HOW urgent is independence? How do we break the door down and make Westminster listen? How, after coming so far, do we clear these stubborn hurdles?

These were the questions at the heart of my conversation with the First Minister at Stornoway Airport, after a whirlwind couple of days following him campaigning and meeting and greeting folks in the Highlands and Islands.

The sense of frustration among activists was palpable. Whether it was an 80-year-old independence supporter saying he was “getting bloody impatient” when speaking to Humza Yousaf, or teenagers who told me they felt more young people needed to know and understand what a positive difference independence could make to their futures.

READ MORE: Humza Yousaf answers Scottish islanders' top questions on ferries, Gaelic and housing

More than one of them also told me they wanted to see more urgency from the SNP on independence amid episode after episode of the UK Government running a coach and horses through devolution. One lady told me when I asked her how she felt ahead of the General Election: “Just get me out of here [the Union].”

And so I put this to the First Minister as he reflected on his travels: Independence may be the SNP’s raison d’etre, but are they talking about it enough?

“I’m the most impatient when it comes to independence, I wanted it yesterday,” he tells me.

“I say that not to dismiss anyone else’s feelings but because I meet people every day who are suffering because of this failing Westminster economic model that has caused so much harm.

“Be in no doubt whatsoever that this election will be about independence. It won’t just be page one, line one, we promise to do that, but we’ll be talking about it constantly and we’ve got to talk about it because what are biggest issues that come up on the doorsteps? They are the cost of living crisis, the state of the economy, and public services. All of those are intrinsically linked to independence [the fact Scotland doesn’t have it].

“It’s always that final hurdle that seems the most difficult.”

How do we get there?

While Yousaf made his frustration clear, he was candid that there is “no magic shortcut” to self-determination.

But with the party’s 90th anniversary on Sunday – a day he conveniently shares a birthday with – he draws strength from how far it has come, with independence now more than just on the map, but firmly imprinted into the political horizon and, as he described in a campaign video filmed at Stornoway harbour, “well within reach”.

“My belief is that we win independence by growing the popular support for it,” he went on.

“We’ve got to create the political conditions so Westminster can’t say no, in the same way we created the political conditions for the Scottish Parliament. We have to do that again.

“There’s no magic number with polls, but at every single election test, we’ve got to show the party of independence is strong and winning. The moment the SNP doesn’t win, the Unionist parties will take that as a mandate for further Westminster rule.”

Despite not yet knowing the General Election date, the First Minister is quietly going about his business, taking the temperature. On this latest campaign trip I had the opportunity to observe the scene in Dingwall, the home town of a certain former rival of Yousaf’s.

The National: We were in Dingwall on the campaign trailWe were in Dingwall on the campaign trail (Image: Colin Mearns)

The talk of the steamie at Dingwall Mart was not so much the lack of cattle in pens following what must have been a pretty successful auction the previous day, but how the First Minister and Kate Forbes – who faced off in the SNP leadership contest last year – would get on when she turned up. After their heated TV debates and the fact Yousaf didn’t offer her the finance secretary role she deeply wanted to continue in, were they on speaking terms?

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There was no drama on that front as the pair seemed amicable, posing in pictures together with the beautiful rolling hills in the background. Nothing to see here folks.

The National: The FM with Kate Forbes and Lucy Beattie in DingwallThe FM with Kate Forbes and Lucy Beattie in Dingwall (Image: Colin Mearns)

How is SNP support in the Highlands?

With the schedule already falling behind, it was onto Ullapool on the north west coast where some brave and committed activists could be found gathered on a street corner as an ice-cold breeze hammered the coast. We were the bearers of the unfortunate news they would be waiting a bit longer as the First Minister tried to play catch up.

I took the opportunity to chat to presenter Iain Meadows from Two Lochs Radio, the UK’s smallest commercial radio station, about whether the seat of Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (yes, Dingwall on the east coast is in the same seat as Ullapool on the west, you’ve heard that correctly) was likely to change hands from the LibDems to the SNP.

The National: Activists on the street in UllapoolActivists on the street in Ullapool (Image: Colin Mearns)

He described the area as a “hotbed” of SNP support, but said many had fond memories of the likes of Charles Kennedy. There were all sorts of local concerns people felt they needed to hear solutions on such as the lack of a Post Office in Ullapool, crumbling school buildings and, the dreaded words: Delayed, ageing ferries.

There was some confidence that the SNP would get this sprawling constituency back, but Meadows said Yousaf could find he gets on the ferry feeling “a bit bruised” from hearing the string of issues Highlanders are facing.

When he eventually turned up the First Minister was greeted with smiles and enthusiasm, with many folks seemingly admiring him for the brave face he has put on in a brutal first year in post. You almost felt as if supporters want to put their arm around him, having watched him deal with so much he didn’t ask for while trying to fill the shoes of Nicola Sturgeon.

A few honest conversations and group photos with everyone shouting “SNP!” instead of “cheese!” later, it was time catch the MV Loch Seaforth. I think it’s safe to say that after another week of a mainstream media onslaught about ferries, no one wanted it to be late.

Leaving just about on time, we were invited to have a look at the bridge as we journeyed across The Minch, before I had a moment to sit down with the First Minister and have a look back on the events of the week.

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Before broaching the subject of ferries after CalMac chief executive Robbie Drummond announced he would be stepping down with immediate effect, there was only one place to really start – the reaction to the Hate Crime Act coming into effect and the level of disinformation which has been spread by the likes of Elon Musk and Joe Rogan.

There was an acknowledgement from Yousaf that the Scottish Government perhaps could have done more to rebut the fake news taking hold on the internet.

He told The National: “There’s a bit of reflection for us to do on what more we could do proactively when legislation comes into force.

“As well as doing interviews, there’s a bit of work being done around further explaining very clearly what is in the act and what is not in the act.

“I think it’s a very fair challenge to the Government to say when legislation like this comes forward, are we being proactive enough in explaining what is in it?

The National: Steph grills the FM before the pair head on the ferrySteph grills the FM before the pair head on the ferry (Image: Colin Mearns)

“But I genuinely believe that out there in the real world, most people understand why we have hate crime legislation, support the fact we have strong, robust legal safeguards against hate crime and are getting on with their daily lives without being impacted by it.”

He claimed the SNP rebuttal unit, something I said we weren’t convinced was being used enough, was active in sending information out to elected members and party members.

However, he insisted dispelling myths about legislation could not just be down to this one initiative and the Government needed to reflect on this episode, ensuring it does not let the opposition drag its name through the mud in such a way again.

And on the subject of ferries, Yousaf insisted Drummond’s position was one for the CalMac board to determine and not ministers. However he made it clear that everyone at Ferguson Marine in Port Glasgow – where the completion of two vessels remains heavily delayed and overbudget – CalMac, and harbour authority CMAL, is well aware of the “laser focus” the First Minister and transport secretary Mairi McAllan want on delivery, as he maintained the ferry service in Scotland was “generally reliable”.

The National: A CalMac ferry arrives into Ullapool A CalMac ferry arrives into Ullapool (Image: Colin Mearns)

Over in Gaza

Let’s not forget, amid all of this, Yousaf’s wife Nadia El-Nakla still has cousins and aunties and uncles in Gaza who are desperate for food, water and medicine amid the onslaught from Israel. Yousaf described it as “horrendous” that in his position he was powerless to stop arms being sent to Israel from these shores.

But he shared his hope Scotland could play a role in brokering peace in Gaza, just as Norway did with the Oslo Accords which, signed in 1993 and 1995, saw the start of a peace process after secret negotiations between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization in the Norwegian capital.

On top of this, the First Minister is still observing Ramadan and so after a long-awaited meal at sundown on arrival in Stornoway and a good night’s sleep, it was back on the trail early doors on Friday to the rural village of North Tolsta.

If Yousaf needed a pick-me-up after a tough week, hopefully the adorable lamb he got to hold at the Maciver family’s croft did the trick (accompanied by a perhaps awkward conversation about how lamb is the traditional dish of Eid).

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It was a fleeting visit before moving on to The Shed project, an inspiring initiative that has seemingly gone from strength to strength since launching almost a decade ago. Supporting people in recovery and providing a befriending service to struggling families, it was clear this has become a much-admired service in the community with volunteers putting out all the stops for the First Minister’s arrival.

The penultimate stop on the Lewis tour saw the First Minister get a fascinating insight into the work at the Harland and Wolff Arnish fabrication yard at the island’s deep water port, where sparks were flying as staff were seen welding parts for barges used to transport waste on the Thames.

The company is also heavily involved with building offshore and onshore wind energy equipment, and there was an intriguing chat I caught between the First Minister and one of the bosses about the impact the latest extension to the windfall tax by the UK Government had had on the firm.

It was explained that the announcement had hampered the prospect of growing the workforce within the company. The First Minister made it clear this was why the SNP had opposed the move and he was aware that if Scotland wants to truly realise its potential for wind energy, then the work has to be supported.

Before catching our Loganair flight back to Glasgow, there was some time to speak to more activists by the Herring Girl statue, erected in recognition of the herring girls who laboured in the harbour during the late 19th and early 20th century.

It was here where I heard some interactions between the First Minister and party supporters. One woman told him he deserved a medal, while another expressed his restlessness at the prospect of seeing independence happen in his lifetime seemingly slowly fade away.

What I was also keen to know was whether current veteran MP Angus MacNeil, who intends to run again as an independent after being expelled from the SNP last year, was hanging on to any support.

The National: Will Angus MacNeil’s fresh criticism of the SNP leadership’s approach inspire a change of course?

I was told by activists who had been on the doorsteps that his name was not coming up in conversation much, but there was a sense of regret that he had ended up out of the party. A figure admired, but not one necessarily followed perhaps now he isn’t under the party banner.

But it’s not just MacNeil that the SNP have to worry about. It will be the test of local Labour candidate Torcuil Crichton, who is well-known in the isles and will have a swagger in his step knowing Labour have held Na h-Eileanan an Iar before.

Asked how confident he felt about the SNP’s chances in the seat, Yousaf said: “I feel good but it’s going to be a battle, there’s no two ways about it.

“Labour are on our heels [across Scotland] and we need to make clear what our offer is and it is clear for me. You don’t need to vote to Labour to get rid of the Tories, they’re finished. So you should vote for what you believe in and if you believe in independence and a party that will stand up for Scotland, vote SNP.

“It’s a simple choice for people in the Western Isles. You can have a Labour MP who will do nothing but take orders from Keir Starmer, or you can have an SNP MP who will take orders from the people in the Western Isles.”

The independence movement vs the media

The impatience around independence was evident but so was the anger around the way Scotland is portrayed by the mainstream media.

Activist David Holmes in Ullapool told me: “If you listen to BBC Radio Scotland, you’d think we live in a bad country. We don’t live in a bad country." 

The National: David Holmes, left, is concerned about how Scotland is portrayed in the mediaDavid Holmes, left, is concerned about how Scotland is portrayed in the media (Image: Colin Mearns)

He was desperate to see the SNP do more to debunk the myths around independence and combat the incessant negativity spouted by the likes of the BBC.

Yousaf said he understood the frustration, and added work was underway to try and do more to tackle the “hostile” media coverage the cause is so often up against.  

READ MORE: SNP rebuttal unit fails to materialise after conference announcement

“There’s a couple of things we’re doing because we’re not going to get assistance from a lot of sections of the mainstream media," he said.

"A lot of them are very openly hostile towards the party and the cause of independence so we’re looking at how we can go directly to people with our own media channels. We should have more to say on that very soon.

“We have an asset base of almost 70,000 members and it’s so important, that base, to get messages to people on the doorsteps and that’s what we have got to do to counter some of the negative misinformation from some sections of the media.”

I asked about whether the website would be used more, given it hasn't been updated once this year so far.

He told me: “We can look at that. Web pages have their place but I think [it’s about] not just embracing social media in a better way and a more direct way, but also looking at what we can do in relation to podcasts and videos.

"I think there’s a lot more we can do as a party to get our narrative out there to debunk and rebut the disinformation that’s deliberately put out there by some sections of the media.”

READ MORE: Scottish Labour students resign after liking Britain First tweets

We’ll be keeping a close eye on how the party looks to calm the media storm but, to close the trip, I asked Yousaf whether he could promise the SNP were not taking their raison d’etre for granted, assuming people know what the party is all about. Would he show supporters independence is firmly on the agenda?

“It’s not just on the agenda, it’s the top priority for us, not for its own sake but because if we advance the cause of independence, we become independent, and we can deal with the suffering people are facing,” he said.

“Be in no doubt whatsoever we’ll be ramping up the independence messaging, we’ll be talking about it consistently, because in this election we have to send a message to Westminster that the people of Scotland are tired of this failing Westminster economic model. If you want to talk about change, the real change is independence.”