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Yes or No? Scotland Goes to the Polls for a Historic Independence Vote that Could Shatter Great Britain

Nerves run through the British Isles over the future of the 307-year-old union as surveys show the referendum is on a knife edge.

by Sally Hayden
Sep 18 2014, 10:05am

Images via Sally Hayden

Scotland went to the polls on Thursday to decide whether to end its 307-year-old union with England and become an independent state, as nerves coursed through Great Britain over a rupture that could change the face of the island forever. 

The last poll ahead of voting put the pro-independence movement lagging behind with 47 percent to the "no" campaign's 53 percent. But with many voters still undecided even as polling day dawned, the referendum remained on a knife edge. 

Andy Murray, the Scottish Wimbledon champion, urged Scots to vote yes as supporters of independence mounted a final feverish push on the eve of the referendum.

"Huge day for Scotland today! No campaign negativity last few days totally swayed my view on it," the tennis star tweeted, showing his hand after months of silence on the vote. "Excited to see the outcome. Lets do this!"

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond cast his vote at 9am on Thursday morning at a polling station in Strichen, near Aberdeen, in the north west of Scotland. He later went on a tour of his constituency, urging supporters to galvanise the vote in the last hours of polling.

Scotland's first minister, Alex Salmond, greets schoolchildren in Aberdeenshire after casting his vote

In Turriff, Aberdeenshire, he sought to capitalise on the show of support from the Scottish sports icon, telling Yes voters: "Did you see that forearm smash from Andy Murray?

"We now have the best part of ten hours to persuade our fellow citizens to vote to put the future in our hands."

A record 97 percent of residents, or 4.2 million people, are registered to vote, and by mid-afternoon, turnout was said to be high.

With few exceptions, anyone who resides in the country can cast a ballot. This is the first time that 16 and 17-year-olds can participate, though most of them will have to do so after school. A drive to see homeless people register was also run.

Gregor Angus, 17, from Libingston, was soaking up the excitement outside the parliament in Edinburgh. He told VICE News he understood concerns over 16 and 17-year-olds voting because some at that age were easily influenced, but added that he believed they should have a say in the future of their country.  "Most of my friends are yes voters but there are quite a few no voters too. Everyone's really excited that they can finally vote," he said.

On the streets of the capital, it is the Yes campaign that is the most visible. James McLeod, 46, an art student from Edinburgh College, painted "yes" all over his car before parking it outside the parliament. "I'm hoping that even if it changes one person's mind then it changes something because every vote is going to count tonight," he told VICE News. 

James McLeod with his car outside the parliament at Holyrood

McLeod said the vote wasn't just about independence. "I think there's a kind of movement at the moment that what's happening in Scotland is happening in other places around the world. It's not just about being an independent Scotland, it's about compassion and helping people on welfare, helping people with disabilities. Things that are going on around the world that we don't necessarily agree with and I'm hoping that we become a kind of global movement."

Signs outside a polling station in Edinburgh's Nicolson Street

More than 2,600 polling stations will remain open from 7am until 10pm local time (2am until 5pm EDT). Results will start being announced at 2am local time. Aberdeen is expected to be the last to declare, at 6am.

However some of Scotland's regions are extremely remote and votes will be transported to counting centers by helicopter and boat, meaning bad weather could delay results. 

Scotland entered into the Union in 1707. If it leaves, the UK will lose a third of its territory, and 8 percent of its citizens.

A yes supporter campaigns in Edinburgh's city centre

The prospect of the country leaving Britain has led to fears for Scotland's economic prospects, as well questions about what would happen to its currency, and to the UK's Trident missiles, the nuclear weapons housed at the Faslane Naval Base on the Gare Loch.

Scotland tends to be left-leaning, and during the last election voted in just one member of the Conservative Party. Devolution has brought the country its own parliament at Holyrood and some powers, but opting for independence would give it direct control over its own affairs, something that many Scots feel is lacking.

Rachel Holmes, 47, a chartered accountant from Edinburgh, told VICE News she was voting in favour of independence not to break up Britain but so that Scotland could choose for itself "how to spend our resources and what's right for us here, the people who live here."

"I think being British means that you're in a family of nations, but that doesn't mean that we can't govern ourselves as individual nations ... it's not that the land mass is coming apart, it's just a group of people in one of those countries truly governing themselves like any normal nation does."

But David Cameron (not the British prime minister) said in his coffee shop on Edinburgh's Royal Mile that the idea of Britishness was "in the past". The 48-year-old Yes voter told VICE News: "We're not British, we're Scottish, and only Scottish. No matter which way it goes we have to accept it, but Team Scotland will stay united and this isn't going away."

John Clark and David Cameron at the Cortado coffee shop on Edinburgh's Royal Mile, which is urging customers to vote yes

"We've been taken for a ride for too long. We want to make our own decisions," said his 58-year-old husband, John Clark. "And we don't want weapons of mass destruction here," he added, referring to the UK's Trident nuclear missiles which are based in Scotland.

The prevailing feeling among many here is uncertainty. The International Monetary Fund's deputy spokesman, William Murray, noted earlier this week: "A Yes vote would raise a number of important and complicated issues that would have to be negotiated. The main immediate effect is likely to be uncertainty over the transition to potentially new and different monetary, financial, and fiscal frameworks in Scotland."

The No campaign has accused Salmond of hiding the truth from Scottish voters over the economic consequences of a Yes vote. He in turn has accused Westminster of using scare tactics.

British Prime Minister David Cameron warned voters that this was a "once and for all" decision. Queen Elizabeth has remained neutral, but stated earlier this week that she "hopes voters think carefully". 

In Edinburgh, Lynn, a 63-year-old retiree who was voting against independence, said she was the only person on her street with no campaign posters in her window.

"We've got a lot of history in the UK and I feel it's better to have 63 million people together than smaller groups, and I think better together to support each other," she told VICE News. "Preferably we stay with the United Kingdom and keep our connections with Wales, England and Northern Ireland. I've grown up with it being Britain and we've all done everything together, and I feel a lot of Scottish people have done very well under the United Kingdom."

One no voter who would only give her first name Lynn, said she was the only person on her street to display anti-independence posters

Greg Lane, 20, an economics and politics student at Edinburgh University, is originally from England but has lived in Scotland for the past 10 years and was also voting no. He told VICE News: "I just don't think separation is the answer to any of the problems that we face at the moment, and we'd be much better served together in trying to achieve that change for 60 million people, and I don't think there's anything about independence that's going to do anything that the nationalists are trying to achieve."

Aside from those who reside in Scotland, the English do not have a vote over the potential break-up of the Union, but many have attempted to have a voice through rallies and celebrity calls for the Scottish to stay. One such man, 59-year-old John Loughrey from Wandsworth in London, who describes himself as "Princess Diana's biggest fan", traveled to Edinburgh on his own to campaign for the day.  He told VICE News: "I have a bit of respect for Alex Salmond, but he's leading Scotland down the wrong path. He's full of gas, and he's running out of gas. He's planned nothing. This vote is just about Alex Salmond and his friends, and some politicians who want a bit of power. And you've got to think about the Scottish people and not about yourself. 

He warned of economic hardship if Scotland voted for independence. "Taxes will go up, food will go up, houses will go up. Where is the money for medical coming from? It doesn't come from the ground, it doesn't come from the sky, it comes from the United Kingdom."

John Loughrey traveled from his home in London to campaign for the day

The debate over independence has evoked strong passions, at times spilling over into fierce antagonism between Yes and No supporters on the streets and on social media. 

Labour party leader Ed Miliband was forced to retreat from an appearance in Edinburgh earlier this week when he was mobbed and heckled by Yes supporters. He later told the BBC he believed the pro-independence campaign had an "ugly side", adding to complaints from No supporters of alleged intimidation over their views. Salmond, who has been criticised for characterising those who plan to vote no as unpatriotic and not part of "Team Scotland", denies all allegations of improper conduct on the part of his campaign. 

On the eve of the referendum, the author JK Rowling - who grew up in England but has lived in Edinburgh for the past two decades and who attracted considerable online abuse with her support for the union earlier this year - issued a plea against divisions over the referendum.

"Big day in Scotland tomorrow. My head says no and my heart shouts it - but whatever happens, I hope we're all friends by Saturday," she tweeted.

The referendum has also attracted considerable attention from other independence movements such as that underway in Spain's autonomous region of Catalonia, stoking anxieties in the Spanish government which has issued repeated warnings that an independent Scotland will not easily be granted membership of the European Union.

In a square in Edinburgh a, group of Catalans performed the sardana, a traditional circle dance. Daniel Rue, 65, traveled alone to Scotland, but he estimated that 200 had made the trip. He booked his flight two days ago when he realised that there was a chance the referendum might pass.

"We came first of all to be a witness of the process and secondly to give support to the referendum. We also wanted to show the big difference between the attitude of the British government and the Spanish government," he told VICE News.

"The main difference between both processes - Scottish and Catalan - is Spain is the enemy. So Cameron came here and said "Scotland, don't go, we love you." Spanish government said 'don't go or I send you the army.' And then we cannot vote. We said the 9th of November for a referendum, but the Spanish government said "no, it's not allowed.' So we came here to demonstrate because at the same time that Scotland is voting we cannot."

Daniel Rue traveled from Catalonia to witness the Scottish referendum

In Donetsk, eastern Ukraine, where separatists have also been watching the Scottish referendum with interest, a rally in support of the Yes vote was being held. 

"I support the Scots. Their referendum is going peacefully, without war. I'm very jealous, and I wish them all the best," Natalia Isaeva told the Russian channel LifeNews, according to a translation by The Telegraph.

Salmond has promised a day of celebration on Friday if the Yes campaign wins, though an official at the SNP Edinburgh Headquarters said on Wednesday that he wasn't sure whether any concrete arrangements had been made.

Hannah Strange contributed to this report

Follow Sally Hayden on Twitter: @sallyhayd