LET me start with a question. Why is it that every time SNP MPs make fact finding visits overseas, they are roundly told to get back in their box?

We had it again this past week after Alyn Smith, the party’s foreign affairs spokesman, along with Stewart McDonald, defence spokesman, and Dave Doogan MP visited Ukraine.

It’s become par for the course now for commentators from within the more hostile Unionist press to attack such visits and the motives behind them.

To that end both, the Scottish Daily Mail and Scottish Daily Express resorted to type, with the visit variously described as “narcissistic”, or “ignoring Foreign Office travel advice”.

No stone was left unturned to find suitable detractors only too willing to be quoted on their “outrage”.

READ MORE: Alyn Smith: We must act like a state if serious about independence

LibDem Stuart Crawford fired away relentlessly in the Express asking, “why are they out there flying the flag and pretending to be representatives of a soon to be independent state? It just doesn’t wash, it’s fantasyland”.

Not to be outdone, Donald Cameron, constitution spokesman for the Scottish Conservatives, called the visit “deeply irresponsible”, and more about “grandstanding”.

But it was Chris McEleny (below), general secretary of the Alba Party, who provided the most ludicrous response, describing the visit as part of a “Napoleon complex” on behalf of the SNP delegation and, wait for it, quoting Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) travel guidance advising against “all but essential travel to Ukraine”.

The National:  FOR THE NATIONAL...Portrait of Chris McEleny, SNP deputy leadership candidate, pictured in Glasgow...  Photograph by Colin Mearns.9 August 2016.

Let me just address that last point first and with a purely personal observation as someone whose job as a foreign correspondent has taken them to almost every place – including war-torn Ukraine – the FCDO advises against. I’ll just say this, you wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning if you stuck rigidly to the guidelines as presented by the FCDO.

That’s not to dismiss or diminish such advice out of hand, vital as it is for ordinary travellers, tourists, and businesspeople, in ensuring they don’t get caught up in events they might be blissfully and dangerously unaware of.

But we’re talking here about MPs who not only represent the third biggest force in the UK parliament, but are their party’s foreign affairs and defence representatives, politicians who serve on committees and are privilege to information that most of us are not.

Is McEleny seriously suggesting that they deliberately ignored FCDO guidelines just to make a cheap political point? What complete and utter nonsense.

It's precisely because of the crisis in Ukraine that the delegation went in the first place and under their own volition. Frankly, these SNP MPs wouldn’t be doing their job in trying to gain the maximum understanding of the issues at stake had they not gone.

Quite simply, and again, I know this from years of working as a correspondent in a not-dissimilar capacity, there is no substitute for face-to-face talks and getting a ground level view of any overseas crisis.

As Smith rightly pointed out in this newspaper yesterday, it is the Westminster government that is currently sending vast quantities of arms to Ukraine in part paid for by Scottish taxes. I for one as a Scot want then to know as much a possible from our elected representatives about the implications of such moves.

Just recently I returned from Iraq, a country to this day still reeling from political decisions made at Westminster by a British prime minister and government who went to war despite the wishes of many citizens here in Scotland and the wider UK. Never again should we take as gospel what is decided at Westminster, not least when engaging in wars.

Some supporters of independence might argue that we shouldn’t be in Westminster at all, and that SNP MPs are neutered in terms of what they can do there. Fair point.

READ MORE: Liz Truss mocked for geography gaffe as British diplomacy dubbed 'worthless'

But before the likes of Messrs Crawford, Cameron, and McEleny deign to inform us yet again that foreign affairs and defence are reserved matters, so what?

For now, we are where we are and it’s incumbent on the likes of Smith and McDonald, with their respective portfolios, to do their utmost in ensuring that Scotland is neither duped nor short-changed on international and defence issues.

Just as with all SNP politicians, both Smith and McDonald have their own share of supporters and detractors inside and out of the independence movement. But whatever one’s individual views on them are, criticism of their visit to Ukraine should not form part of that assessment.

In his outraged contribution to the Daily Express article, Crawford was at least right about one thing when he said that the SNP delegation “are trying to support and reinforce the idea that Scotland should be player on the international stage in its own right”.

Damn right, why shouldn’t they? To all intents and purposes as supporters of Scottish independence it would be remiss of them not to use everything at their disposal to forward that aspiration.

As regular readers of this column will know, I’ve never subscribed to the idea that the pursuit of independence is somehow distracted by or undermined by a simultaneous focus on international affairs and Scotland’s place in the world.

On the contrary, it is a vital part of our preparations for Scotland’s independence. Are those who repeatedly ask what use is this in pursuit of independence seriously so short-sighted that they can’t see the immense value in acting as ambassadors for our own sovereignty?

Do they really expect Scotland to wake up after independence, look around and only then consider our place on the global stage and low and behold find we do not have the expertise, experience, or diplomatic contacts? That process starts now.

Yes, foreign affairs and defence are reserved for now, but they won’t be in an independent Scotland.

The National: Emmanuel Macron

As French president Emmanuel Macron’s (above) recent diplomatic efforts over the Ukraine crisis has illustrated, European voices matter here, and in any future Europe with Scotland back as part of it, we must equip ourselves to perform with confidence and, above all, understanding.

Fact finding visits like that to Ukraine recently are what proper sovereign countries do as international actors.

And that, too, is precisely why Unionist and other detractors keep telling Scotland and delegations like the SNP one to get back in their box.