Edinburgh: Alex Salmond has brought Scottish nationalism from the political fringes to what he has called "the cusp of history," and whether the Scots vote for independence from Britain on Thursday or decide to settle for additional power to run their own affairs, he has earned a place in Scotland's pantheon.
The final, emotional days of campaigning by both sides, with polls suggesting that the outcome is in doubt and Salmond facing a united front of opposition from the leaders of the main British political parties, only underscored how far he has brought the independence movement and how much is at stake, not least for Britain and its place in the world.
It has been an extraordinary journey for Salmond, 59, who was born in the working-class area of West Lothian, in Linlithgow, birthplace of King James V and Mary, Queen of Scots. His parents were civil servants, his father had a sneaking admiration for Stalin, and his grandfather, a plumber, was an amateur historian who filled his head with the glories of the Scottish past.
Salmond describes himself as "a romantic hardhead," and his pragmatism, quick wit and easy bonhomie have helped to soften the image of a man also considered wasp-tongued, quick to anger and something of a bully. He has shown considerable political and organizational skills, presiding over an independence campaign that has gathered momentum through appeals to the hearts and pride of the Scots, coupled with an impressive retail political machinery of local support groups, canvassing and leafleting.
"Salmond's like Marmite - you love him or hate him," said Andrew Quinn, one of the 4.3 million residents of Scotland eligible to vote Thursday. The Edinburgh-born Quinn said that after months of indecision, he intended to vote in favor of independence, largely because of his faith in Salmond.
Salmond is not universally popular, of course. Some Scots say they are not quite sure what he believes in, other than Scotland, and some women on Mumsnet, a website for parents, described him as patronizing. Asked if Salmond could be elected as the leader of an independent Scotland, Quinn said that he was not sure, but that a new Scotland would need Salmond at least to negotiate terms of the divorce from London.
"He's a clever man to negotiate, with a background in economics and business as well as politics," Quinn said.
One of his cleverest moves in this campaign has been to associate independence with Team Scotland and those who wish to remain in the United Kingdom with Team Westminster, as if preferring to keep the 307-year union was somehow "un-Scottish."
Even if the independence movement falls short, Salmond plans to remain as Scotland's first minister.
Alexander Elliot Anderson Salmond was born on Hogmanay, the Scots' word for New Year's Eve, in 1954. His grandfather spoke to him of local figures joining the 14th-century resistance to English rule that culminated in 1314, at Bannockburn, where the Scottish king, Robert the Bruce, destroyed a larger invading army of the English king, Edward II.
"My granddad told me how things should be, more than how things were," Salmond said in an interview last spring. But Salmond only became an activist with the fringe Scottish National Party at the University of St. Andrews, where he studied medieval history and economics.
Even there, at one of Scotland's fanciest schools, he began a campaign for student body president against a Conservative and nearly won. It was, Salmond said, the only election he has ever lost, and clearly he does not intend to lose to another well-born Conservative, Prime Minister David Cameron, on Thursday.
Cameron and the other two leaders of Britain's main parties, Ed Miliband of Labour and Nick Clegg of the Liberal Democrats, on Tuesday again pledged, in a letter in The Daily Record of Scotland, "extensive new powers" for the Scots if they vote to stay within the United Kingdom.
But there were few details, because the party leaders were still negotiating their offer among themselves. Salmond was dismissive. "It's totally inadequate," he said. "It's nothing approaching the powers that Scotland needs to create jobs, to save the health service and build a better society."
When Miliband appeared at a shopping center in Edinburgh on Tuesday to make the case for continued union, he was heckled relentlessly by supporters of independence, news reports said.
After college, Salmond worked as a civil servant and then as an energy economist with the Royal Bank of Scotland. At 26, he married Moira McGlashan, then 43, who later became his boss.
He rose through the Scottish National Party at a dark time for its prospects, as Margaret Thatcher won the 1979 election to become prime minister and the number of Scottish nationalist members of Parliament declined to two from 11.
After winning the argument to move more power from the British Parliament back to Scotland and re-establish a Scottish Parliament, Salmond quit the leadership of his party in 2000 and stayed away for nearly five years, without much explanation.
He returned and led his party to dominate the Scottish Parliament in the 2007 elections and become Scotland's leader, or first minister. Fraser Nelson, a Scot who is the editor of the weekly magazine, The Spectator, once wrote that after those years of "playing dead, swearing he'd never come back, today every party leader in the House of Commons will wish he's kept that promise."
Instead, the Scottish National Party won an overall majority in the Scottish Parliament in 2011, devastating the Scottish Labour Party and giving Salmond the mandate to demand the independence referendum and negotiate it with Cameron. Cameron insisted on a one-question referendum - in or out - which at the time seemed like a smart political decision intended to settle the issue once and for all.
Now, it seems like a risky gamble, one that Salmond, who likes betting on the horses, was willing to take.
He has proved his political and debating skills, decrying "fear-mongering" and promising Scots that independence will bring them greater social benefits and that the local health service will be protected, while avoiding specifics and shrugging off the criticism and projections of misery from many business executives and economists.
But Salmond remains a rather lonely and even divisive figure whose self-assurance has been identified by opponents as a potential weakness. In the first of two television debates with Alistair Darling, a former chancellor of the Exchequer who leads the "no" campaign, Darling won applause from the studio audience by mocking Salmond's self-confidence.
"I want you to do something that is really difficult," Darling said. "I want you to contemplate for one minute you might be wrong."
Last year, in a largely sympathetic interview with Holyrood magazine, Salmond spoke about his challenge - and his sense of grievance.
"The weight of the establishment has rained down on me for a very long time, and I am still here and quite a bit of the establishment is not," he said.
So now, he said, "I take the establishment raining down on me and on the SNP as a compliment." As for his opponents, he said, "They seem very anxious, do they not?"
© 2014, The New York Times News Service