SNP hopes of winning another Holyrood majority were fading last night, although the outcome of the most consequential election of devolution remains in the balance.

After yesterday’s first wave of constituency results, Nicola Sturgeon remained on course for a comfortable SNP win and the party’s fourth consecutive term in office.

However, while the SNP’s national vote share was fractionally up on the 2016 election, tactical voting against it in key marginal seats meant it failed to make all the net gains needed for a majority.

In seat after seat, Unionist voters backed the candidate best placed to keep out the Nationalists in the hope of thwarting a second independence referendum.

WATCH: The Brian Taylor Podcast LIVE as he grills Humza Yousaf, Andrew Bowie and Daniel Johnson as results arrive for day 2

The country’s leading pollster, Professor Sir John Curtice, of Strathclyde University, predicted the SNP would fall one or two MSPs shy of the 65 majority mark.

Ms Sturgeon, who lost the SNP’s majority in 2016 as her party fell from 69 to 63 MSPs, played down the prospect of recovering it, calling a majority a “very, very long shot”.

She said: “That has always been on a knife-edge; a small number of votes in a small number of seats.”

Ms Sturgeon campaigned on the basis of her experience and leading the country through the pandemic, and giving people the chance to vote in Indyref2 by 2024, Covid permitting, followed by independence in 2026. Her Unionist opponents said the economic recovery should take priority over the constitution.

While her critics within the Yes movement said she should inject more urgency into the campaign for independence. If she again falls short of a majority, they are likely to agitate for her removal.

Turnout was up from 56 per cent five years ago to about 64%, despite concerns the pandemic and the unseasonal bad weather on polling day could depress it.

After declarations from 48 of Holyrood’s 73 constituencies, the SNP was on 39 (up three on 2016), the Liberal Democrats on four (no change), the Conservatives on three (-2), and Labour on two (-1).

The final result of the day, Labour holding Dumbarton thanks to tactical voting by Labour and Liberal Democrat supporters, meant a “substantial fall” in the SNP’s chances of a majority, Professor Curtice said.

He said there remained a “very narrow” path to an SNP majority, but it appeared unlikely.

Although SNP and Green MSPs will together constitute a majority for independence and claim a mandate for Indyref2, it was a majority for the SNP alone in 2011 that led to the 2014 referendum.

The lack of such a majority in the next Parliament would make it easier for Boris Johnson to argue for continued blocking of Indyref2.

The SNP gained Ayr and Edinburgh Central from the Tories and East Lothian from Labour.

However the Ayr and East Lothian wins mean the SNP is likely to lose two seats on the South Scotland list under Holyrood’s proportional system, leaving them without a net gain in that region.

But by picking up Edinburgh Central, the SNP’s former Westminster and deputy leader Angus Robertson should deliver a net gain of one in the Lothians.

Edinburgh Central was won by then Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson in 2016 with a majority of 610, but Mr Robertson turned that into an SNP majority of 4,732.

Tipped as a potential successor to Ms Sturgeon, he is expected to become a minister in a Cabinet reshuffle in the next few days.

With counts spread over two days because of Covid restrictions, the remaining 25 seats are due to declare today, followed by all 56 regional list places.

Besides losing two seats to the SNP, the Scottish Tories failed to make any gains yesterday under new leader Douglas Ross.

Despite being plastered across the party’s leaflets and electoral broadcast, his predecessor Ruth Davidson tried to distance herself from the campaign.

“I wasn’t part of the campaign team, I wasn’t part of the planners. This was his campaign,” she said on a TV results programme.

Also on the show, SNP president Mike Russell told her to “come off it,” adding: “You were leading it.”

However former Scottish Tory leader Jackson Carlaw held on in the tricky three-way marginal of Eastwood after Labour supporters voted tactically for him in order to block a strong SNP challenge.

The Tories almost pulled off a dramatic upset in Banff & Buchan Coast, slashing the SNP’s majority from 6,683 to 772.

The Tories’ key target, SNP-held Perthshire South and Kinross-shire, is declared today, as is the key SNP target of Tory-held Aberdeenshire West.

Scottish Labour also had a disappointing day, losing one of the three seats it held to the SNP and failing to pick up its Rutherglen and Cowdenbeath targets.

But deputy leader Jackie Baillie held Dumbarton, where her 109 majority over the SNP had been the smallest at Holyrood, increasing it to 1,483.

Daniel Johnson also held Edinburgh Southern, increasing his majority from 1,123 to 4,022.

Scottish leader Anas Sarwar increased Labour’s vote in Glasgow Southside by 9%, but shaved just 137 votes off the majority of the incumbent, Ms Sturgeon. He said: “I’m not pretending this journey is complete. I am not interested in building the opposition, I want to build the alternative.”

The Scottish Liberal Democrats held all four of their constituencies, with leader Willie Rennie increasing his majority in North East Fife and Alex Cole-Hamilton more than trebling his lead in Edinburgh Western, both men benefiting from tactical voting.

However, the LibDems failed to add their key target of Caithness, Sutherland and Ross, leaving them reliant on the list system if they are to make their first Holyrood gains since 2011 today.

The Scottish Greens remain confident of improving on their six MSPs via the list, but Alex Salmond’s new Alba Party appeared headed for humiliation, with no MSPs at all.

In some list counts, it was trailing behind the obscure Family Party and had around 2.2% of the vote.

“It may be we fall short,” Mr Salmond conceded last night.

If so, it would leave former SNP MPs Kenny MacAskill and Neale Hanvey, who defected to Alba in March, as the party’s only parliamentarians.

The SNP and Scottish Greens are likely to request a transfer of referendum powers to Holyrood in the next parliament based on their combined majority for Yes.

If, as expected, Mr Johnson refuses, Ms Sturgeon has said Holyrood would pass its own referendum legislation without London’s consent, effectively daring Mr Johnson to challenge it at the UK Supreme Court.

The 1998 Scotland Act underpinning devolution states the Union is a matter reserved to Westminster, although some academics argue Holyrood could still ask voters their view.

However, Unionists would probably boycott any such vote, or Mr Johnson could pass pre-emptive legislation at Westminster to ban it.

Prof Curtice said: “I think the most probable outcome is going to be that the SNP is going to be one or two seats short, and we are therefore looking at an SNP-Green majority for a referendum, rather than the SNP on their own.

“Two things might flow from that: first, the UK Government will feel more emboldened to say no to the request that is bound to happen at some point from the new parliament.

“Secondly, it may actually speed up the constitutional clash. One suspects that some people in the SNP will regard this as a disappointment.

“So, Ms Sturgeon is going to be in a weaker position, vis-a-vis her party, and that will give her less room for manoeuvre in trying to play the timing of the referendum, or the referendum request long rather than short.

“So, Ms Sturgeon, because she’s in a weaker position, might now want to push for the referendum rather more strongly, but at the same time Boris Johnson may now feel somewhat more emboldened to try and put her off.”

Arriving at the Glasgow count, the First Minister was asked how confident she was of getting a majority.

She said: “Look, a majority has always been a very, very long shot. The Holyrood system is a proportional representation system.

“In 2011, we effectively broke that system. So it would be good to do. But I have never taken that for granted.“

But at this stage in the results – and there’s a long, long way to go – I’m feeling extremely happy and extremely confident that we are on track in the SNP for a fourth consecutive election victory and to have the ability to form a government again.

“That’s an extraordinary achievement for any political party.”

After being re-elected to her seat, Ms Sturgeon said: “I pledge today to get back to work immediately to continue to steer the country through the crisis of Covid, to continue to lead this country into recovery from Covid. And then, when the time is right, to offer this country the choice of a better future.”

Mr Sarwar admitted some results had been disappointing, but added: “Look at where we were 10 weeks ago – we were at 14% in the opinion polls and coming fourth. Even my biggest critics can see that over the course of the last 10 weeks we’ve got the Labour Party back on the pitch.

“I think people can see that I’m a different kind of leader, trying to build a different kind of party, and together rebuild a different kind of country.”

Mr Rennie said: “So far Scottish Liberal Democrats have had some astonishing constituency results. In North East Fife, I was absolutely honoured that 55% of voters chose to put their cross next to my name.

“On day two of the count we find out what the regional list vote holds. For now Scottish Liberal Democrats will enjoy our temporary status as Scotland’s biggest opposition party.”

Scottish Greens co-leader Lorna Slater said she had felt “very frustrated” at the media’s focus on her party’s support for independence rather than on the climate emergency.

She said the Greens would therefore make the climate crisis their “number one priority” in the coming parliament, not the constitution.