In Record Turnout Demographics Shape Scotland's Emphatic No Vote

Rural areas, far-flung islands, and industrial cities the Yes side needed to win all voted to stay in the U.K.
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Pro-union supporters celebrate as Scottish independence referendum results are returned at a Better Together event in Glasgow on September 19, 2014.

The dream of Scottish independence died at 6:17 a.m. (BST), when an exhausted Alex Salmond, leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and the moving force behind independence, conceded defeat.

"I accept the verdict of the people," he told a crowd of tearful supporters. "And I call on all the people of Scotland to follow suit."

The final tally, delivered by chief counting officer Mary Pitcaithly, was 55.4 percent for No and 44.6 for Yes.

It was the end of a boisterous and sometimes rancorous two-year campaign that engaged Scotland and the rest of the British Isles like no other political issue since the end of World War II.

"It's fantastic," said Hamish McArthur, a retired chemical engineer, who spent the past month campaigning in his native Stirling. "But I'm not surprised. The Scottish people are not stupid, and what the nationalists offered was simply not credible."

"I Feel Very Emotional"

For the Yes camp, it meant heartbreak. "It's sad for the brave nation of Scotland to succumb to fear," sighed Audrey Gillies, a former care worker from Hawick, in the Border country. "I feel very emotional."

The first count came in Clackmannanshire, in central Scotland, with an 8 percent win for the pro-Union Better Together campaign. From then on, defeat rained down like hammer blows on the head of Salmond, stuck at home in Aberdeen in heavy fog.

Inverclyde, an industrial area west of Glasgow, which the Yes campaign needed to win, went to No. So did East Renfrewshire, Midlothian, Perth and Kinross, and many others.

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Most rural areas, like the Highland and the Scottish Borders, voted predominantly No. As did Scotland's far-flung islands.

Counts from some of the 5,579 polling stations in 32 local authorities were delayed by the notoriously bad Scottish weather. In the Orkney Islands, fog closed the airport, so ballot boxes had to be transported on a lifeboat. Storm conditions also prevented workers in the North Sea oil fields off Aberdeen from reaching the mainland to vote.

"Shetland is halfway to Norway and prides itself on its Norse heritage," said Tom Morton, a local writer and broadcaster. "The Yes campaign was very noisy and vociferous because of the oil, but it didn't translate into votes."

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Scotland Yes supporters sit in George Square, Glasgow, as ballot papers are counted through the night. As expected, Glasgow voted for independence.

Key Battleground

Islands like the Shetlands represented a tiny fraction of the electorate, however. The key battleground was the Central Belt, the industrial and postindustrial corridor running from Glasgow to Edinburgh.

There were chinks of hope for the Yes camp in Dundee and North Lanarkshire. But Stirling and Falkirk voted No, as did Fife, a bellwether county for the rest of Scotland.

The Yes campaign was very noisy and vociferous because of the oil, but it didn't translate into votes.

That left Scotland's two biggest cities. Glasgow, a predominantly working-class city with about 11 percent of the total electorate, delivered for the Yes campaign, as expected.

Shortly before 6 a.m. (BST) Edinburgh voted emphatically No, with 61 percent.

Aberdeenshire, Salmond's backyard and home of the North Sea oil industry, emphatically rejected independence.

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In the rural Highlands, where most people voted No, poll clerk George MacKay marks time in the Coulags polling station.

Salmond immediately blamed scaremongering by London. But there are other, more rational, reasons for the defeat. Faced with opposition from most of the traditional media, the Yes campaign relied on social media to get out its message (and, often, trash its opponents).

Large swaths of the population remained untouched, though. And after initially failing to connect with the electorate, the No campaign hit its stride, dumping what had been perceived as negative tactics for a positive message under the banner "Love Scotland Vote No."

Presidents Clinton and Obama publicly backed the Union.

Scottish-born tennis champion Andy Murray, who carried the Union flag at the London Olympics, made an 11th-hour Twitter intervention in favor of independence.

But it wasn't enough. The "silent spiral," as pollsters dubbed voters who had not declared an allegiance in the run-up to voting, carried the day.

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Ballots arrive for counting at the Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre.

Unanswered Questions

Worried about pensions, mortgages, EU membership, and even the currency they would be carrying in their pockets in an independent Scotland—concerns that were never satisfactorily answered by Alex Salmond—they emphatically chose the status quo.

"The Yes campaign was focused on Internet activism," said writer Ewan Morrison, who himself shifted from Yes to No. "But there are only 77,000 Twitter users in Scotland. They were talking to themselves."

The biggest winner has been British democracy. More than four million Scots, 81 percent of the population, registered to vote, and the turnout on polling day was above 85 percent.

In many places it exceeded 90 percent, breaking all records, and on the island of Jura, where George Orwell wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four, 100 percent of residents cast their votes.

The democratic franchise was also extended to 16- and 17-year-olds for the first time. They seized their chance, debating the issues in class and voting in their school uniforms on the way home.

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Students joke with each other as they leave a polling station in Edinburgh. Sixteen- and seventeen-year-olds were allowed to vote in the referendum.

Healing the Wounds

Tomorrow a new campaign—for reconciliation—will begin. The referendum opened up deep, sometimes venomous, class and regional divisions.

It is now incumbent on all parties to heal the rift.

"Scotland began by debating whether to separate from the U.K.," said Johann Lamont, the leader of the Scottish Labour Party. "But we've ended up dividing our own country. It is now incumbent on all parties to now heal the rift."

Or as James VI of Scotland, who became James I of England, put it in an impassioned speech to his first parliament, in 1604: "What God hath conjoined let no man separate."

Corrections: This article has been updated to reflect corrections for Fife's designation, a voting figure, and a time zone.

Simon Worrall curates Book Talk. Follow him on Twitter or at

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