EDINBURGH - Scotland voted against breaking apart the United Kingdom in four small constituencies, early referendum results showed on Friday, as Scots agonized over the fate of their country following a divisive independence campaign.
Scotland's verdict on the union should be clear around breakfast time on Friday, but a YouGov poll of 1,828 voters the organisation had previously polled indicated 54 per cent of Scots would back the union while 46 per cent would seek independence.
Unionists won Clackmannanshire, the Orkney Islands, the Shetland Islands and even the nationalist stronghold of the Western Isles - constituencies which together represent only 2.3 per cent of the Scottish electorate.
Sterling rose sharply higher in Asian trade to $1.6502, up from around $1.6380 late in New York while bookmakers' odds showed victory for unionists was much more likely and unionists campaigners clapped when the results came in.
"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 in an interview.
"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 the passions of 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.
Voters lined up at polling stations across Scotland to vote with 4.28 million voters, or 97 per cent of the electorate, registered to vote.
They were asked to answer "Yes" or "No" to the question: "Should Scotland be an independent country?".
YouGov said it had picked up a "small but significant late swing" towards supporters of the 307-year union between Scotland and England on polling day, though it cautioned the survey was merely a snapshot.
"It looks like the union will remain intact for the time being," YouGov research manager Laurence Janta-Lipinski told Reuters of the survey carried out on Thursday which was not an exit poll.
Electoral officials said the result will be announced around sunrise on Friday when all regional votes have been submitted. Partial results will give a strong indication after the count of cities such as Glasgow are declared.
"I'm still saying about breakfast time," Chief Counting Officer Mary Pitcaithly told Reuters.
With more than 486,000 voters, Scotland's largest city of Glasgow is crucial and is due to report around 0400 GMT. Edinburgh and Aberdeen, which with Glasgow make up nearly a quarter of the electorate, are also expected around that time.
Other key regions to watch are North and South Lanarkshire and Aberdeenshire where Alex Salmond, the 59-year-old nationalist leader, cast his vote on Thursday.
"From what you can see, 'No' seem to have a lead at this stage. Whether it is insurmountable, I don't know. But there's a lot of people feeling slightly deflated," independence supporter Stan Blackley of the Scottish Green Party told Reuters.
Spooked by a dramatic narrowing in the polls in the past two weeks, the British rushed to convince Scots to back the union by promising more powers.
That has angered some lawmakers in Westminster.
British leaders accept that even if Scotland votes to keep the union, the United Kingdom's structure will have to change, as granting further powers to Scotland has provoked calls for a less centralised state from lawmakers in England.
Prime Minister David Cameron's job could be on the line if Scotland breaks away. The 47-year-old prime minister has been largely absent from the campaign, leaving former Prime Minister Gordon Brown to lead the unionist battle cry.
Queen Elizabeth, who faces a possible division in her kingdom not seen since the days of her namesake Elizabeth I at the start of the 17th century, was at Balmoral, a granite palace in Scotland where she spends her summers.
Elizabeth, who under her constitutional role must stay politically neutral, is expected to make a statement later on Friday as is Cameron.
If Scots vote for independence, 18 months of negotiations would follow on how to carve up everything from North Sea oil and European Union membership to Britain's main nuclear submarine base, which is based on the Clyde.
The prospect of breaking up the world's sixth-largest economy and a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council, has stoked concern in the United States and Europe. The United States has made clear it wants the United Kingdom, it main ally in Europe, to remain together.