A worker tips out a ballot box in the Aberdeen Exhibition and Conference Centre in Aberdeen, Scotland, on Sept. 18, 2014, immediately after the polls close in the referendum on Scotland's independence
Ben Stansall—AFP/Getty Images
September 18, 2014 8:18 PM EDT

The outcome of Scotland’s future is as unclear as its weather, a thick fog settling over Edinburgh as residents turned up to answer one pressing question: after 307 years with Britain, should Scotland go it alone as an independent country?

Despite the uncertainty, however, Edinburgh’s residents embrace the enormity of the referendum, hitting the polls — and the pubs after — with fervor. As polling stations open their doors from 7 a.m. until 10 p.m. — and the bars much later than that — the energy in the city is palpable. Many people, both pro-independence and pro-union, have likened the day to a holiday, albeit one centered around minding one’s civic duty.

At a polling booth in Leith, a neighborhood in the north of the city, voters on both sides of the big question stream in steadily. Martin Karczewski, a 29-year-old construction worker, who is originally from Poland but has lived in Edinburgh for the past nine years, tells TIME before he heads in to vote that he’s definitely choosing independence. He adds that the referendum is all about “freedom” and that there’s a reason that independence has been an issue in Scotland for so long. “People aren’t supposed to be scared,” he says. “They’re supposed to have a country they believe in.”

Yet for Francesca Kelsey, a 26-year-old who runs a small upcycle-clothing business and has always sided with the unionist No campaign, it’s not about fear; it’s about pragmatism. “I wouldn’t gamble with my business or my home or my parents’ pensions — let alone with a whole country’s businesses, homes or pensions.”

The petite blonde says she’s been proudly sporting her No badge all day. She adds that some Yes campaigners in a passing car called her “a traitor” as they drove by.

Those voting against independence have already begun to weigh their options if Scotland does pass the referendum to leave the U.K. Kelsey says she has already looked into the possibility of moving her 14-month-old business to London, but that she resents how such a drastic move would divide her family. “My parents and grandparents would stay here, which would obviously be hard,” she says.

But Tim Fraser, a 36-year-old Yes campaigner and filmmaker, says that no matter the outcome, Scottish voters on either side will have to pull together and recognize that their shared aim is protecting Scotland. “You have to give [Alex Salmond] credit —he’s given the country its political consciousness back.”

With some 4.2 million people registered to vote — and voter turnout as high as 84%, according to some estimates — seemingly everyone everywhere is talking about the referendum. In restaurants, waiters chat about voting with patrons; in shops, strangers marvel over the historic day. Cars drive up and down the city’s high streets with Scotland’s national flag, the Saltire, billowing out from windows and young men chanting “vote Yes,” from megaphones — with more than a few shouts of “No!” in response.

Scotland has lowered the voting age to 16 for the referendum, but that doesn’t stop some parents from decorating their children with campaign stickers on their cheeks. Katherine Haslett, a 37-year-old teacher at Edinburgh Academy, says that the school’s history department staged a mock referendum for the primary and secondary students, adding, “We wanted to get them involved.”

And then there was the postpoll celebrating. Pubs are packed in Edinburgh’s busier districts and several bars, like the Phoenix in the New Town neighborhood, announce they would stay open all night as the referendum votes are counted. By 10 p.m., when the polls close, the bar is at capacity, people standing shoulder to shoulder watching a large screen showing coverage of the day while a line of hopeful patrons form outside. Not too far away, at the creative arts center Summerhall, a “Raverendum” is being held, where people can come and “dance off the tension” after voting.

Other people have simply stuck to the street, walking up and down the roads and calling out support for their chosen side. One elderly man calls out across the street to this reporter, “Smile! Free country in the morning.”


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