THE National, which began life as a five-day pilot exercise in 2014 -- is four years old on Saturday. I ken – where did the time go? One minute it was baby steps forward and provocative front-page covers. The next, the paper has become a one-stop shop for everything a switched-on Yes voter needs to know about Scotland. There are important stories underplayed by the rest of the press – like the UN envoy’s shocking report on poverty in Britain– radical thinking from Bella Caledonia, an exhaustive list of what’s on events across the

Yes movement and cartoonists, columnists, crosswords, news and analysis galore.

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The National has put the Mither Tongue firmly on the map with a weekly column in Scots and social media maestro Stephen Paton has produced films and live-streams with a wider reach than my own Nation films (sniff). Despite all this, I expect the tiny but formidable production team will do very little by way of celebration, concentrating, as usual, on getting the paper out with a shoestring budget.

But the team behind The National deserves big thanks for proving the sceptics wrong, turning The National into the newspaper of choice for the progressive left in Scotland, reflecting the activist soul of the Yes movement, championing unfashionable causes like local democracy and questioning the Scottish Government on land reform. Not bad for 48 months in business.

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In September the new Sunday edition of The National launched with a bang, and currently outsells Scotland on Sunday plus The Observer and Sunday Telegraph in Scotland. Of course, sales of the daily National have dropped since the heady days of its launch.

But lets put things into perspective.

The Birmingham Mail, with an urban population of 1.1 million, sells just 15,367 copies a day. London has not sustained a paid-for local newspaper for nine years. But then, that’s England. The Scots have always had a more robust newspaper reading habit. As Ian Burrell in The Drum pointed out recently, around 30% of the most read papers in the UK are Scottish, even though Scotland has barely 8% of the UK’s population.

Aberdeen, a city with an urban population of just 228,000, produces the best-selling daily local newspaper in the whole of the UK.

The Press and Journal’s editor Richard Neville says: “We don’t have any news infrastructure in the north-east; PA [The Press Association] doesn’t operate here and there are relatively few freelance agencies, so if we want to fill our pages with stories from this part of the world we have no other option but to [send] a bunch of reporters every day to go out and find stuff.”

Astonishingly in times of chronic cost-cutting, the P&J has an editorial staff of 65, with district offices in Peterhead, Elgin, Oban and Fort William and four daily editions for its four regions: The Highlands, North-East Scotland, Moray and Aberdeenshire.

I think that gives a wee clue about the biggest difficulty facing The National. Even though Scots have hyper-large councils and thus no real local democracy (or maybe precisely because of this shortcoming), there’s huge loyalty to place and locality in Scotland. If indy supporters where I live are offered a choice between The National or the Dundee Courier, for example, the latter may win out simply because it’s stapit fu o’ local news.

Folk can get Scottish, British and international news “free” on TV, radio and online but the only way for readers to get truly saturated in their ain locality – knowing everything that’s happening about schools, hospitals, councils, courts, travel disruption, football teams and services via local ads – is to buy a paper that puts place before any issue.

Serious Yessers may scoff at folk with such “lightweight” priorities. But the problem for all campaigners and professionals is that we tend to lead lives less local and thus hugely underestimate the general thirst for local connection.

The National’s “new” editor Callum Baird deserves big praise for trying to bridge this gap with a formidable and punishing nationwide schedule of roadshows alongside the indefatigable Paul Kavanagh, Sunday National editor Richard Walker and occasional local writers.

This has demonstrated that The National isn’t produced by a Glasgow-centric team who get giddy when they hit the A9 or hear an east-coast accent. It also demonstrates the personal commitment needed to get this paper out every day.

Let’s face it. The National has had to face extra battles every day just because it supports Scottish independence.

At the start some supermarkets couldn’t find shelf-space to stock the paper, and distribution is still a problem, being remedied by encouraging readers to switch to online subscriptions. In fact, The National is currently Scotland’s best-performing title when comparing 2018 to 2017, because lost print sales have been more than made up for by increases in digital subscribers.

The paper has been almost ad-free for its first few years, partly because the paper’s unique pro-indy stance made some companies nervous they’d alienate No voting customers by placing adverts. Happily that seems to be changing. And of course some MSPs (yip Murdo Fraser, it’s you), have never stopped knocking the paper, and crowing at drops in circulation.

As Kevin McKenna pointed out earlier this week, it’s typical of the hypocrisy at work in the Unionist establishment that Yesser pops at the Scotsman were condemned as a bit out of order when jobs are at stake, but no similar sympathy is ever extended to those employed at The National.

All of this makes life tough for the staff. If I ran a rival paper, I’d look at the talent and dedication of senior editors and head-hunt them away in seconds. (Just kidding guys, don’t go!) But there are different rules for excellent journalists who are also prominent indy supporters – so our fabulous editors may not have helped their career chances by being so open and honest about The National’s

pro-independence tilt.

Other papers tend to have a pro-Union bias, especially in news coverage, but can claim editorial impartiality because their political colours are not overtly nailed to the masthead. It’s been hard for

The National to strike a balance between being a loyal supporter but also a constructively critical friend of the Scottish Government, SNP and sometimes the whole indy movement -- but they’ve managed.

And that surely is the biggest achievement of the past four years. Obviously, the paper listens with a sympathetic ear to the Scottish Government and the SNP, but The National is no “McPravda”, as Labour peer George Foulkes branded it back on day one.

Au contraire. When many other papers shied away from printing trenchant criticism of landowner behaviour and even Scottish Government inaction – The National (carefully) went ahead. Since so few other papers recognise the incredible size, diversity and importance of the wider Yes movement or the valuable contribution of small parties like the Greens, The National often has to showcase and critique in the same issue. Somehow they manage.

The admirable thing is how the reach and authority of the paper have widened over the past four years. Yes DIY lets readers connect with events and other groups and turns readers into activists helping The National’s circulation drive by pitching up to distribute a thousand free papers somewhere in Scotland every Saturday.

If the Yes movement thrives on goodwill – and it does – then The National has become its relentlessly upbeat, optimistic and practical heartbeat. The popular Gael Neil Fraser was my boss at Radio Scotland back in the 90s, when it was winning Sony Station of the Year Awards. He once remarked that Radio nan Gaidheal had effectively created the modern Scottish Gaelic community by demonstrating that Gaelic speakers on different islands had a vast culture in common and only minor linguistic differences.

In many ways, The National’s done the same, creating a new, modern Yes community with more female columnists than any other paper and excellent foreign coverage too.

So here’s to the next four years. They won’t be easy. But there’s every chance we’ll arrive at the moment of independence this paper advocates. So publishing The National is about much more than just churning out a newspaper. It’s creating a new Scotland with every edition – and that’s a beautiful cause.