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Here are 17 key battles that could decide the Holyrood election

As Scots head to the polls for the 2021 Holyrood election, we have highlighted some of the key battles to look out for when the results are announced on Friday and Saturday.

Election officials counting ballot papers.
Election officials counting ballot papers.

North-east region

Alex Salmond at Aberdeen Beach.

All eyes will be on this result to find out if Alex Salmond has succeeded in his bid to return to frontline politics as an MSP for the newly created Alba Party.

It would represent an astonishing comeback for the former first minister, who was cleared of sexual assault charges following a trial last year.

However, failure to secure a seat on the list could be a humiliating end to the career of one of the most significant figures in modern politics.

The area contains the Aberdeenshire, Aberdeen City, Angus and Dundee City constituencies, and elects seven additional MSPs.

In 2016 there were four Conservatives, two Labour and one Liberal Democrat elected on the north-east list.

However, new faces are guaranteed this weekend, with six of the previous seven MSPs having retired, leaving only Liam Kerr seeking re-election.

Aberdeenshire West

Nicola Sturgeon and Fergus Mutch.

There is a reason Nicola Sturgeon has turned up in this seat more than once during the campaign.

It is a key target for the SNP, which represented the constituency from 2011 to 2016, when Dennis Robertson lost to Conservative candidate Alexander Burnett by 900 votes.

Fergus Mutch came within 843 votes of winning the Westminster equivalent constituency from the Tories in 2019.

The former SNP spin doctor, who once served as Mr Salmond’s chief of staff, will hope he has done enough this time to overturn Mr Burnett’s slender lead and avoid defeat.

Perthshire South and Kinross-shire

Liz Smith.

The SNP and the Conservatives are also going head to head in this battleground constituency, with the result hugely important to both.

Former minister Roseanna Cunningham held the seat, and its predecessor, since the creation of the Scottish Parliament, but hung on with only a 1,422 majority in 2016.

She has now retired from politics, and sheep farmer Jim Fairlie has been given the task of fending off the challenge from Tory front-bencher Liz Smith, a regional MSP in the last parliament.

Caithness, Sutherland and Ross

Jamie Stone MP and Molly Nolan.

The most northerly mainland constituency is the top target for the Scottish Liberal Democrats, who have been talking up Molly Nolan’s chances against Children’s Minister Maree Todd.

It was previously held by the SNP’s Gail Ross, who won the seat with a 3,913 majority in 2016, but she has since stepped down.

Jamie Stone reclaimed the Westminster version of the constituency for the Lib Dems in 2017, and then held it in 2019, by just 204 votes.

Highlands and Islands region

Andy Wightman.

The regional list vote will be crucial across the country and one of the hardest results to predict is in the Highlands and Islands.

The area elected three Conservative list MSPs in 2016, as well as two Labour, one SNP and one Green.

However, this year it is complicated by the presence of not only the Alba Party, but also the high-profile former Green MSP Andy Wightman, who is standing as an independent.

Tory leader Douglas Ross is also standing on the list here, but could potentially lose front-bencher Jamie Halcro Johnston, and even Donald Cameron, who are fourth and third on the list, respectively.


Richard Lochhead.

The Moray seat at Westminster has been the scene of a major tussle between the SNP and Conservatives, with Angus Robertson being ousted by Douglas Ross in 2017, and the Conservative leader hanging on by just 513 votes in 2019.

The SNP has held the Holyrood constituency since devolution, and Higher Education Minister Richard Lochhead has to defend a 2,875-vote majority to keep it that way.

Edinburgh Central

Angus Robertson leaflet
Angus Robertson.

Speaking of Mr Robertson, the former Moray MP and SNP Westminster leader is hoping to make a return to frontline politics in Edinburgh Central, the constituency that contains the parliament.

In 2016, it was won by then Tory leader Ruth Davidson with a majority of just 610.

East Lothian

Iain Gray.

Another SNP target on the east coast, this seat was won by former Scottish Labour leader Iain Gray in 2016, with a majority of 1,127, but he has since stepped down.


key battles Holyrood election
Jackie Baillie.

Scottish Labour’s deputy leader, Jackie Baillie, clung on to her seat by just 109 votes to survive the SNP challenge last time.

Edinburgh Southern

key battles Holyrood election
Daniel Johnson.

Labour and the SNP are locked in another battle in the south of the capital, where Daniel Johnson has a majority of 1,123.


John Scott.

Conservative John Scott defeated the SNP by just 750 votes in Ayr in 2016.

Aberdeen South and North Kincardine

key battles Holyrood election
Liam Kerr

Previously held by the SNP’s Maureen Watt, her retirement might give hope to Conservative challenger and former regional MSP Liam Kerr, although he lost by 2,755 in 2016.

Angus North and Mearns

key battles Holyrood election
Mairi Gougeon.

Conservative councillor Braden Davy is hoping to take the seat from SNP minister Mairi Gougeon, who had a 2,472-vote cushion last time.


Jackson Carlaw

Former Scottish Conservative leader Jackson Carlaw is defending a 1,611-vote lead from the SNP.

Perthshire North

key battles Holyrood election
John Swinney.

Deputy First Minister John Swinney was 3,336 ahead of Tory MSP Murdo Fraser in 2016.


key battles Holyrood election
Oliver Mundell.

Tory Oliver Mundell had 1,230 more votes than the SNP last time.

Glasgow Southside 

key battles Holyrood election
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon.

Nicola Sturgeon will not be worrying about losing her seat, but Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar will hope to make a dent in her 9,593-vote majority.