UNTIL recently I thought Astroturf was the artificial surface that covers five-a-side football pitches. Well, it is. But it’s also, apparently, the name given to online campaigning that involves setting up multiple social media accounts to convey the impression of numerical strength.

Every Sunday night, as soon as The National trails my column on Twitter, I get bombarded with fake grass. Most of it is tedious and predictable. “It was supposed to be a once in generation, remember,” is a great favourite with those with Union Flags on their profile – clearly unaware of the full context of the reply in 2014 by Alex Salmond on the Andrew Marr Show, when asked if there might be a further referendum in the future in the event of a No vote. “In my opinion, and it is just my opinion, this is a once in a generation opportunity for Scotland.”

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So, it was one person’s opinion. And it’s perfectly reasonable for people – even senior politicians – to change their opinion when circumstances change. I could list a parade of senior Labour and Tory politicians who have changed their opinions over such momentous issues as the UK’s membership of the European Union, the bombing and invasion of Iraq, and the presence of nuclear weapons of mass destruction 20 miles from Scotland’s biggest city.

But back to the astroturfers. I’ve no problem with anonymous tweets attacking my views, even if I suspect that some of them are being composed on the same laptop under different profiles.

I haven’t even turned a hair at the misogynist rantings that deride my appearance or dress sense, or even those that are designed to intimidate. I grew up in the Gorbals and Castlemilk, so a bunch of sad keyboard commandos who are too timid to identify themselves by name are never going to silence me.

So far, my default policy has been to ignore their deliberate distortions, misrepresentations, and overt abuse. It is clear that some comments are deigned to take things off in a destructive tangent and thereby shutting down genuine democratic discourse. I try not to oblige.

And I feel exactly the same about those within our own movement who mirror that behaviour. I’ve long been sceptical of the value of trying to win over opponents by accusing them of cowardice, stupidity and treachery.

I’m not a professional media person. Nor do I spend my life in front of a computer screen counting retweets and Facebook likes. My work takes me to towns and cities across Scotland, where I meet hundreds of people every week from all walks of life. I’m not there to talk about politics but in these turbulent times, people are more inclined than ever before to express their opinions on the big issues, from Brexit to Scottish independence.

And I have to say that for a big chunk of the people I meet, the independence movement is perceived as intolerant zealots. That’s unfair, because 99 per cent of Yes voters are neither. But in the age of social media and online debate in newspaper comments columns, a small number making a lot of noise have the power to misrepresent an entire movement. I’ve come to the view that ignoring it is no longer an option.

The movement has given these folk the space to become an obstacle to achieving the very thing we all profess to want. But that obstacle can be removed by the majority of the wider movement discouraging such behaviour and clearly distancing ourselves. After all, it should be obvious that being obnoxious only serves the interests of the Union.

Back in the days when most collective debate was carried out in public meetings, those who shouted the loudest, using the most intemperate language, tended to be cheered the loudest. By their own side. But the impact they had on neutrals was almost always negative. Multiply an old-style public meeting a hundred or thousand times over, and the same principles apply on social media.

Relentless abuse directed at opponents can be like a constantly barking dog. After a while no-one pays any attention. It’s just background noise. So, let’s get a grip, and start trying to win people over rather than concentrating on generating the digital equivalent of stormy applause. Yes, we need reasoned, factual arguments. But please, leave out the personal insults.

Even more dispiriting in my opinion is the ugly acrimony that has erupted within the Yes movement since the General Election. In yesterday’s Sunday Herald, Ross Greer rightly expressed dismay at the bile churned out a by a small group of keyboard warriors against people who have worked tirelessly for the Yes movement for the past five years – all because they express honestly held opinions that differ from those of the SNP leadership.

Cat Boyd, Angela Haggerty and Kevin McKenna – all of whom helped shift countless multitudes of non-SNP voters to the Yes camp during the referendum – are among those who’ve been turned into hate figures because they dare to express opinions which are deemed deviationist by a few self-appointed high priests.

I suppose I should be honoured that I too have been targeted by the heresy hunters, as one of “the three witches stirring the cauldron (Leckie, Boyd and Haggerty)”. I’d just advise your reader Ray Hardie to educate himself on the 17-century witch-hunts – and he might even discover that the villains were not those who were burned at the stake for thinking differently, but their self-righteous persecutors.

I was recently accused of being a “Johnny come lately” to the independence cause. I shouldn’t have to prove my credentials. But for the record, I’ve supported independence since I was about 12, around 1977, and have never voted for a pro-Union party in my life. I co-founded Women for Independence early in 2012. Throughout the referendum campaign, I was working full-time and studying law part-time – but I travelled up and down the country sweating blood to persuade people to vote Yes.

Even if I had ever voted for a Unionist party, I would hope I would be welcome in the independence movement. In 2014, it was the Unionist media that attacked Labour for Independence, while the Yes movement warmly welcomed support from other parties and none. Do those who want the independence movement to become a narrow, purist, sectarian faction seriously believe that we can win the next referendum by adopting the tone and tactics of the self-righteous keyboard warriors? Dream on.

The movement for independence is not a sect but a united front, based on agreement around a single goal. It involves diverse forces, with a wide range of ideas about the past, the present and the future. Anyone who tries to force that movement into an ideological straitjacket is in denial about the character of Scotland’s political culture, where people tend to think for themselves and don’t just do as they’re told.

So, let’s all get a grip. We might not all want to be friends with one another, but at least let’s be respectful. We need to recreate that culture within the movement, and stand up to those who would poison the atmosphere of a movement that is based on hope, optimism and tolerance.