A huge moment in Scottish history

  • A Yes campaign washing line for the Scottish independence referendum stands backdropped by Edinburgh Castle, in Edinburgh, Scotland, Sept. 18, 2014.  Scots held the fate of the United Kingdom in their hands Thursday as they voted in a referendum on becoming an independent state, deciding whether to unravel a marriage with England that built an empire but has increasingly been felt by many Scots as stifling and one-sided.
  • Poll clerk George MacKay sits in the Coulags caravan polling station, in the Scottish Highlands, Sept. 18, 2014. Polling in the referendum on Scottish independence began on Thursday morning, as Scotland votes whether or not to end the 307-year-old union with the rest of the United Kingdom.
  • Windows all around Edinburgh can be seen with stickers and placards supporting the Yes referendum and messages for the No campaign to stay in the Union as Scotland heads to the polls on Sept. 18 to decide the fate of Great Britain.
  • A sign indicates the location of a polling station in Aberdeen, Scotland, Sept. 18, 2014.
  • A campaigner holds a 'Yes' banner amidst 'No' supporters after a 'No' campaign rally in Glasgow, Scotland, Sept. 17, 2014.
  • A voter leaves a polling station in The Braes area on the Isle of Skye, Sept. 18, 2014. Polling in the referendum on Scottish independence began on Thursday morning, as Scotland votes whether or not to end the 307-year-old union with the rest of the United Kingdom.
  • A voter holds up a Yes placard while heading to a local polling station   to vote in the Scottish Independence Referendum at Ruchazie Community Centre, Ruchazie, Glasgow, Scotland, Sept. 18, 2014.
  • Graffiti supporting the "Yes" campaign is painted on a road in North Uist in the Outer Hebrides, Sept. 17, 2014.
  • Vote counters look into a ballot box as it is emptied at a counting center for the Scottish referendum on Sept. 18, 2014 in Aberdeen, Scotland.
  • People wait for the result outside the Scottish Parliament as voting in the referendum closes on Sept. 18, 2014 in Edinburgh, Scotland. 
  • A lone YES campaign supporter walks down a street in Edinburgh after the result of the Scottish independence referendum, Scotland, Sept. 19, 2014. Scottish voters have rejected independence and decided that Scotland will remain part of the United Kingdom. The result announced early Friday was the one favored by Britain’s political leaders, who had campaigned hard in recent weeks to convince Scottish voters to stay. It dashed many Scots’ hopes of breaking free and building their own nation. 

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The polls have closed in Scotland, and the nation awaits a decision. Will Scots choose to remain in the United Kingdom, or will they go their own way and become an independent country? Suspense is high, as the polls have been close to evenly split. But no matter how it turns out, Thursday’s referendum on Scottish independence will be the end to a political battle that has been going on for years.

There is more than just the future of Scotland at stake. The political future of the United Kingdom itself hangs in the balance, which is why both the conservative prime minister of the U.K., David Cameron, and leading members of his center-left opposition have both urged Scottish voters to reject independence. The implications of secession could ripple out even beyond Great Britain if separatist groups in other parts of the world draw on the Scottish model for inspiration.

Still, it is undoubtedly Scotland that is first and foremost in Scottish voters’ minds. The exact question on the ballot for Thursday’s referendum was: “Should Scotland be an independent country?” It was, in short, a question about Scotland should and can be.

As far as what an independent Scotland would look like, nobody can know for sure until it happens. There are still a lot of unanswered questions about this hypothetical country’s borders, its economy, and even its medium of exchange. If Scotland decides to go independent, then Thursday will go down in history as the start of a very long journey. See that history being made in the slideshow above.

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