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Campaigners wave Scottish Saltires at a 'Yes' campaign rally in Glasgow, Scotland September 17, 2014.DYLAN MARTINEZ/Reuters

Polls have opened across Scotland in an historic referendum on whether to declare independence from the United Kingdom.

(Scotland's decision day: Read The Globe's referendum primer)

The vote is expected to be a nail-biter, with opinion polls this week all giving the pro-union No side a slim edge, though within the margin of error.

Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond used his final speech of the campaign to urge Scots to ignore the negative messages from the No campaign – which has focused on the economic risks associated with declaring independence – and to seize what he called "the opportunity of a lifetime."

"We want to wake up Friday morning … know we did this, we made this happen," he told a packed concert hall in the central city of Perth that replied with chants of "Yes we can!" Mr. Salmond called on supporters to work until the last ballot was cast to convince those around them to vote for independence. "Don't let them tell us we can't. Let's do this now."

With the pro-independence and pro-union camps locked in an effective dead heat, Wednesday turned into a last-hours scramble to convince the hundreds of thousands of registered voters who were still telling pollsters this week that they hadn't made up their minds. "Scots' destiny lies in the hands of the don't-knows," read the anxious headline on the front page of The Independent, a London-based newspaper.

"I think it's going to be won or lost over the course of today. It's crunch time," said John McMurtrie, a 25-year-old who wore a blue "No Thanks" jacket Wednesday as he handed out pro-union pamphlets to passing shoppers a short walk away from Mr. McIntosh's table on pedestrian-only Buchanan Street.

Mr. McMurtrie, a small business owner from nearby Kilcreggan, said he was confident that most of the undecided would – since they're not yet convinced about the merits of independence – vote "No" on Thursday. "I think people will go into the voting booth and, if there's any hesitation, they'll vote 'No.'"

After a brief surge last week that suggested the Yes side had taken the lead, opinion polls suggest that the No side is indeed back ahead, though by the narrowest of margins.

In an echo of Quebec's 1995 referendum, an Ipsos-Mori poll released Wednesday found 51 per cent of Scots planned to vote No, versus 49 per cent who were planning to vote Yes. The poll's margin of error was plus or minus three percentage points.

Ipsos-Mori, which interviewed 1,405 people over Monday and Tuesday, found 5 per cent of respondents were still undecided. Three other polls released Tuesday by different firms put the No side ahead 52 per cent to 48 per cent, with the share of those who hadn't yet made up their mind anywhere between 6 and 14 per cent of Scotland's 4.3 million registered voters.

"The message [from the polls] seems to be that when Scots vote [Thursday], their pencils will be guided more by emotion and issues of identity than by intellectual assimilation of policy arguments," read Wednesday's lead editorial in The Scotsman newspaper, which has backed the No campaign.

Gio MacDonald is one of those who has thus far been counted as undecided. The 49-year-old Edinburgh copywriter said that – until Wednesday – he had been considering a No vote, worried about the economic implications of a vote for independence.

But, just hours before polls were set to open, Mr. MacDonald said he had decided to "take a chance and see what happens" by supporting the Yes side. "It's safer to vote with your head, because you don't know what will happen [if Scotland declares independence], but I'll probably vote with my heart tomorrow," he said in a telephone interview.

The Yes side, which has rapidly closed what was a 20-point gap in the polls over the past few weeks, is counting on many Scots to make the same last-minute decision as Mr. MacDonald.

The Yes camp was out in full force Wednesday in Glasgow, easily outnumbering the No campaigners in Scotland's largest city, which is expected to be a key battleground. Several thousand independence supporters rallied throughout the day on the city's central George Square.

Stuart McDonald, a senior researcher for the Yes campaign, said the last-minute push – including a door-to-door get out the vote effort – would continue all through referendum day. He said he was "quietly confident" that the pro-independence campaign would surprise the pollsters with a win on Thursday.