Stay or go? Scotland votes on independence from Britain
(AFP) Scotland began voting Thursday on whether to become independent, in a referendum that could break up the centuries-old United Kingdom and create Europe's newest country since the collapse of Yugoslavia.
Some 97 percent of eligible Scots -- 4.3 million people -- have registered to vote, underscoring the passions that the historic decision has kindled across the country.
After months when it looked like the independence camp could not win, a surge in support in the final two weeks has left pollsters warning the outcome too close to call.
"This is our opportunity of a lifetime," Scotland's pro-independence First Minister Alex Salmond told a cheering crowd of supporters in Perth at a final rally on Wednesday.
"It's the greatest, most empowering moment that any of us will ever have," he said, as supporters waved Scottish flags and chanted "Yes we can!"
British Prime Minister David Cameron has pleaded with Scots to vote in favour of staying in "our home" and has warned that the break-up would be a "painful divorce" full of economic uncertainty.
If Scots vote "Yes", it would end a union dating back to 1707, could force Cameron to resign and might raise serious questions about Britain's status on the international stage.
World financial markets have been volatile for days on uncertainty over the outcome, which is being watched closely around the world.
The force of the "Yes" campaign has encouraged separatist movements, such as Catalans in Spain, while a number of Britain's allies have urged the Scots not to leave.
"I hope it remains strong, robust and united," US President Barack Obama said in a tweet from his official account.
Polling stations opened at 0600 GMT and many voters were already in line to answer the question "Should Scotland be an independent country?" by marking either "Yes" or "No".
"It's an important day. This is a decision which will last forever, which will impact my children," said mother-of-two Charlotte Farish, 34, told AFP at a polling station in the Scottish capital, Edinburgh.
'Yes' vote for grandson
From the windows of people's homes to stands on street corners, lapel badges and even cupcakes, support for the "Yes" campaign has been more visible than for "No" in many parts of Scotland.
As "Yes" supporters gathered in Glasgow's main square Wednesday, 62-year-old Frank Evans said: "I've been ruled by Westminster governments for too long. This is a chance to rule ourselves, for my daughter and my grandson."
But the "No" camp insists that many voters opposed to independence have simply not made their voices heard yet.
"The silent majority will be silent no more. We will not have this," said Britain's former prime minister Gordon Brown, who is Scottish, in a passionate appeal to a Glasgow rally on the final day of campaigning.
In the oil city of Aberdeen, "No" campaigner Andy Harrold admitted their side had been slow to get started and had not spent money on "razzmatazz".
"I'm here to save my country," he said ahead of the vote. "There have been too many indecisive statements from Salmond, he hasn't come out with anything concrete about what's happening."
The final opinion polls put the "No" camp slightly ahead, but there remain many undecided voters whose decision will be crucial.
"I'm going to be looking at what side makes the better argument, whether I can believe one side," said Steven Andrew in Scotland's capital, Edinburgh.
'Status quo is gone'
Debate in the campaign has focussed on the economy, including what currency an independent Scotland would use and whether its North Sea oil wealth would help make it a richer nation.
Questions over whether an independent Scotland could be a member of the European Union and how long this would take to negotiate have also surfaced repeatedly.
Scotland's Parliament, opened in 1999, holds some powers devolved from Westminster to set policy in certain areas of domestic policy, such as health and education.
Even if there is a "No" vote, Scotland is set to be handed new authority over areas like tax and welfare, which Brown says could amount to effective home rule.
But a detailed timetable for this only emerged late in the campaign after Brown effectively stepped in to take control of the "No" camp after it looked like it might lose.
"The status quo is gone," Cameron said in his final campaign speech on Monday in Scotland. "There is no going back to the way things were. A vote for 'No' means real change."
Britain's leader, deeply unpopular in Scotland, has faced criticism for not taking the prospect of Scottish independence seriously enough sooner.
He is likely to face pressure from his Conservative party to step down if there is a "Yes" and would come out badly bruised even in case of a narrow "No" victory.