Alex Salmond: a solitary man, a singular vision

Alex Salmond at Amazon Dunfermline

Like all the lonely people, Alex Salmond's solitude only really becomes apparent when he is surrounded by others.

On Friday he embarked on a helicopter tour of Aberdeen, Inverness, Dundee and Perth, a bewildering eight-hour dash around the citadels of his beloved north-east Scotland. He was the home-town boy entering the home stretch of a race he has been running for 40 years. Everywhere he went he was treated like a champion, their champion, receiving some last-minute encouragement from his "ain folk" before turning to face the eternal and malign foe. But it is in these circumstances, surrounded by love, in which his loneliness is at its most acute.

It is not a desolate loneliness such as those who feel abandoned and alienated and forgotten might experience. Rather it is an exquisite isolation that comes from knowing that there is a job to do, that only you can do it and that, while doing so, you are bearing an emotional burden that encapsulates so many hopes and aspirations and desires.

You watch him striding towards the oustretched arms of a gaggle of activists, taking their hugs, bathing in their acclaim, doing their selfies. And for a moment you do that modern Hollywood dream sequence thing when the sound is turned down and everything is in slow motion and speech is distorted.

On Friday, in douce Dyce, a suburb on the northern approaches to Aberdeen, Scotland's first minister is in an ebullient and combative mood. The previous day had been deemed a disaster for him in this independence referendum campaign. A Survation poll, commissioned by the Times and the Sun had no ahead by 52-48, thus wiping out the so-called "breakout" poll from five days previously which put yes ahead for the first time, 51-49.

Then it seemed that it was a mere one minute to midnight for the union on the Armageddon clock, but in the space of five days the threat seems to have receded. The expected onslaught of finance and big business finally kicked in as five banks, including RBS, announced their intention to transfer their headquarters to England in the event of a yes vote on Thursday. Several household names in retail, such as Marks & Spencer and John Lewis, have warned of price rises.

Salmond is having none of it: "If you had told me that, with seven full days of campaigning left we would be within two points of victory I'd have bitten your hand off. A momentum has been building here and we are on the cusp of it," he tells the waiting media gathered in this Aberdeen street. Then it's off on a canvassing round of the neighbourhood. In an hour, Salmond personally visits seven homes and all but one are firm yeses. Most are women and one, a young mother proudly tells him that the child in her arms will be two years old the next day.

He is moving at a punishing pace, revelling in being several pounds leaner thanks to last year's well-publicised diet. Occasionally, he stops to engage with the press pack, which includes the man from the Washington Post, here to ask about the sustainability of oil funds in a world where prices have been unpredictable because of instability in Iraq and Ukraine and the shale lakes in the US. In return he gets a masterclass from Salmond, a former oil economist who quotes Professor Patrick Dunleavy and tells him about what even 16 billion barrels of oil, the most pessimistic prediction, can do to your economy.

And then, just as we are waiting for him to emerge from the home of a 94-year-old war veteran a piece of real-life drama intervenes. A sickening and sudden crump is heard on the main road just beyond these gardens. A young female motorcyclist has collided with a 4x4 and it looks very serious. How will Team Salmond handle this one? Do they hurry the first minister over to the scene to show concern and sympathy or do they usher him quietly away knowing that the victim is already being attended to? It turns out that Salmond's small security detail are all trained in first aid and immediately ascertain that the injuries are not life-threatening. A few minutes later we are at Aberdeen airport and Salmond is organising flowers and best wishes to be sent to the hospital which will treat the young woman.

On the 30-minute helicopter hop to Inverness, we pass over some of Britain's lushest pastureland, a carpet of green fields and large farms that form the backbone of Scotland's rural economy; the nation's bread basket. It is clear that Salmond has been buoyed by his morning's work in Dyce, getting the tools back out and being with the people. "I love campaigning like that," he tells me, "I would happily do it for the rest of my days."

He is composing the theme for the rest of the day's campaigning and tests it out on me. "The people of Scotland will not be manipulated or intimidated by big banks, big supermarkets or big government. They will instead grasp this opportunity of a lifetime to build a better and fairer society." He shows me a text with the results of an ICM poll, commissioned by the Guardian. It shows yes at 49 and no at 51. He is delighted. "It just shows that the establishment's attempts to intimidate ordinary Scots have not worked and have backfired."

Salmond also believes he has found a smoking gun which points to illicit Treasury involvement around the decision of RBS to consider relocating its headquarters to London. He has been told of an email, apparently sent from within the Treasury, to at least two media outlets. "This email was sent while the RBS board was meeting to consider its position on Wednesday night between 10pm and 11pm. It's raw manipulation of market sensitive information." He gives me a look that suggests someone will have made a complaint by the end of the day.

At a row of shops in Culloden village near Inverness a group of around 150 activists and supporters has gathered in the sunshine and Salmond wades into their midst to deliver an impromptu speech. He is trying out some of the phrases he has coined on the helicopter ride. "The people of Scotland … big banks … a society built on fairness." And then a new one: "David Cameron and all the vested interests of the Westminster establishment fired a Mons Meg [a medieval cannon] yesterday at the people of Scotland, but it has blown up in their faces."

Then it's back to the helicopter and a leap over the Cairngorms. Salmond is sad at the news of the death of the Rev Dr Ian Paisley – or "Big Ian," as he affectionately calls him. It's clear he regarded the old Ulster Protestant leader with affection. "I remember when I first realised that both he and Martin McGuinness could work together and bring peace. On a trip to Northern Ireland not long after the elections which put them both in government we were all on an outing and Big Ian slipped. Martin McGuinness instinctively grabbed him and stopped him from falling. It was an act of simple humanity from one human being to another but it told me that these two men, who became friends, could work together."

Earlier, at a restaurant in Inverness, a reunion with old friends, Dennis and Glynis, a Scots couple now living in Canada who have returned to experience what they hope will be Scotland's most historic day. "He has worked for this all his life," says Dennis. "We just had to be here to be with him when it happens."

In the next four days Alex Salmond will be the loneliest man in the world again, walking a path into the unknown that only he can walk.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Kevin McKenna, for The Observer on Saturday 13th September 2014 22.17 Europe/London

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