United Kingdom's fate on knife-edge; Scots vote on independence
Edinburgh (Sept 18, 2014): Scotland voted on Thursday on whether to stay within the United Kingdom or end the 307-year-old union with England and become an independent nation in a finely balanced referendum with far-reaching consequences.
From remote highlands and islands to the tough city estates of Glasgow, people were almost equally divided over a vote watched closely by Britain's allies, investors and restive regions at home and abroad.
Pre-voting opinion polls gave the "No" campaign - those in favour of remaining in the United Kingdom - a slight edge. But hundreds of thousands of people still making up their minds held the key as polling stations opened.
Tennis star Andy Murray sent a powerful last-minute message in support of the pro-independence "Yes" vote, tweeting "Let's do this" after months of silence on his views.
Many people see the choice as one of "hearts or heads" - whether emotional stirrings and yearnings would outweigh pragmatic concerns over the risks and uncertainty that an independent state would face.
"I've waited all my life for this," said the first voter in Edinburgh's Waverley Court, a businessman who gave only his first name, Ron. "It's time to break with England. 'Yes' to independence."
As he spoke, a couple of workers hurrying by in the morning mist and drizzle shouted "Vote No!""
Those opposed to independence say a split could slow economic growth, affect the United Kingdom's defence capability, threaten the unity of other countries and tip the balance in favour of people who want Britain to leave the European Union.
Those in favour say that is just scaremongering and see a bright future for an independent Scotland in Europe, a fairer society and good defence and economic cooperation with London.
The issue has divided families and friends but also electrified this country of 5.3 million in months of debate.
One group of "Yes" voters marched to an Edinburgh polling station with a bagpiper paying "Scotland the Brave", while on the city's main Princes Street, overlooked by its castle, "Better Together" campaigners handed out leaflets saying "Vote No." "It's not worth the risk. There's no going back."
Leaders of both sides have urged Scots to consider the long-term implications of answering "Yes" or "No" to the question: "Should Scotland be an independent country?"
Alex Salmond, the 59-year-old nationalist leader, told hundreds of supporters in Perth at a final rally: "Scotland's future must be in Scotland's hands ... This is our opportunity of a lifetime and we must seize it with both hands."
The independence movement says Scots should be able to choose their own leaders and make their own decisions rather than be ruled from London. Supporters of the union say Scotland is more prosperous and secure as part of the United Kingdom and the ties that bind its peoples are too tight to be undone.
Salmond has said Queen Elizabeth should stay on as Queen of Scots. She has remained above the fray, in keeping with the constitution, but said on Sunday she hoped Scots would choose "carefully".