Stay or go? Scotland votes on independence from Britain

Edinburgh (AFP) - Scotland voted on Thursday in an epic independence referendum that could break up the centuries-old United Kingdom and create Europe's newest state since the collapse of Yugoslavia.

Queues snaked outside polling stations and voters -- some wearing traditional kilts and tartan hats -- spoke emotionally about the momentous choice they were faced with.

"It's an important day. This is a decision which lasts forever, which will impact my children," said Charlotte Farish, 34, who turned out early in Edinburgh with her two children before taking them to school and heading into work.

The campaign has fired up many Scots who have previously taken little interest in politics and has revolved around questions of national identity that are rarely discussed in Britain.

"I felt different today than in most of the previous votes. I might be making a difference and my vote counts," said 23-year-old Aidan Ford after casting his vote in Glasgow.

Some 97 percent of eligible Scots -- nearly 4.3 million people -- have registered to vote, underscoring the passions that the historic decision has ignited across the nation.

Election officials expect turnout as high as 80 percent.

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 is too close to call.

- 'Let's do this!' -

One of Scotland's most famous sportsmen, tennis star Andy Murray, appeared to lend his support to separation in a last-minute tweet accusing the "No" campaign of negativity.

"Let's do this!" wrote Murray, who no longer lives in Scotland, echoing a slogan raised by pro-independence First Minister Alex Salmond in a final fiery campaign speech.

"We can take our future into our own hands," Salmond told AFP after voting in the village of Strichen in northeast Scotland where he is the local lawmaker.

"We've got the chance to build a more prosperous economy but also a fairer society," the 59-year-old Scottish National Party (SNP) leader said after casting the ballot he has spent a political lifetime campaigning for.

British Prime Minister David Cameron has pleaded with Scots to vote in favour of keeping "our home" and has warned the break-up would be a "painful divorce" full of economic risks.

Many people in the rest of the United Kingdom are concerned about the prospect of Scottish independence, which would sever a deep bond and cut the UK's surface area by a third.

The Financial Times carried a picture of the Scottish flag against a gloomy sky on its front page and the Daily Telegraph used a verse from Scottish poet Robert Burns reading: "Be Britain still to Britain true."

A "Yes" vote would not mean independence overnight but would trigger complex talks on how to separate two deeply intertwined economies and eventually end a union dating back to 1707.

The SNP has said it hopes to achieve full independence by 2016 if it wins and the result could encourage separatist movements around the world, starting with Catalans in Spain.

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy this week warned separatist movements were a "torpedo" for European integration.

Financial markets have been volatile for days on uncertainty over the outcome, although the pound rose against the euro and the dollar on investor expectations of a "No" victory.

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, while Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott told the Daily Telegraph he did not want a "Disunited Kingdom".

The question for voters at Scotland's more than 5,000 polling stations is "Should Scotland be an independent country?" and they are asked to mark either "Yes" or "No".

The result is expected in the early hours of Friday.

- 'Status quo is gone' -

A lot of the debate 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.

Cameron has promised to grant Scotland sweeping new powers over areas like tax and welfare in the event of a "No" vote -- something the SNP dismissed as a last-minute bribe.

The Church of Scotland, the biggest religious group, has condemned the tone of the campaign and has called a religious service for Sunday to promote national reconciliation.

Best-selling "Harry Potter" author J.K. Rowling, who is English but lives in Edinburgh, echoed that sentiment with a tweet: "Whatever happens, I hope we're all friends by Saturday".