EDINBURGH, Scotland -- Scotland has voted to stay in the United Kingdom, rejecting independence in a closely fought contest that divided the nation and drew attention worldwide.
Final results from the historic September 18 referendum showed that 55.3 percent voted against independence, while 44.7 percent backed it.
"Scotland has by a majority decided not at this stage to become an independent country. I accept that verdict of the people," pro-independence Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond told independence supporters in Edinburgh.
Later, Salmond announced he was stepping down as first minister of Scotland and Scottish National Party leader.
"I am immensely proud of the campaign that ‘Yes Scotland’ fought and particularly of the 1.6 million voters who rallied to that cause,” Salmond said.
British Prime Minister David Cameron said he was "delighted" that Scotland rejected independence.
"It would have broken my heart to see our United Kingdom come to an end," said Cameron, whose government was shaken by polls pointing to a surge of support for splitting off in the weeks before the vote.
Cameron promised that his September 16 pledge to transfer more powers to the Scottish parliament in key areas such as taxation, spending, and welfare in the event of a “no” vote would be met, saying draft laws setting them out would be published by January.
The vote against independence for Scotland means that "the debate has been settled for a generation," he said.
But many "yes" voters expressed hope they would get another chance to vote for independence again -- with a different result next time.
'Real Sense Of Disappointment'
The Scottish National Party's deputy leader, Nicola Sturgeon, said "there is a real sense of disappointment that we've fallen narrowly short of securing a 'yes' vote."
But she said the results showed there is "an appetite for change in Scotland. I think the country has been changed forever."
WATCH: Joy And Misery For Scotland's 'No' And 'Yes' Campaigns
As the result became clear in the early morning hours, Cameron congratulated Alistair Darling, the head of the Scottish anti-independence campaign.
Darling called it a "momentous decision" and said voters had chosen "positive change rather than needless separation."
U.S. President Barack Obama congratulated Scotland on its "full and energetic exercise of democracy" and welcomed the result. Obama said in a statement on September 19, "We have no closer ally than the United Kingdom, and we look forward to continuing our strong and special relationship with all the people of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as we address the challenges facing the world today."
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said Scotland's decision would help forge a "united, open and stronger" European Union, and European Parliament President Martin Shulz said he was "relieved" at the outcome.
The "yes" campaign won Glasgow, Scotland's biggest city, but opponents of independence prevailed in the capital, Edinburgh, by a margin of 61 percent to 38 percent and also won in Salmond's home city of Aberdeen.
"I am relieved that is is a 'no' vote, but I think actually the debate has been really useful, and for the U.K. to actually discuss change, I think, it is really important. So I am pleased with the result, but I am also pleased that there will be change as well," one woman on York Place, a main Edinburgh thoroughfare, said on September 19.
Another voter disagreed.
"I think we had an opportunity and we let it go," he said. "There was too much fear and Scotland was not brave."
Shares Rose Sharply
While supporters of independence licked their wounds, shares rose sharply on European markets early on September 19 as news of the outcome ended weeks of uncertainty among investors.
The British pound surged to a two-year high against the euro and also strengthened against other currencies.
A vote for independence would have started negotiations leading to Scotland becoming an independent country on March 24, 2016, potentially giving heart to separatists worldwide.
Despite its failure, the drive for Scottish independence will have potentially far-reaching consequences for what Cameron called "our country of four nations" -- England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
Moving to appease English lawmakers in the British parliament who have threatened to rebel against the powers promised to Scotland, Cameron vowed to forge a new constitutional settlement that would also give powers to England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
"Just as Scotland will vote separately in the Scottish parliament on their issues of tax, spending, and welfare, so, too, England, as well as Wales and Northern Ireland, should be able to vote on these issues," Cameron said. "All this must take place, in tandem with and at the same pace as the settlement for Scotland."
Voter turnout was high, with some 85 percent of eligible voters casting ballots.
More than 4.2 million people, or 97 percent of those eligible, registered to vote and many lined up before polls opened to give their answer to the question: "Should Scotland be an independent country?"
All residents in Scotland aged 16 or over who are U.K. citizens or other European Union nationals had the right to vote; those born in Scotland but living outside the country did not.
'United, Open, And Stronger'
Had voters chosen independence, thorny issues in negotiations with London would have been likely to include rights to North Sea oil, what to do about European Union membership, what currency Scotland would use, and the future of Britain's main nuclear submarine base, which is in Scotland.
A "yes" vote would have disappointed Britain's allies, including the United States, and rattled governments across the globe that are struggling with independence movements.
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said Scotland's decision would help forge a "united, open, and stronger" European Union, and European Parliament President Martin Shulz said he was "relieved" at the outcome.
NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said he "fully respects" the choice the people of Scotland and is confident Britain "will continue to play a leading role to keep our alliance strong."
NATO states have been concerned that breaking up the United Kingdom, whose nuclear-armed submarines are based in Scotland, would weaken the Western alliance, which is struggling to respond to an offensive by Islamic State militants as well as Russia's annexation of Crimea and a conflict in eastern Ukraine.