The outgoing SNP leader, who will be replaced by one of former minister Ash Regan, health secretary Humza Yousaf, and finance secretary Kate Forbes on Monday, faced accusations of “lies” over her party’s membership numbers in her last session of First Minister’s Questions.
Her party also faced a demand to ensure a Holyrood election is held immediately after the appointment of a new SNP leader in order to ensure they had a “mandate” to govern.
She also made a plea for “kindness” in Scottish politics in a statement immediately after the session, adding that she was “proud” of her achievements as First Minister and of her government’s record during her time in office.
Ms Sturgeon, who is the longest serving First Minister and the first woman to hold the role, said the job had been the “privilege of my lifetime”, adding that stepping away would allow her more time to focus on “Nicola Sturgeon the person” and issues she cares about.
The SNP leader was given a standing ovation by members of her party and some in the public gallery following her statement as she thanked Scots for “placing your trust in me”.
In a further plea to her party to remain united as it recoils from a bruising leadership contest, she called on the SNP to “keep going...as a team”.
She said: “We’ve come such a long way together as a team, let us keep going, serving Scotland together as a team.”
Ms Sturgeon also made a plea to her political opponents to treat each other with “kindness”, echoing the words of her resignation statement from Bute House over a month ago.
She said: “My colleagues across this chamber, robust debate and holding government to account are the hallmarks of what we do in here. That is how it should be, and let me thank those in other parties for that.
"But maybe, just maybe, we might actually enhance our democracy if occasionally we, all of us, treated each other with kindness too.
"If we remembered that we are opponents, not enemies.”
But the First Minister, and her opponents, also recognised the Covid-19 pandemic was likely to define her tenure in the role. She told how she had “led Scotland through good times but also through the toughest period of our recent history”.
The experience of the pandemic “changed me”, she said as she fought tears, telling MSPs that her thoughts “today and always are with those who lost loved ones to Covid” as well as others still suffering as a result of the virus.
Speaking about the experience of the pandemic, she said: “In the toughest of times, our country showed the best of itself with love, care and solidarity.
“That will live with me forever.”
Just prior to her statement in a fiery session of First Minister’s Questions, Ms Sturgeon was repeatedly accused of presiding over a party that had lied to the press and to the public over its membership numbers.
This followed controversy when the SNP confirmed it had lost 30,000 members since it last published figures, despite publicly rubbishing a report in the Sunday Mail newspaper earlier this year reporting the drop.
Both the party’s head of communications, Murray Foote, and its chief executive and husband of Ms Sturgeon, Peter Murrell, resigned over the misleading response to the press.
Mr Ross repeatedly accused Ms Sturgeon and the SNP of lies, and was reprimanded by the Presiding Officer, Alison Johnstone, for doing so in what became a raucous and unconventional FMQs.
Scottish Conservative leader Douglas Ross said the lies to the press was part of her government’s “shameless political spin”, highlighting the government’s failure to close the attainment gap, the drugs deaths figures, and the high number of Scots on NHS waiting lists.
“Shameless political spin has dominated the First Minister’s time in office, but it can’t disguise her actual record,” he said before listing issues such as the Hate Crime Act, the gender reforms, and the named person’s act.
He added: “On these and so many other issues, Nicola Sturgeon ignored Scotland’s real priorities in favour of her obsession with independence.
“She divided our country and failed in every mission she set herself. That is the truth of the First Minister’s legacy.”
Ms Sturgeon urged Mr Ross to publish his own party’s membership figures and said she would not “take lectures” from the Conservatives on honesty in the same week as Boris Johnson appeared in the House of Commons being questioned on Partygate.
Anas Sarwar, the Scottish Labour leader, called on the SNP to ensure there was a Scottish Parliamentary election once the party had elected a new leader, stating that individual would not have a mandate to govern.
He said the last election was a “pandemic election” won by Ms Sturgeon on the grounds of an appeal to her management of the crisis, adding that a new leader “don’t inherit her mandate”.
He said: “Scotland is facing two crises – an NHS recovery that never began, and the cost-of-living crisis. Families face spiralling bills and soaring energy prices.
“But as her potential successors squabble over their own record in government - they can’t escape facts. They don’t have a plan for Scotland – they don’t have a mandate from the public and that is why we need an election now.”
Ms Sturgeon defended her record again, stating that the electorate has had eight chances to judge the SNP since she became First Minister, winning every election.