The Sunday Herald has become the first Scottish newspaper to back independence ahead of September’s referendum, boosting nationalists just weeks before the start of formal campaigning.

The Glasgow-based Sunday Herald is one of Scotland’s most influential newspapers and it has been generally warmer towards independence than a mostly unsympathetic Scottish press.

The paper’s online readership has been growing strongly despite a relatively small print circulation of less than 25,000 and its formal backing offers the Yes campaign useful credibility.

Polls suggest a marked narrowing of the pro-union lead ahead of the May 30 start of the formal “referendum period” with its limits on campaign spending and activities.

Announcing its decision with a front page designed by nationalist artist and author Alasdair Gray, the Sunday Herald acknowledged uncertainty over whether an independent Scotland would continue to use the British pound, how businesses would respond and what would happen with pensions.

But it said in an editorial that the referendum was not a choice between the status quo and an uncertain future, but between a “bankrupt, political structure and the chance to remake our society in a more equal, inclusive, open and just way”.

“Scots have never been afraid to astonish the world. A small country has made a habit of producing big thinkers. The Sunday Herald says that it is time to think big once again. And to think for ourselves,” it said.

Most Scottish titles remain strongly sceptical about independence, despite the Sunday Herald’s move.

The paper’s owner, the Herald and Times group, said it was allowing its other publications such as Glasgow’s daily Herald to decide their position independently, and it is unclear whether they will follow the Sunday’s lead.

The Herald group is part of UK regional newspaper chain Newsquest, which is owned by US media group Gannett.

Some nationalists hope for backing from News Corp’s Scottish Sun, the highest selling daily with a circulation of more than 250,000. In February, News Corp’s Rupert Murdoch fuelled speculation he might support independence by tweeting: “Let Scotland go and compete. Everyone would win.”

Mr Murdoch and Alex Salmond, Scotland’s first minister, have expressed mutual admiration. The nationalist leader has recently describing the media mogul in an interview with GQ magazine as a “remarkable man”.

Mr Salmond has been heavily criticised for other comments in the same interview, conducted by former Downing Street spokesman Alastair Campbell, particularly Mr Salmond’s approval of “certain aspects” of the record of Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president. “He’s restored a substantial part of Russian pride and that must be a good thing,” Mr Salmond told GQ.

David Cameron, prime minister, said Mr Salmond had made a “major error of judgment” for his remarks and Scottish opposition parties condemned the SNP leader for glossing over Moscow’s actions in Ukraine and its human rights record.

Mr Salmond says his “balanced remarks” referred to Mr Putin’s success in restoring Russian pride through its successful hosting of the Sochi winter Olympic Games. 

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