Key seats which could prove pivotal in the 2021 Scottish Parliament election

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Georgina Hayes
·7 min read
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scottish parliament election seats to watch constituencies 2021 battlegrounds - REUTERS 
scottish parliament election seats to watch constituencies 2021 battlegrounds - REUTERS

Nicola Sturgeon is looking to extend her time as First Minister in this year's Scottish Parliament elections and is hoping to secure an outright majority to bolster her calls for a second independence referendum.

The elections, which take place on Thursday May 6 following a year's postponement due to coronavirus, will see 129 MSPs voted in to sit in the Scottish Parliament, including 73 representing constituencies and 56 representing eight regions of the country - seven for each region.

An SNP majority, requiring 65 seats, would give the party the mandate to push for a second independence referendum, which is expected to be called in 2023.

However, the Scottish Conservatives have launched a campaign under their new leader, Douglas Ross, to prevent this, hoping to capitalise on the success of the 2016 election campaign under Ruth Davidson.

Here are all the details you need to know about the seats which may determine the outcome of the election and why they matter.

Key constituencies to watch


Dumbarton, which is currently held by deputy Scottish Labour leader Jackie Baillie on a wafer-thin majority of just 103 votes, is a major SNP target seat.

The seat has been held by Baillie since 1999 - one of a handful of constituencies which have been represented by the same MSP for the entire lifetime of the Scottish parliament.

The most marginal seat in Scotland, the SNP have been creeping ever-closer in recent years, and the constituency is now a lonely red dot in a sea of yellow on the electoral map.

Baillie has been reasonably high-profile of late due to her role in the Alex Salmond Holyrood inquiry committee and a stint in charge of Scottish Labour while the party sought a new leader, and whether or not she loses the seat to SNP opponent Toni Giugliano will speak to her party’s wider fortunes.

Glasgow Southside

Easily the SNP’s safest seat - which Nicola Sturgeon won in 2016 with a majority of over 9,500 and more votes than all other candidates combined - the constituency has become interesting because it is also being contested by Anas Sarwar, the Scottish Labour leader.

The first time in British political history that two major party leaders have stood directly against one another, the result will shed early light on whether Sarwar has been successful in starting to turn Scottish Labour’s fortunes around.

A high number of ethnic minority voters, who traditionally have backed the SNP in large numbers, has been seen by some as a wildcard in a race involving the first Muslim leader of a major UK party.

Sarwar lives in Glasgow Southside and has repeatedly stated that while it may be Sturgeon’s constituency, it is his home.

He is almost certain to be elected to Holyrood anyway because of his position on the Glasgow regional list, and has repeatedly criticised Sturgeon for dropping the ball in her own backyard.

Almost half of children in the constituency live in poverty, he claims, and there are rampant issues with housing, crime and unemployment.

With the SNP putting Sturgeon at the centre of their campaign and less than half of constituents turning out to vote in 2016, the result will show what voters make of her record.


Eastwood is one of Holyrood’s closest three-way marginals, which is currently held by former Scots Tory leader Jackson Carlaw.

Carlaw gained the seat from Labour’s Ken Macintosh - now Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament - in the 2016 election, which pushed Labour into third behind the SNP.

With a majority of 1,611, the seat could easily be lost to SNP rival Colm Merrick or Labour candidate Katie Pragnell.

A highly-affluent middle-class commuter constituency located south-west of Glasgow, the seat largely voted against independence in 2014 - but was also overwhelmingly pro-Remain in 2016.

Aberdeenshire West

The Tories gained Aberdeenshire West from the SNP with a 2.6 per cent majority in 2016, and the nationalists hope to win it back.

The constituency has a complex history and was formed from bits of Gordon and West Aberdeenshire and Kincardine in 2011.

Both were originally Lib Dem strongholds, although Gordon was later home to SNP First Minister Alex Salmond in 2007 - but the ‘new’ constituency was taken from the SNP by the Conservatives in 2016.

The Tories’ lead over the SNP in 2016 was only 900 votes, but the Conservatives took the Westminster equivalent seat in 2017 and 2019.

The northeast and the south of Scotland are the key battlegrounds between the Conservatives and the SNP, so the outcome of the race here could be a bellwether for the rest of the region - and the election as a whole.

Edinburgh Central

Taken by Ruth Davidson in 2016 by a margin of just 610 votes, Edinburgh Central is widely seen as being up for grabs in 2021 as the former Scottish Tory leader departs Holyrood for the House of Lords.

The seat is now a target for both Labour and the SNP, who won 22.1 and 28.6 per cent of the vote respectively at the last election.

There was much controversy over the SNP selection contest, with former deputy leader Angus Robertson ultimately winning the nomination after Joanna Cherry claimed her bid had been "hobbled" by a rule-change from party HQ.

The constituency is a complicated contest, having been a Labour-Lib Dem marginal up until 2011 and featuring candidates from all five major parties - Alison Johnstone took a not inconsiderable 13.6 per cent of the vote for the Greens in 2016.


Moray is one of the SNP's more marginal seats, with a majority of 2,875, despite being held by long-serving government minister Richard Lochhead since 2006.

The equivalent Westminster seat was captured by the Conservatives in 2017, and held again in 2019 by Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross.

While Mr Ross is not on the constituency ticket for this election - preferring a position atop the party's regional list and thus a more or less guaranteed seat - he has spent a decent amount of time campaigning in his backyard.

East Lothian

This seat is one of only three Labour defences in Scotland, having been held since 2007 by the party's former leader Iain Gray with a majority in 2016 of 3 per cent.

With his retirement, the SNP may see an opportunity to jump in. The corresponding Westminster seat has bounced back and forth between Labour and the SNP, swinging back to the latter in 2019.

However, a problem for the SNP is that the candidate they managed to get elected in that race, Kenny MacAskill, has now defected to Alex Salmond's new Alba Party.

That should not affect the Holyrood contest in theory as Mr MacAskill is not giving up his Westminster seat, and is a list candidate only for Alba. But the shadow of the former justice secretary will be cast over this race regardless.

Labour had already nominated Martin Whitfield - the MP ousted by MacAskill - as their candidate for the Scottish Parliament seat.

And SNP activists may face a challenge pushing their candidate, Paul McLennan, while the party is openly attacking the man they pitched to local voters just 18 months ago.

Perthshire South & Kinross-shire

An SNP seat with a majority of 4 per cent, the constituency is a target for the Tories.

SNP stalwart Roseanna Cunningham has represented this patch of Perthshire since the beginning of the Scottish Parliament, but is stepping down in May and leaves it as the party’s most vulnerable seat in Scotland.

The Westminster equivalent has bounced between the SNP and Conservatives at the last three Westminster contests - including two years where the MP was Tasmina Ahmed Sheikh, now an Alba Party candidate on the regional list - although prior to that it was held by Labour.

As Labour and the Lib Dems were 10,000 votes behind the other parties in 2016, it is likely to be a straight contest between experienced Tory campaigner Liz Smith and the SNP's Jim Fairlie, who hopes to continue Ms Cunningham's legacy.

North East Regional list

While not a constituency, this result will draw considerable interest because Alex Salmond's name will be on the ballot paper, atop the Alba Party's list.

If his attempt to return to frontline politics is to be even remotely successful, he will need to start here - which means every other party will be eyeing the arithmetic and hoping not to be edged out.