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A teacher and schoolgirl run in front of a sign indicating the date of Scotland's independence referendum outside the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, March 21, 2013.DAVID MOIR/Reuters

First Minister Alex Salmond has set a historical vote in motion, kicking off a referendum on Scottish independence by setting a date and promising to campaign hard for the "Yes" side.

Mr. Salmond, the head of the Scottish government, announced Thursday that ballots on the question "Should Scotland be an independent country?" will be cast on Sept. 18, 2014.

"That day, 547 days from now, is the day we take responsibility for our country. When we are able to speak with our own voice, choose our own direction and contribute in our distinct way." Mr. Salmond told the Scottish parliament. "The day we stand up on our own two feet – but do not stand alone."

He also introduced legislation outlining the rules for the official campaign, which will last 16 weeks. The rules include a spending limit of £1.5-million, or $2.3-million, for the Yes and No campaigns, and a drop in the voting age to 16.

Mr. Salmond's Scottish National Party has been fighting for sovereignty for decades but only gained power as a majority government in 2011. It set to work on the referendum last year and won agreement from the U.K. parliament on a general framework for the vote.

His arguments face stiff opposition in his own backyard. Support for independence has been falling steadily and hit just 23 per cent at the end of 2012, the lowest level since 1999 according to the annual Scottish Social Attitudes Survey. That same survey showed 61 per cent backed Scotland remaining within the U.K. but with more powers. However, a poll last month by Ipsos MORI found that support for independence had gone up to 34 per cent, with 55 per cent against.

Initially Mr. Salmond had proposed asking voters "Do you agree Scotland should be an independent country?" But that question was deemed biased to the Yes side by Britain's Electoral Commission, which is overseeing the referendum. The commission proposed the current question which Mr. Salmond adopted.

The No campaign, called Better Together, issued a call to arms after Mr. Salmond's announcement, urging supporters to stop Mr. Salmond from "buying Scotland a one-way ticket to a deeply uncertain destination." The No side, led by former Chancellor of the Exchequer Alistair Darling, has seized on a private memo to the Scottish cabinet written by Finance Minister John Swinney last year that raised dire forecasts about the financial health of an independent Scotland.

"I think most people in Scotland are desperately anxious to know the facts here, to know what the details are," Mr. Darling told reporters Thursday. "Of course I'm ready and I'm willing to put forward a powerful case for why Scotland is stronger and better as part of the U.K."

Mr. Salmond has insisted that Scotland contributes far more financially to Britain than it receives in return and he has argued that revenue from the North Sea oil fields will continue to flow for at least another 40 years.

He has also said that an independent Scotland would join the European Union, although it is not clear if the EU would necessarily welcome a new member.