Alex Salmond is many things: a gambler with an obsessive eye for the horses, a populist showman equally quick to cause and claim outrage, an improvisational wit with a cut-throat edge.
And should he triumph in Scotland's independence referendum Thursday, Salmond would earn a new reputation — as the man who knocked the "Great" out of Britain.
The 59-year-old leader of the Scottish National Party says he learned to dream of a better Scotland at his grandfather's knee, and chose to join the SNP at university in 1973 when his English girlfriend poked too much fun at his separatist sentiments.
Nobody's laughing in England now about the rise of Salmond, a high-energy campaigner who has made a habit of outmaneuvering opponents and rebounding strongly from any setback. His focus on independence appears all-consuming as he speaks, a pin of the Scottish flag always in his lapel. Even as his words at times careen wildly from the statesmanlike to the bullying, his bushy-browed eyes project equal measures of zeal and glee.
"Salmond has long been the most naturally gifted political performer in these islands," wrote Jonathan Freedland, a British novelist and columnist, in a 2011 analysis that cannily forecast Salmond's ability to rally voters behind independence.
Freedland said no rival Scottish politician loomed on the horizon capable of eclipsing Salmond: "The more dominant he becomes, the more dominant he is likely to remain."
Salmond's academic and professional background prepared him to become Scotland's most economically optimistic and visionary politician. At St. Andrew's University he double-majored in medieval history, reflecting his love of a Caledonia lost, and economics. In his 20s he worked as an economist first for Britain's regional government in Scotland and then at Royal Bank of Scotland, where he analyzed the country's most dynamic industry, North Sea oil.
He won a seat in the British Parliament in 1987 and within three years was party leader. He supported the British government's plans to create a devolved Scottish parliament in Edinburgh, a 1999 reform that stopped short of independence but gave his homeland a taste of self-government for the first time since its 1707 union with England.
After being hounded from the Scottish National leadership by internal party rivals, Salmond came storming back to the top post in 2004. Three years later he led his SNP to a narrow victory over the long-dominant Labour Party in the Scottish Parliament.
Unusually, Salmond has always campaigned as a solitary figure. His now 76-year-old wife, Moira, rarely appears in public and the couple had no children.
"Being a politician is one of the greatest jobs there is. Being a politician's spouse is not," Salmond told a Dundee newspaper, the Courier.
As Scotland's fledgling first minister in 2007, Salmond made a referendum on independence his grand strategic goal and predicted, to general disbelief even from supporters, it would be won within a decade.
Critics from the three main British parties mocked his independence demand as impotent chest-thumping by a party leader without a majority. Labour, long the party of choice in left-leaning Scotland, calculated that Salmond had taken the SNP as high as it could go.
Yet in the 2011 election, Salmond's ultra-confident promises of a better future for Scotland by harnessing its own oil revenues delivered an overall parliamentary majority, a triumph at odds with all the mainstream forecasts. Salmond's demand to hold a popular vote on divorce from England suddenly went from unreachable dream to political reality.
"Scotland has chosen to believe in itself. ... We've given ourselves the permission to be bold," Salmond declared in his victory address to applause, hollers and hearty whistles.
Over the past 18 months of campaigning, Salmond has rarely missed an opportunity to pounce on any misstep by the anti-independence Better Together campaign, particularly those voiced in an English accent.
Along the way he has cheekily adopted every Scottish victory as his own, both on the golf course and particularly at the racetrack, where he offers predictions and color commentary to sports newspapers and broadcasters. At the 2012 Scottish National — the horse race, not the party — he celebrated on air after he backed an underdog, the Scot-trained Merigo, to upset the favorite.
"A Scottish winner for the Scottish National ... and I tipped the winner," he beamed to reporters, while declining to say how much he'd won.
At the Wimbledon tennis tournament last year, as Andy Murray became the first British man to win the competition since 1936 — and the first Scot since 1896 — Salmond somehow found himself sitting directly behind Prime Minister David Cameron and waving a large Scottish flag. The image irritated Cameron's Conservatives and appeared in every paper. It was all happy coincidence, Salmond insisted, surely not a deliberate stunt.
During two TV debates last month, Salmond showed his fighting mettle and resiliency. He lost the first encounter, fumbling the key question of whether an independent Scotland could keep the British pound. A few weeks later he trounced the same opponent, Alistair Darling, a former British treasury chief. The next opinion polls showed likely "yes" voters running almost neck and neck with supporters of the union, then narrowly in the lead for the first time.
"It's our time, our moment," Salmond said, looking into the camera. "Let's seize it with both hands."