Scots are crumbling in the granite city. Outside his dark stone house, Roger White apologises for his tears, explaining that the independence referendum “has torn my family apart”. Like one of his three daughters, the former civil servant is voting No; his partner and their other two daughters are voting Yes. Across Aberdeen, beneath the towers of the Tillydrone housing estate, Alison Alphonse, a sales manager, complains of insomnia. “I feel sick. I can’t sleep. I just want to know the answer.”

All she knows is the question: should Scotland be an independent country? As many as 4m Scots will today give their verdict. It has been a fraught two years since the UK and Scottish governments agreed on the terms of the referendum. Gradually, then suddenly, the idea of secession has encased Scots like an Aberdeen fog. The descendants of the “sober, grave religious people” Daniel Defoe found on his inspection of the nascent union in 1723 are on the rack.

In its fervour, Scotland has surprised itself, as well as the rest of the world. Flags and campaign posters are now the paraphernalia of the public space. Hundreds of thousands of Scots have had their say on social media and in town halls. The referendum chat – why wouldn’t you want to be free? what currency would we use? – resounds as background noise. Ninety-seven per cent of the electorate is registered to vote. In Tillydrone, the only person eligible but not voting is a Polish immigrant, who came to Scotland six months ago. “It means too much to Scots,” he says, “but thank you for asking me to vote.”

When there is beauty in Scottish history, terror is never far away, reflected Donald Dewar in 1999, a year before his death deprived Scotland’s newly opened devolved parliament of its founding statesman. The narrowing of the polls has scared those who believe in the abiding power of the 307-year-old union. “No one in their wildest imagination would have thought this would happen”, says a veteran petroleum engineer. He joined the No campaign last month, after one poll showed the Yes side ahead. “This is a renegade operation,” he says, “a patriotic fightback.”

There is reason as well as passion in the land of the philosopher David Hume. In the 20th century, Scotland’s economic axis shifted from the industrial west to the east, to Edinburgh’s financiers and North Sea hydrocarbons. The Scottish National party’s vision for the country’s future relies on oil revenues. Like most independent analysts, Aberdonian oil men are sceptical of the party’s forecasts. “My whole life has been in oil,” the petroleum engineer says, showing the phantom digit in his right hand where a tenth finger sat before an on-site accident, “and I know it’s in decline.” Bill Sinclair, a small-business owner, adds that “I’m not an economist but I know that two plus two can never equal five.”

“Independence would tip a company like ours over the edge”, Mr Sinclair says, citing the extra costs of trading with suppliers in England. If Scotland were to vote Yes, he says he would put money earmarked for investment in his business into his eight-year-old son’s savings account. And yet his unionism is visceral, too. “My father fought for the Allies, my grandfather fought in World War One. Nothing can diminish my Scottishness but I don’t want to be divorced from the feeling of being British.”

A poll published on Tuesday by Opinium found half of Scots believed the referendum has been divisive. Scots are split on the question of division. Yes voters generally believe the referendum has brought Scots together. The volunteers in Aberdeen are convinced the only way to a fairer society is via independence. “Change can never come from Westminster,” one says. They mistrust politicians and the media, a simmering sentiment that has sometimes boiled over. But most Scots believe Yes has had the more positive message, according to polls. “Why would anyone vote No?” a Tillydrone resident asks. “Things can’t get any worse.”

In the northeast, there is an onshore-offshore divide redolent of the class and age gaps in the rest of the country. Grizzled engineers are voting No; doughty rig workers are for Yes. Some Scots, particularly No voters, feel there will be wounds to salve. They see a Yes side led by lying Alex Salmond, not a movement. “It started off about separation from the UK,” says Jodie Buchan, “and it has ended up dividing Scots.” The communications executive says that “Every part of my life – work, school, playground, family – has been scarred by the referendum.”

A result is hours away, but it is the UK, not Scotland, on the verge of breaking up. Scotland was a nation before the union and it will be a nation after the votes are counted. From the 10th century, when the cry of “Albanaich!” (Scotsmen!) was heard on the battlefield, to the 21st, when the poems of Robert Burns are recited every January from Canberra to California, Scots’ identity has not required statehood. Scots are pitched against each other but they will always all be Scots.

All an exhausted nation knows is that the UK will change after Thursday. The leaders of the biggest Westminster parties, whose chronic decline the referendum has brought into acute focus, have promised more devolution. The stakes are so high that unionists have admitted defeat to try to rescue victory. Only in the final days have they amplified the voices of those such as Mr Sinclair: “I am a patriot but I am not a nationalist.” These are fighting words; they are also those of an epitaph.

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