Flags and tartan in Scottish independence leader's home village

Flags and tartan in Scottish independence leader's home village

STRICHEN, United Kingdom - Flag-waving schoolchildren and tartan caps greeted Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond on Thursday as he voted in the remote farming village he calls home - where the man who could be the father of independence is just "a nice bloke".

A few kilometres inland from the fishing ports on Scotland's northeastern coast, Strichen's main street with its quaint stone houses are surrounded by rolling farmland, with sheep and cattle grazing in misty fields.

"We know Alex very well. He's a nice bloke, we've spoken to him a number of times. We don't see him here so often now because he's a busy bloke," Hendry Whittaker, a 73-year-old retired truck driver wearing a tartan cap, told AFP.

"When we had all the shops, it was a different time and we used to see him regular, but now there's very few shops we don't see so much of him." His wife Rita said they used to meet him buying butteries, a savoury kind of bread roll which originated in Aberdeen.

"Years ago when he used to come home, we used to meet him in the bakers because he was going out for his butteries! And sausage rolls. But the bakers shut so we haven't seen him for I don't know how long," she said.

The Scottish National Party leader, who lives in the village with his wife Moira, has been a force on the local political scene since the late 1980s, and he greeted familiar faces and chatted to constituents as he made his way to vote.

Wearing a tartan tie, a navy checked suit with a "Yes" badge pinned to his lapel, Salmond was all smiles as he arrived at Ritchie Hall to cast the ballot he has spent a political lifetime campaigning for.

He was flanked by two first-time female local voters.

Lea Pirie, 28, is pregnant, while 17-year-old Natasha McDonald faced another moment of destiny later in the day: her driving test.

Salmond put his arms around them as he posed for photographs.

"We're now in the hands of the Scottish people and there's no safer place to be," Salmond told AFP after voting.

"I think the message is for Scotland: let's do it now.

"It's an extraordinary moment. It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

"We've got the chance to build a more prosperous economy but also a fairer society. That's a wonderful, positive vision and that's why Scotland's grasped that opportunity with both hands.

"We can take our own future into our own hands."

'Fed up'

On entering the hall, Strichen voters saw a giant A1-size ballot paper, bearing the all-important question: "Should Scotland be an independent country?" There were also posters for sheep race night and the annual flower show.

In ones and twos, voters made their way in to have their say on Scotland's destiny, walking past the rosette-wearing campaigners standing near the "Yes" camp's "battle caravan" outside.

One local voter in a fleece top and tie, who did not want to give his name, said he had referendum fatigue.

"I'd definitely made my mind up a long time ago," he said, adding that Scotland-wide rather than local issues had been forefront in his mind.

"I'll be up early tomorrow morning, see what it is tomorrow.

"I'm trying to escape from it all, I'm fed up of it all! I'm glad it will be over with." There were more pressing immediate concerns for other voters, like one woman who rushed in and soon rushed back out.

"I've left my dog on her own and she's not been out for a pee yet," she said.

Once the polls close at 10:00 pm (2100 GMT), the Whittakers said they were planning to stay up as long as possible to watch the results come in on television.

"Probably a wee bit, till we get tired and fall asleep and have to go up to bed!," Hendry said.

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