Nicola Sturgeon claimed an SNP majority was “always a long shot” despite a winning start and a major election gain in key Holyrood constituencies.
The First Minister is heading for a fourth electoral victory, easily winning her Glasgow Southside seat, but the final make-up of the Scottish Parliament is still a long way from becoming clear.
Among the first declarations was a tight contest in Banffshire and Buchan Coast where an 11-point jump for the Tories was not enough to cause a major upset for the SNP.
Deputy First Minister John Swinney comfortably held on to his Perthshire North seat with almost no movement towards the Conservative rival, Murdo Fraser.
The SNP held Aberdeen Donside, Dundee West, Angus North and Mearns and the Western Isles, while the Lib Dems easily held Orkney again.
There are still a number of potential banana skins for the SNP and Conservatives across the north of Scotland.
I’m feeling extremely happy and confident we are on track for a fourth consecutive election victory.”
The central belt threw up some early signals of a bounce for Labour leader Anas Sarwar in Clydebank but the SNP still recorded big majority wins in the first seats in the region.
And in the South of Scotland region, the SNP pulled off a major win in East Lothian, which has been held at Holyrood by Labour since the first election to the Scottish Parliament in 1999.
Ms Sturgeon, arriving at the count in Glasgow at 3.30pm, said: “A majority has always been a very, very long shot.
“The Holyrood system is a proportional representation system. In 2011 we effectively broke that system, so it would be good to do, but I have never taken that for granted – that has always been on a knife edge, a small number of votes in a small number of seats.
“We’ll wait and see how the votes pan out today and tomorrow, but at this stage – and there’s a long way to go – I’m feeling extremely happy and confident we are on track for a fourth consecutive election victory.”
Counting only started on Friday morning because of Covid restrictions. The final result is not expected until Saturday evening.
SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon is hoping to add to her tally and form a majority government.
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross is on course to head the largest opposition group with Labour in third, according to earlier exclusive polling for us by Survation.
There are some knife-edge contests going on around the country. Lib Dems were desperate to topple a government minister in Caithness, Sutherland and Ross but fell short as the SNP won the constituency, while the SNP threw a lot of effort into taking on the Conservatives in Aberdeenshire West.
Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar put effort into the regional ballot, his party’s best chance in the north and north-east.
All parties have their eyes on the North East regional list where former SNP leader Alex Salmond is mounting a campaign to get back into Holyrood with the new Alba party.
However, election expert Professor John Curtice said the party is sitting at just 2% on the initial results in the Aberdeen Donside part of the North East region.
Turnout has also defied some pessimistic forecasts.
In Perthshire North it was a record-breaking 69.9%, reflecting an increase of 6,000 voters compared with the 2016 election.
It was the same in Dundee where turnout in the west has grown from 45% in 2011 to 57% at this election.