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.
Voters lined up at polling stations across Scotland to vote with 4.28 million voters, or 97 percent of the electorate, registered to vote. Turnout hit a record high.
They were asked to answer "Yes" or "No" to the question: "Should Scotland be an independent country?".
A YouGov poll of 1,828 voters the organisation had previously polled indicated 54 percent of Scots would back the union while 46 percent would seek independence.
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 but first results indicated that nationalists had not done as well as expected.
"The evidence that the No side are going to win is beginning to stack up," said John Curtice, a professor at Strathclyde University and a leading authority on polling.
With more than 486,000 voters, Scotland's largest city of Glasgow is crucial and is due to report around 0400 GMT. The capital Edinburgh is 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.
All but two opinion polls - in August 2013 and August 2014 - showed unionists in the lead but a dramatic surge in nationalist support from mid-August prompted Britain to promise more powers to Scotland.
That has angered some English lawmakers in Westminster and British leaders have accepted that even if Scotland votes to keep the union, the United Kingdom's structure will have to change.
Prime Minister David Cameron, who acknowledged his unpopularity in Scotland during the campaign, has drawn criticism for both putting the fate of the United Kingdom on the line and then rushing to promise more powers before the vote.
Cameron was 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.