face”, she said.

In a furious response, the controversial pro-independence website Wings Over Scotland accused the SNP’s leadership of following a strategy that had “failed utterly”.

Just days later, the first major twist of 2020 sent shockwaves through the Scottish Government. 

Finance secretary Derek Mackay quit in disgrace after the Scottish Sun revealed he had bombarded a 16-year-old boy with messages, including calling him “really cute” and inviting him to dinner.

Mr Mackay had been seen as a potential successor to Ms Sturgeon. He was popular and respected. Now his career lay in tatters. 

“I take full responsibility for my actions,” the 43-year-old said in a statement on the morning of February 6. “I have behaved foolishly and I am truly sorry. I apologise unreservedly to the individual involved and his family.”

Mr Mackay’s bombshell resignation came the night before he was due to deliver the Scottish Budget. The timing could hardly have been worse.

His relatively inexperienced deputy, Kate Forbes, was forced to step in and deliver the spending plans in his place. She won plaudits for her performance in what must have been an incredibly stressful situation.

Suspended from the SNP, Mr Mackay has not been seen in Holyrood since. 

But despite claiming to take “full responsibility” for his actions, he remains an MSP on full pay. 

The following month brought Mr Salmond’s trial at the High Court in Edinburgh.

The former first minister, who came closer than anyone to realising the SNP’s dream of independence in 2014, faced multiple charges of sexual assault against nine women. 

It was billed as the trial of the century, and for two weeks the packed courtroom was given an extraordinary glimpse into Scotland’s corridors of power. 

But outside the courtroom’s walls the coronavirus crisis was accelerating. 

Scotland and the UK went into lockdown on March 23, the same day Mr Salmond was cleared of all charges. 

Understandably, his acquittal wasn’t even the main story on many newspaper front pages the next day.

“Whatever nightmare I’ve been in over these last two years it is as of nothing compared to the nightmare that every single one of us is currently living through,” Mr Salmond said outside the High Court. “People are dying. Many more are going to die.”

Ms Sturgeon’s regular coronavirus briefings started that month and have continued ever since, showcasing her impressive communication skills and grasp of detail. 

Despite Scotland making many of the same decisions as the rest of the UK, and arguably many of the same mistakes, polls show Scots rate her much more highly than Boris Johnson.

There have been tough questions over care home deaths and the handling of key moments in the pandemic. 

The debacle over exam results, for example, risked angering already stressed-out parents, worried for their children.

But the First Minister’s decision to face the media day after day and answer questions on her Government’s performance has won her respect.

Meanwhile, the ongoing coronavirus crisis has shifted the spotlight away from areas that could otherwise have proved more damaging for the SNP Government.

A Holyrood inquiry is currently looking into how the Government botched a 2018 sexual misconduct probe into Mr Salmond.

He had the exercise overturned in a judicial review by showing it was “tainted by apparent bias”, leaving taxpayers with a £512,000 bill for his costs.

The Holyrood committee, which is convened by an SNP MSP, has criticised both the Scottish Government and Mr Salmond for delays and obfuscation. 

There has also been a long-running row over the release of the legal advice on which the Government mounted and maintained its doomed defence of the former first minister’s civil action.

This month saw Ms Sturgeon’s husband, SNP chief executive Peter Murrell, making a rare foray into the public eye to give evidence.

But critics hoping the Holyrood probe would damage Ms Sturgeon and the SNP have so far been disappointed. 

A recent poll suggested it is Mr Salmond’s reputation that has taken the hit, with more than half of voters (54 per cent) trusting him less.

Ms Sturgeon and her predecessor are still to appear before the committee to give evidence in person, so it’s not over yet.

More widely, the breakdown in relationship between Ms Sturgeon and Mr Salmond has exposed divides in a party previously renowned for its unity.

Transgender issues and how they interact with women’s rights have also proved contentious.

At the end of July, Joanna Cherry, the prominent QC and MP who is seen as an ally of the former first minister, pulled out of a bid to run for Holyrood next year. 

It came after the SNP’s national executive committee changed the rules to mean she would have had to resign as an MP first. 

This was widely seen as a blatant attempt to stop Ms Cherry swapping Westminster for Holyrood.

The Edinburgh South West MP has since had public rows with other key figures in the party including its foreign affairs spokesman Alyn Smith and Kirsty Blackman, the SNP MP for Aberdeen North. 

Tensions are erupting into the open in a way that would previously have been unthinkable.

The SNP Government’s record in key areas has also come under fire, most recently following the publication of the number of drug-related deaths in Scotland. 

Figures released earlier this month showed 1,264 people died of drug misuse last year.  

Scotland’s death rate was the worst in Europe and around three and a half times that of the UK as a whole.

The grim record led to an extraordinary First Minister’s Questions in which Ms Sturgeon admitted many of the criticisms being levied at her Government were legitimate. 

“I’m not going to stand here and try to defend the indefensible,” she told MSPs. “These lives matter too much.” 

Public health minister Joe FitzPatrick lost his job the next day, with Ms Sturgeon appointing a new, dedicated minister for drugs policy as she seeks to tackle the issue.

Reversing what remains one of Scotland’s biggest scandals will be a major challenge.

And it will be far from the only difficulty facing the SNP as it heads into 2021, despite the party’s enduring popularity.

The financial impact of the coronavirus pandemic will be far-reaching and long-lasting. Economic recovery will take time.

Brexit will leave its mark no matter what happens.

And the dust has yet to settle on the Alex Salmond saga. The former first minister is reportedly writing a book, and may yet seek a return to politics.

Then there’s the Holyrood election in May. 

It has been billed as a referendum on a referendum, and the polls point to the SNP making significant gains.

If the party wins a majority, or if there is a pro-independence majority including Green MSPs, the pressure for another vote on Scotland’s future will be huge. 

But if Downing Street keeps refusing to agree to another referendum, it’s unclear what Ms Sturgeon and her party will do next. 

The First Minister’s strategy has so far centred on building and maintaining support for independence. 

She argues it will be unsustainable for the UK Government to keep saying No. 

But what if it does? After all, it’s hard to see Mr Johnson signing up to a referendum he fears he might lose.

Refusing a second vote may well be unsustainable in the long run, but with the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic and the disruption of leaving the EU to contend with, the UK Government will have plenty of excuses to kick the can down the road.

The SNP could find itself in a tricky situation, and the impatience of some activists will only grow as the months slip by.

It’s also worth nothing that while Mr Johnson’s unpopularity in Scotland has benefited the SNP, he won’t be in charge forever. Would things change if Labour leader Keir Starmer won the keys to Downing Street? 

He recently promised a “bold and radical” offering on devolution.

The SNP enters 2021 on a sure footing. But in turbulent times, it pays to watch your step.