Fraser Leask stands in front of his boat, Anna Rose, in Little Voe, Scotland, on July 23. Little Voe is a village in the Shetland Islands. / Kim Hjelmgaard for USA TODAY
LERWICK, Scotland - On a map, it's the United Kingdom's northernmost outpost.
Yet if residents in the pastoral Shetland Islands join Scotland's 5.2 million other inhabitants a month from now and vote to abandon three centuries of union with England, an emotional link, as well as a remote physical one, will have to be redrawn after Sept. 18.
Like the rest of Scotland, where polls show a close split on the independence referendum, the issue divides folks here in the Shetlands' capital. "Most of the boys that I work with are against it," says Fraser Leask, 53, an oil worker and fisherman in Little Voe, a tiny village some 30 miles from Lerwick. "Some of the younger folk are probably more for it, but I think that's the case with most new things anyway. A lot of the older folk here are of the opinion that 'if it ain't broke, don't fix it.'"
Neil Riddel, 31, a Shetland-based journalist and music promoter in Lerwick, counters: "If we vote 'no,' we may regret it. This may be our best opportunity to become a more progressive and compassionate society."
A lot more is at stake, however, than Scotland's ability to set domestic priorities without interference from London. If Scotland exits the United Kingdom, it will untether itself from the world's sixth-largest economy. It would have to establish a new relationship with the European Union, determine whether it could continue using the British pound and weigh how separation would affect some of the world's top financial institutions based in Scotland, such as the Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds. And there is the question of how to divvy up control of the North Sea oil, which produces a gusher of revenue for the U.K.
In foreign affairs, independence would end Scotland's direct connection to one of the most influential players on the world stage. For starters, an independent Scotland, home to military installations, would need to renegotiate its relationship with NATO.
It is not clear what role the British monarchy would play in an independent Scotland, although it is likely to be a diminished one. The queen would nonetheless remain head of state in Scotland.
Scotland, which had been independent until it united with England in 1707, already enjoys the status of a semi-nation, with autonomy on some matters and its own parliament. It shares institutions such as the Bank of England and the British Armed Forces with the rest of the U.K. but has a degree of control over education, health and other domestic issues. It answers to the British Parliament on foreign affairs and economic and immigration policy.
No guards patrol Scotland's border with England because a British passport is issued to all citizens of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Scotland's flag, the Saltire - a white diagonal cross on a blue background - is displayed with pride everywhere.
Leaving the established comforts of hearth and home is never a straightforward calculation. However, it's in places like the Shetlands, a hardscrabble archipelago off Scotland's northeast coast in the North Sea, that the dynamics of the choice facing Scotland may be most keenly felt and amplified.
There are no trees in the Shetlands, little in the way of natural shelter from the blustery winds, and the summer fog can force the airport to close for days on end. Lerwick is farther from Edinburgh on the Scottish mainland than Edinburgh is from London.
"We're geographically closer to Scandinavia," says Peter McKay, 39, a local government worker and independence supporter. "That's where we should be looking for inspiration. Not looking at what London wants."
The pro-independence Scottish National Party leader, Alex Salmond, says Scotland has a unique opportunity authorized by the British Parliament. Taking such a historic step will allow Scotland to achieve its full potential as a caring society with a social safety net - in contrast to the austerity policies adopted by the conservative government in London.
Yet the 22,201 inhabitants of the Shetlands are hardly suffering. The islands' unemployment rate is below 1%. Its roads appear new. The sheep who produce world-famous Shetland wool look well-fed. There are at least eight sports complexes, and the legacy of an oil boom that started in the 1970s is still booming.
Riddel, the local journalist, says that for many people here and in the rest of Scotland, a decision on independence does not rest just on the big economic and political questions. Rather, people are frustrated, he says, by what they see as more generous Scottish social welfare impulses that have been held back by politicians' spending cutbacks down south.
"A 'yes' vote is not going to be some kind of wonderful panacea for all of Scotland's problems, but I do think it's the best hope we have for making society a little fairer," he says.
Whether an independent Scotland would actually be better off economically remains in dispute. For every pro-independence economist who says Scots would see greater female participation in the workforce, higher state pensions and a more direct say on EU and foreign policy, there is a pro-Union economist to shoot down those claims. Non-partisan analysts equivocate, saying it all depends.
Among those keenly interested in the outcome of the Sept. 18 vote is British Prime Minister David Cameron. "I think there has been a very strong message from the rest of the United Kingdom that we want (Scotland) to stay (in the Union)," Cameron told USA TODAY during a late July visit here.
His trip marked the first time a prime minister had visited the Shetlands in more than 30 years, and it was not just to pet the cute ponies for which the Shetlands are famous. "I wanted to come to this, the most far-flung part of our United Kingdom, to listen to people, to hear their concerns and to give the message that I hope we stay together," Cameron said.
As the polls have tightened in recent months - though still in favor of remaining in the U.K. - Cameron has vowed to cede greater authority to Edinburgh.
His appearance here and pitch to stay united didn't convince everyone. "The last prime minister who came to see us was Margaret Thatcher, and she came up mostly to rape and pillage Scotland's oil," government worker McKay said as he watched the prime minister take part in a publicity event with local fishermen.
"Now, all of a sudden, Cameron's here because of this independence thing," he added, kicking the ground lightly and swearing under his breath. "Why shouldn't we leave? Why shouldn't we be in control of our own destiny?"
Follow Kim Hjelmgaard on Twitter: @khjelmgaard
Read the original story: Scotland's remote outpost splits on independence vote