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Scotland independence referendum: Polling stations close, vote counting begins

The polls have closed and vote counting is underway in Scotland's historic referendum on whether to end the country's 307-year-old union with England.

Future of the 307-year-old union with England will be decided on Thursday

Yes and No campaigners canvass outside Church Hill Theatre polling station during the Scottish referendum in Edinburgh, Scotland. ( Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

WATCH LIVE: CBC News will provide live coverage of results on CBCNews.ca and on CBC News Network, starting at 5 p.m. ET.

The polls have closed and vote counting is underway in Scotland's historic referendum on whether to end the country's 307-year-old union with England.

Polling places reported a heavy turnout Thursday. More than 4.2 million people were registered to vote — 97 per cent of those eligible.

As soon as the polls closed, vote counting began at 32 regional centres across Scotland. The final result on the independence vote is expected sometime after 5 a.m. GMT 1 a.m. EDT Friday.

A vote for independence will trigger 18 months of negotiations on how the two countries will separate their institutions before Scotland's planned Independence Day on March 24, 2016.

Until recently, polls suggested as many as one in five voters was undecided, but that number has shrunk dramatically. In the latest poll, only 4 per cent remained uncertain how they would vote.

Voters lined up outside some polling stations even before they opened at 7 a.m., and on the fog-shrouded streets of Scotland's capital, Edinburgh, there was a quiet thrum of excitement at history unfolding — an electric mood tinged with nervousness.

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      CBC's Nahlah Ayed got a look inside a Scottish polling station before it opened on Thursday.

      "It looked much like any election and polling station you would find in Canada," Ayed said. "Boxes are ticked and ballots thrown in a box. Thirty-two districts have to be tallied before results are announced. Some are coming by helicopter or boat, and the foggy weather may cause some delays."

      A Yes vote would trigger 18 months of negotiations between Scottish leaders and London-based politicians on how the two countries would separate their institutions ahead of Scotland's planned Independence Day of March 24, 2016.

      Many questions — the currency independent Scotland would use, its status within the European Union and NATO, the fate of Britain's nuclear-armed submarines, based at a Scottish port — remain uncertain or disputed after months of campaigning.

      British media quiet until polls close

      After weeks in which British media have talked of little else, the television airwaves were almost a referendum-free zone Thursday. Electoral rules forbid discussion and analysis of elections on television while the polls are open.

      On the streets it was a different story, with rival Yes and No billboards and campaigners outside many polling places.

      The campaign has generated an unprecedented volume and intensity of public debate and participation. The Yes side, in particular, has energized young people and previously disillusioned working-class voters.

      For some voters, this was a day they had dreamed of for decades.
      Scotland's voters campaign at polling places in Edinburgh. (David Cheskin/Associated Press)

      "Fifty years I fought for this," said 83-year-old Isabelle Smith, a Yes supporter in Edinburgh's maritime district of Newhaven, a former fishing port. "And we are going to win. I can feel it in my bones."

      For Smith, who went to the polling station decked out in a blue-and-white pro-independence shirt and rosette, statehood for Scotland was a dream nurtured during three decades living in the United States with her late husband.

      "The one thing America has that the Scots don't have is confidence," said Smith, who returned to Scotland years ago. "But they're getting it, they're walking tall.

      "No matter what, Scotland will never, ever be the same again."

      Smith's three children and seven grandchildren are all Americans, and several flew to Scotland for the referendum to support her.

      Many opponents of independence agreed that the campaign had reinvigorated Scottish democracy.

      "I support the No side, but it's been a fascinating, worthwhile discussion about Scotland's future," said writing consultant David Clarke.

      "If it's a No, it's a win-win situation. If it's a Yes, we will have to deal with the fact that it's a Yes."

      First Minister Alex Salmond, leader of the independence campaign, cast his vote near his home in northeastern Scotland. If the Yes side prevails, he will realize a long-held dream of leading his country to independence after an alliance with England formed in 1707.

      In a final speech on Wednesday night, Salmond told voters: "This is our opportunity of a lifetime and we must seize it with both hands."

      'No' voters stress economic uncertainties

      Pro-independence forces got a last-minute boost from tennis star Andy Murray, who signalled his support of the Yes campaign in a tweet to his 2.7 million followers early Thursday.

      Anti-independence leaders, including former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, have implored Scots not to break their links with the rest of the United Kingdom, and have stressed the economic uncertainties independence would bring.

      At Edinburgh polling stations, excitement vied with apprehension about Scotland's choice.
      Yes campaign and No campaign posters stand outside a polling place in Edinburgh, Scotland. (Matt Dunham/The Associated Press)

      Thomas Roberts said he had voted Yes because he felt optimistic about its future as an independent country.

      "Why not roll the dice for once?" he said.

      Once the polls close, ballot boxes will be transported to 32 regional centres for counting. The result is anticipated Friday morning.

      Roberts said he was looking forward to learning of the outcome in a pub, many of which are staying open overnight.

      "I'm going to sit with a beer in my hand watching the results coming in," Roberts said.

      Many Yes supporters planned to stay up late in bars, or to gather in symbolic spots like Calton Hill, overlooking Edinburgh — hoping the sun will rise Friday on a new dawn and not a hangover.

      Canadians paying attention

      But Financial consultant Michael MacPhee, a No voter, said he would observe the returns coming in "with anxiety."

      Scottish independence was "the daftest idea I've ever heard," he said.

      Canadians, 4.7 million of whom claim Scottish heritage, are paying attention to the vote, reports CBC's Michael Serapio.

      "The strongest opinions on the referendum are from those that have recently moved from Scotland to Canada," he said. But others have drawn emotionally charged parallels to independence-minded Quebecers who might be inspired by a Scottish Yes vote.

      Canada's official stance is that it hopes Scotland remains a part of the U.K., Serapio reports.

      Supporters of Quebec's hobbled sovereignty movement are watching closely Thursday. The apparent surge by the Scots has provided a source of hope for leaders of Quebec's own independence cause, a fractured movement still smarting from major electoral defeats in recent years.

      Even a narrow loss for Scotland's Yes side would feel like a victory, says a potential Parti Quebecois leadership candidate who travelled to Edinburgh for the vote.

      "Very few people — pretty much nobody — seriously thought the Scots had a chance to win," said Alexandre Cloutier, who was cautious about drawing parallels between Quebec and Scotland.

      "I think we have to be prudent, obviously, in making comparisons (to Quebec), but at the same time we must remember where the Scottish independence movement started from."

      With files from CBC News

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