EDINBURGH - Scotland has voted against breaking from the United Kingdom in half its constituencies home to nearly one third of the electorate, early results from a divisive independence referendum showed.
Scotland's final verdict on the union should be clear around breakfast time on Friday.
With 16 of 32 regions declared so far, the nationalists have only won two. According to Reuters calculations, the "No" camp has 56 percent of the vote although the biggest areas have yet to declare.
Sterling rose sharply in Asian trade while bookmakers' odds showed victory for unionists was much more likely and unionists campaigners clapped and cheered as results were announced.
"It seems to me that we are going to have a 'No' majority in this referendum, though obviously there is a long way to go," Danny Alexander, the Scottish-born Chief Secretary to the Treasury, told Reuters.
"That's great news for Scotland and for the United Kingdom, but also just a start to the serious task to make sure that Scotland gets the additional power that it needs," said Alexander, a Liberal Democrat with a Scottish constituency.
Though the results boosted the spirits of the unionist campaign, hours remained before the results from Scotland's biggest cities - where the fate of the United Kingdom is likely to be sealed - were due to be reported.
The campaign for independence has galvanised this country of 5.3 million but also divided friends and families from the remote Scottish islands of the Atlantic to the tough city estates of Glasgow.
Breaking apart the United Kingdom has worried allies, investors and the entire British elite whose leaders rushed late in the campaign to check what opinion polls showed was a surge in support for independence.
Seeking to tap into a cocktail of historical rivalry, opposing political tastes and a perception that London has mismanaged Scotland, nationalists say Scots, not London, should rule Scotland to build a wealthier and fairer country.
Unionists say independence would usher in financial, economic and political uncertainty and diminish the UK's standing in the world. They have warned that Scotland would not keep the pound as part of a formal currency union.
Beyond the money and power, the referendum has provoked deep passions in Scotland, drawn in many voters who ignore traditional political campaigns and underscored what London politicians admit is a need for wider constitutional change.