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At 2am on Friday, a mile apart in Glasgow city centre, two very different parties were under way. They told the story not only of the night that Scotland rejected independence, but also of the two-year campaign that had preceded this moment.

In George Square, hundreds of independence supporters gathered for a noisy and drunken display of saltires, singing and dancing. They had been there since dawn, and were in a mood to party, even though it was already becoming clear they were unlikely to win.

In the relative security of the Marriott hotel, Westminster’s finest gathered, exhausted by the campaign and, in stark contrast to their opponents in the nearby square, refused to believe that they were coasting to victory.

For many nationalists across Scotland, Thursday night was the final blowout of what had been a week-long party. Many Glaswegians had camped in George Square for days while, in Edinburgh, dozens gathered nightly outside the Scottish parliament at Holyrood in an attempt to turn the vote into something resembling a carnival for Yes.

For those in Glasgow, the party had already been going for more than 12 hours when the first result came in soon after midnight. Clackmannanshire had been high on the Yes campaign’s list of target councils, so the convincing victory for No came as something of a shock.

The George Square partygoers, however, refused to surrender the optimism that had characterised much of their campaign. Dianne Torr, an artist, said: “Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee – they’ve yet to come in. That will be the tipping point, when you get the major cities.”

That changed during the next hour as council after council – the Western Isles, Orkney, West Dunbartonshire – all fell for No, and revellers in central Glasgow began to drift home.

The hardcore remained out, however, and in an upbeat mood until after 4am, when Aberdeen, Angus and Perth – all places that Yes had hoped to win – also declared for No, and the emotion became too much for some. One teenage Yes supporter, close to tears, said: “I absolutely hate anyone who voted No – they’ve ruined our country.”

Back among the No voters, meanwhile, the mood had finally begun to change. Political heavyweights such as Danny Alexander, the Liberal Democrat Treasury chief secretary, John Reid, the former Labour minister, and Douglas Alexander, shadow foreign secretary, drifted in and out, glad-handing supporters. Jim Murphy, the shadow international development secretary who has spent the past three months touring 100 towns across Scotland, was greeted like a football star, with enthusiastic Labour supporters shouting: “Ji-im! Ji-im!”

The difficult relationship between the three big parties within the No campaign was occasionally on show. Danny Alexander was greeted by one Labour supporter with the words “Argh, it’s you!” before the man grinned and shook his hand.

But for a campaign often accused of lacking passion, their supporters were finally letting it show. One tearful No activist explained: “I’m crying because this morning I am still a Scot and still a Brit.”

Outside, in George Square, the nationalists were filing home and No campaigners were beginning to take their place, only to be pushed back by riot police who had been on hand all night to stop any violence, little of which seemed to occur.

Politicians on both sides urged reconciliation, worried that some of the vitriol of the final days of the campaign might take a while to dissipate. As the sun rose over Glasgow, there was reason to take those concerns seriously: a shouting match erupted between No campaigners and Yes supporters, one of whom shouted that his opponents were “traitors to the people”.

But the fears of some Better Together insiders that the vote night would bring “carnage” to the city’s streets went unfounded, and defeated nationalists went home dejected rather than angry. Graham Cunningham, an 18-year-old student, said: “It’s not going to make much of a difference with a No vote – it’ll just be the same as it is now.”

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