Alex Salmond has announced he is stepping down as First Minister of Scotland after the referendum defeat.

In his resignation letter Salmond said he will step down in November and that "In this new exciting situation, redolent with possibility, party, parliament and country would benefit from new leadership.

"I have told the National Secretary of the SNP that I will not accept nomination to be a candidate for leader..I will stand down as First Minister to allow the new leader to be elected..."

His deputy Nicole Sturgeon, 45, is expected to replace him as First Minister.

Despite defeat, and Salmond's departure the Scottish nationalist movement has come a very long way.

Back in the 1990s the Scottish nationalists were supported by about 25 per cent of voters.

Now they are overwhelmingly the largest party in the Scottish parliament, a far sight from the misty visionary fringe group they were long seen as.

With sixty-seven seats and an overall majority in the 130-seat parliament they have come a far cry from 1979 when they created a sensation by winning one seat in the British parliament.

The leadership of Alex Salmond has been critical to all that.

He demanded the independence vote, but at the time his prospects were widely derided.

He is likely the best politician in Britain, bringing his party from the edge of obscurity to the center of British politics.

He seemed to have no chance of winning the referendum when it was announced in 2011.

As the Observer columnist Andrew Rawnsley said on Sunday, opinion polls at the time found that “the odds of the Scots voting for independence were only marginally better than the chances of Elvis being found alive in Fort William cohabiting with Dennis the Menace and the Loch Ness monster.”

In the end Salmond fell short but he scared the living daylights out of the flaccid British establishment.

He won two key concessions from David Cameron, those aged 16 and over could vote and the election was set for a date in 2014, a year later than the Tories wanted.

In the end 1.6 million agreed with Salmond that Scotland should be independent, about 45 per cent of the electorate.

Ironically it was former British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, in many ways a politician who had followed the same leftward path to power, who probably saved the day when the no-vote seemed to be foundering.

Salmond may be vanquished but he is hardly defeated. The Scottish Nationalist party has come a long way and it would be foolish to rule out a future independence vote if commitments made by London on this occasion were not honored.