So fear triumphed over hope. The majority of Scots looked over the precipice and saw only jagged rocks below. Faced with dire predictions of the modern equivalent of a plague of locusts, a comfortable majority pulled back from the brink.
Jobs would be lost, prices would rise, the currency would be imperilled and capital would flee south.
The turbocharged intervention of Gordon Brown and the sudden dash north of the border by three supplicant party leaders all helped tip the vote in the No direction. Then there was The Vow, the rash promise of “extensive new powers” for the Scottish Parliament. Waverers were surely bought off by the prospect of more largesse from England.
But this is not how it would have seemed to the proverbial Martian making a flying visit to Scotland yesterday. Streets thronged with Yes campaigners, saltires and bagpipers all conspired to give the impression that Salmond and his tartan army were on a roll, sweeping all before them with unstoppable momentum. The polls said otherwise but the national mood appeared all for monumental change.
Scots will look in the mirror today with mixed feelings. Many, those sensibly ruled by their heads not their hearts, will be relieved that their country has resisted the temptation to take the ultimate leap in the dark. But many others will be devastated. To get so close to the long-cherished prize of independence only for it to be dashed away at the last moment will cast diehard nationalists into despair.
The political drama has now moved south. Conservative MPs are in uproar over The Vow, insisting that more powers for Scotland must mean an end to the appalling injustice of allowing Scots MPs to forge English laws but giving English MPs no jurisdiction over Scottish matters, including the newly promised right to control their own levels of taxation and welfare.
David Cameron will be mightily relieved that his epitaph will not be that of a man who lost the Union on his watch. But he now faces the formidably difficult task of delivering his promise of further Scottish devolution while assuaging his mutinous backbenchers.
Cameron has won a critical battle. But can he win the war?